Wednesday, February 24, 2016

John Adams: The first big government president

We know more about John Adams, the second president of the U.S., than any other person during his time. This is because he was an avid writer, composing a daily diary along with thousands of letters to his wife and friends. He painted himself as an average man, and this may have sealed his fate as an average president.  Yet a review of the evidence suggests otherwise: that he was indeed a great president.

Historian John Ferling, in his book "John Adams: A Life," said:
Shortly after the conclusion of the War of Independance he had predicted Washington and Franklin's everlasting fame; because he believed himself to be "obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular," he ruefully forecast that he would be forgotten.  "Mausauleiums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me," he had remarked.  Later, in retirement, he reflected on his long public life and concluded, "I am not, never was, & never shall be a great man." On another occasion he told a correspondent, "I never could bring myself seriously to consider that I was a great man." Subsequent generations have mostly agreed. A few years ago the distinguished historian, Edmund S. Morgan, thoughtfully considered Adams and reached the conclusion that he was "very nearly a great man." 
It is quite clear that George Washington was the better president, yet a preponderance of the evidence to one side suggests that John Adams was not far behind.  Here are some key events that lead up to him becoming president.

1.  As a member of a committee on Independence for the Second Continental Congress, Adams encouraged Thomas to write the Declaration of Independence, saying, "I had a great opinion of the Elegance of his pen, and none at all of my own."  He and Benjamin Franklin would write the revisions.

2.  As an ambassador to France, he worked with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate the Treaty at Paris, signing it in September 1783.  The treaty was ratified by Congress, and this subsequently ended the War of Independance.

3.  During the 1789 Presidential election he became the first Vice President of the U.S. He would go on to discover that the job was rather boring.  All he did was preside over the senate a couple months of the eyar and break ties.  The senate decided he could not participate in senate debates.  Because he and the president believed the vice president was part of the legislative branch, they rarely spoke in order to protect the separation of powers.

4. During Adam's second term as vice president, political parties were born.  The federalists were lead by Alexander Hamilton and they championed for a large federal government. They supported Britain and believed the U.S. should remain neutral in the conflict between Britain and France.  They also supported industry, land owners, banking interests, and merchants. The democratic-republicans were lead by Thomas Jefferson and they championed for a limited federal government. They sided with the French, and supported the French Revolution. They supported farmers and wanted to keep the U.S. a nation of independent farmers. In fact, the dispute between Hamilton and Jefferson became so intense that they both resigned from Washington's cabinet.

5.  George Washington was aware that political parties were forming, and he did not like it.  After deciding that he did not want to run for a third term, he announced his concern about the development of political parties. Federalists nominated John Adams.  Some Federalists did not like him and pledged their votes for his running mateThomas Pickney.  The democratic-republican candidate was Thomas Jefferson.  In an ironic twist of fate, Adams received 71 electoral votes and became president, and Thomas Jefferson received 68 electoral votes and became vice president.  Pickney received 59 electorates.  This set the stage where the president and vice president were of opposing parties.

6.  John Adams was the first and only president to be sworn into office in Philadelphia, where he held his inauguration on March 4, 1797.  It was the first of many peaceful transfers of power.

7.  Adam's first act as president was to meet with Thomas Jefferson, and he suggested they run the government in a non-partisan manner that George Washington suggested.  Jefferson met with James Madison, another party leader.  Perhaps with some regret, Jefferson declined this offer.

That said, here is what defined the Adams administration.

1.  Partisan. Like Washington, Adams was a federalist, so he kept many of Washington's mainly federalist cabinet. However, he decided to rise above politics and govern in a non-partisan way.  He therefore became the second president to put his country before his own political agenda. This would set a precedent that lasted until Woodrow Wilson became president.

2.  Foreign Wars. The Adams administration was forced to get involved in foreign relations because French and British navies were capturing American ships.  The Jay Treaty negotiated during the Washington administration reduced the risk of war with Britain, but at the same time it angered the French.  The Federalists wanted Adams to go to war with France, although the democratic-republicans wanted him him to side with France against the British.  Instead, Adams decided to send three commissioners to France to broker a diplomatic agreement with them to avoid war.

3.  X-Y-Z Affair.  However, the commissioners were denied an audience.  Instead, French agents offered a bribe: if the U.S. made a $12 million loan to France and paid $12,000, they would arrange a meeting with Charles Talleyrnd, the French Foreign Minister.  The commissioners were offended and refused.  Adam's initial response was to ask Congress to declare for war against France.  Democratic-Republicans refused. Because of this, Adams released the dispatches, only he protected the names of the French agents by referring to them as x, y, and z. Congress was outraged by Frances actions and immediately approved Adam's request and declared war on France. The agents returned to France as heroes,  and Adams was hailed as a hero in the U.S.

4.  Two New Departments.  As a result of the X-Y-Z Affair and the War with France, he established the Department of Navy and the U.S. Marine Corp.

5.  Raised Taxes.  He called George Washington to command the army.  Washington asked Adams to declare Hamilton second in command, and Adams reluctantly agreed. Hamilton was leader of the pro-British, anti-French federalists, so he was eager to go to war. He helped Adams push a bill through Congress to increase taxes to fund the war.

6.  Alien and Sedition Act.  These were a series of bills passed by Congress and signed by Adams

  • Naturalilzation Act. Required aliens to live in the U.S. 14 years before applying for citizenship.  It used to be five years. 
  • Alien Enemies Act.  Allowed for the legal deportation of non citizens if the U.S. was at war with their homeland and they were suspected of being a danger to the homeland. 
  • Alien Friends Act.  Allowed non citizens to be imprisoned or expelled from the country at any time by order of the president if he suspected they might cause trouble.  
  • Sedition Act.  Made it illegal for citizens to assemble to protest government policies.  They could be fined up to $5000 and imprisoned for up to five years.  It was also illegal to print, say, or publish any false, scandalous, and malicious writings against the government for the president. They could be fined up to $2000 and imprisoned for up to two years. 
These acts violated the natural rights of non citizens.  Many democratic republicans suspected the laws were aimed at them, considering many party members were born outside of the U.S. Stirring anger was when 25 men were charged under the acts and ten were convicted, most of which were democratic-republicans. 

So the law essentially gave the president the ability to fine and imprison anyone who talked bad about him or his party.  This made him no better than the king they fought to escape from.  It made him no better than a totalitarian dictator. 

Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts were a violation of the Bill of Rights. Thankfully the acts expired in 1800.  

7.  Attempts to avoid war.  Despite his own party being in support of war, and knowing going to war would make him a very popular president, he did not want to be responsible for the young, and still relatively fragile, nation going to war.  He appointed democratic-republican William Vans Murray as minister to France in 1799 to negotiate a diplomatic agreement to avoid war.  The fact he did not send a federalist made members of his own party, including Alexander Hamilton, very mad at him.  Even his own secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, defied Adam's request to draft a treaty with France. 

8.  Adams fires Hamilton. George Washington died, freeing Adams of the obligation of keeping Hamilton on as second in command of the military.  So he relieved Hamilton of his command, fired his federalist cabinet, and sent Vans Murray to France.  

9.  Convention of 1800.  With support from moderate Federalists, Murray and Talleyrand prepared a treaty called the Convention of 1800.  This ended the threat of war with France.  Once again the U.S. avoided war as the treaty was ratified by Congress. Adams considered the treaty one of his biggest accomplishments.  

10.  Hamilton's scheme.  The federalists were split between moderate federalists who supported Adams and other federalists who supported Hamilton.  Hamilton wrote a pamphlet denouncing Adam's character.  

11.  White House.  The election of 1800 saw democratic republican Thomas Jefferson receiving more electorates than Adams.  Still, prior to the electors going to Washington to vote, Adams moved into what would later be known as the White House. 

12.  Midnight Judges.  Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes to Adams 65.  The House of Representatives chose Jefferson to be president. After the election, and before he left office two months later, Adams made appointments to federal courts. Some referred to these as "midnight judges, suggesting that it was unfair for an outgoing president to make long-term appointments. 

13.  John Marshall.  One of these judges was John Marshall, who would become chief justice of the supreme court and establish the role of that court as a powerful branch of the U.S. government. Some say he was the first activist judge who used the power of his position to advance an agenda, which in his case was the federalist, big central government agenda. 

So, was he a good president or a bad president. He was good because he was able to keep a young, and still fragile nation out of war.  He was good because he kept the young nation together despite the first raging partisan conflict.  He was bad because of just about everything else he did.  Surely he tried to be nonpartisan, but it was his decisions that set the stage for a large central government

Further reading: