[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Washington and His Colleagues

by
Henry Jones Ford

in the
Chronicles of America edition,
Yale University Press,
New Haven, 1918

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Bibliographical Note
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p195 Chapter IX
The Personal Rule of John Adams

The narrow majority by which John Adams was elected did not accurately reflect the existing state of party strength. The electoral college system, by its nature, was apt to distort the situation. Originally the electors voted for two persons without designating their preference for President. There was no inconvenience on that account while Washington was a candidate, since he was the first choice of all the electors; but in 1796, with Washington out of the field, both parties were in the dilemma that, if they voted solidly for two candidates, the vote of the electoral college would not determine who should be President. To avert this situation, the adherents of a presidential candidate would have to scatter votes meant to have only vice-presidential significance. This explains the wide distribution of votes that characterized the working of the system until it was p196changed by the Twelfth Amendment adopted in 1804.

In 1796, the electoral college gave votes to thirteen candidates. The Federalist ticket was John Adams and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Hamilton urged equal support of both as the surest way to defeat Jefferson; but eighteen Adams electors in New England withheld votes from Pinckney to make sure that he should not slip in ahead of Adams. Had they not done so, Pinckney would have been chosen President, a possibility which Hamilton foresaw because of Pinckney's popularity in the South. New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voted solidly for Adams and Pinckney as Hamilton had recommended, but South Carolina voted solidly for both Jefferson and Pinckney, and moreover Pinckney received scattering votes elsewhere in the South. The action of the Adams electors in New England defeated Pinckney, and gave Jefferson the vice-presidency, the vote for the leading candidates being 71 for Adams, 68 for Jefferson, and 59 for Pinckney. The tendency of such conditions to inspire political feuds and to foster factional animosity is quite obvious. This situation must be borne in mind, in order to make intelligible the course of Adams's administration.

p197 Adams had an inheritance of trouble from the same source which had plagued Washington's administration, — the efforts of revolutionary France to rule the United States. In selecting Monroe to succeed Morris, Washington knew that the former was as friendly to the French Revolution as Morris had been opposed to it, and hence he hoped that Monroe would be able to impart a more friendly feeling to the relations of the two countries. Monroe arrived in Paris just after the fall of Robespierre. The Committee of Public Safety then in possession of the executive authority hesitated to receive him. Monroe wrote to the President of the National Convention then sitting, and a decree was at once passed that the Minister of the United States should "be introduced in the bosom of the Convention." Monroe presented himself on August 15, 1794, and made a glowing address. He descanted upon the trials by which America had won her independence and declared that "France, our ally and friend, and who aided in the contest, has now embarked in the same noble career." The address was received with enthusiasm, the President of the Convention drew Monroe to his bosom in a fraternal embrace; and it was decreed that p198"the flags of the United States of America shall be joined to those of France, and displayed in the hall of the sittings of the Convention, in sign of the union and eternal fraternity of the two peoples." In compliance with this decree Monroe soon after presented an American flag to the Convention.

When the news of these proceedings reached the State Department, a sharp note was sent to Monroe "to recommend caution lest we be obliged at some time or other to explain away or disavow an excess of fervor, so as to reduce it down to the cool system of neutrality." The French Government regarded the Jay treaty as an affront and as a violation of our treaties with France. Many American vessels were seized and confiscated with their cargoes, and hundreds of American citizens were imprisoned. Washington thought that Monroe was entirely too submissive to such proceedings; therefore, on August 22, 1796, Monroe was recalled and soon after Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was appointed in his stead.

The representation of France in the United States had been as mutable as her politics. Fauchet, who succeeded Genet, retired in June, 1795, and was succeeded by Adet, who like his predecessors, carried on active interference with American p199politics, and even attempted to affect the presidential election by making public a note addressed to the Secretary of State complaining of the behavior of the Administration. In Adams's opinion this note had some adverse effect in Pennsylvania but no other serious consequences, since it was generally resented. Meanwhile Pinckney arrived in France in December, 1796, and the Directory refused to receive him. He was not even permitted to remain in Paris; but honors were showered upon Monroe as he took his leave. In March, 1797, Adet withdrew, and diplomatic relations between the two countries were entirely suspended. By a decree made two days before Adams took office, the Directory proclaimed as pirates, to be treated without mercy, all Americans found serving on board British vessels, and ordered the seizure of all American vessels not provided with lists of their crews in proper form. Though made under cover of the treaty of 1778, this latter provision ran counter to its spirit and purpose. Captures of American ships began at once. As Joel Barlow wrote, the decree of March 2, 1797, "was meant to be little short of a declaration of war."

The curious situation which ensued from the p200efforts made by Adams to deal with this emergency cannot be understood without reference to his personal peculiarities. He was vain, learned, and self-sufficient, and he had the characteristic defect of pedantry: he overrated intelligence and he underrated character. Hence he was inclined to resent Washington's eminence as being due more to fortune than to merit, and he had for Hamilton an active hatred compounded of wounded vanity and a sense of positive injury. He knew that Hamilton thought slightingly of his political capacity and had worked against his political advancement, and he was too lacking in magnanimity to do justice to Hamilton's motives. His state of mind was well known to the Republican leaders, who hoped to be able to use him. Jefferson wrote to Madison suggesting that "it would be worthy of consideration whether it would not be for the public good to come to a good understanding with him as to his future elections." Jefferson himself called on Adams and showed himself desirous of cordial relations. Mrs. Adams responded by expressions of pleasure at the success of Jefferson, between whom and her husband, she said, there had never been "any public or private animosity." Such rejoicing over the p201defeat of the Federalist candidate for Vice-President did not promote good feeling between the President and the Federalist leaders.

The morning before the inauguration, Adams called on Jefferson and discussed with him the policy to be pursued toward France. The idea had occurred to Adams that a good impression might be made by sending out a mission of extraordinary weight and dignity, and he wanted to know whether Jefferson himself would not be willing to head such a mission. Without checking Adams's friendly overtures, Jefferson soon brought him to agree that it would not be proper for the Vice-President to accept such a post. Adams then proposed that Madison should go. On March 6, Jefferson reported to Adams that Madison would not accept. Then for the first time, according to Adams's own account, he consulted a member of his Cabinet, supposed to be Wolcott although the name is not mentioned.

Adams took over Washington's Cabinet as it was finally constituted after the retirement of Jefferson and Hamilton and the virtual expulsion of Randolph. The process of change had made it entirely Federalist in its political complexion, and entirely devoted to Washington and Hamilton in its personal p202sympathies. That Adams should have adopted it as his own Cabinet has been generally regarded as a blunder, but it was a natural step for him to take. To get as capable men to accept the portfolios as those then holding them would have been difficult, so averse had prominent men become to putting themselves in a position to be harried by Congress, with no effective means of explaining and justifying their conduct. Congress then had a prestige which it does not now possess, and its utterances then received consideration not now accorded. Whenever presidential electors were voted for directly by the people, the poll was small compared with the vote for members of Congress. Moreover, there was then a feeling that the Cabinet should be regarded as a bureaucracy, and for a long period this conception tended to give remarkable permanence to its composition.

When the personal attachments of the Cabinet chiefs are considered, it is easy to imagine the dismay and consternation produced by the dealings of Adams with Jefferson. By the time Adams consulted the members of his Cabinet, they had become suspicious of his motives and distrustful of his character. Before long they were writing to Washington and Hamilton for advice, and were p203endeavoring to manage Adams by concerted action. In this course they had the cordial approval of leading Federalists, who would write privately to members of the Cabinet and give counsel as to procedure. Wolcott, a Federalist leader in Connecticut, warned his son, the Secretary of the Treasury, that Adams was "a man of great vanity, pretty capricious, of a very moderate share of prudence, and of far less real abilities than he believes himself to possess," so that "it will require a deal of address to render him the service which it will be essential for him to receive."

The policy to be pursued was still unsettled when news came of the insulting rejection of Pinckney and the domineering attitude assumed by France. On March 25, Adams issued a call for the meeting of Congress on May 15, and then set about getting the advice of his Cabinet. He presented a schedule of interrogatories to which he asked written answers. The attitude of the Cabinet was at first hostile to Adams's favorite notion of a special mission, but as Hamilton counseled deference to the President's views, the Cabinet finally approved the project. Adams appointed John Marshall of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts p204to serve in conjunction with Pinckney, who had taken refuge in Holland.

Strong support for the Government in taking a firm stand against France was manifested in both Houses of Congress. Hamilton aided Secretary Wolcott in preparing a scheme of taxation by which the revenue could be increased to provide for national defense. With the singular fatality that characterized Federalist party behavior throughout Adams's Administration, however, all the items proposed were abandoned except one for stamp taxes. What had been offered as a scheme whose particulars were justifiable by their relation to the whole was converted into a measure which was traditionally obnoxious in itself, and was now made freshly odious by an appearance of discrimination and partiality. The Federalists did improve their opportunity in the way of general legislation: much needed laws were passed to stop privateering, to protect the ports, and to increase the naval armament; and Adams was placed in a much better position to maintain neutrality than Washington had been. Fear of another outbreak of yellow fever accelerated the work of Congress, and the extra session lasted only a little over three weeks.

Such was the slowness of communication in those p205days that, when Congress reassembled at the regular session in November, no decisive news had arrived of the fate of the special mission. Adams with proper prudence thought it would be wise to consider what should be done in case of failure. On January 24, 1798, he addressed to the members of his Cabinet a letter requesting their views. No record is preserved of the replies of the Secretaries of State and of the Treasury. Lee, the Attorney-General, recommended a declaration of war. McHenry, the Secretary of War, offered a series of seven propositions to be recommended to Congress: 1. Permission to merchant ships to arm; 2. The construction of twenty sloops of war; 3. The completion of frigates already authorized; 4. Grant to the President of authority to provide ships of the line, not exceeding ten, "by such means as he may judge best." 5. Suspension of the treaties with France; 6. An army of sixteen thousand men, with provision for twenty thousand more should occasion demand; 7. A loan and an adequate system of taxation.

These recommendations are substantially identical with those made by Hamilton in a letter to Pickering, and the presumption is strong that McHenry's paper is a product of Hamilton's p206influence, and that it had the concurrence of Pickering and Wolcott. The suggestion that the President should be given discretionary authority in the matter of procuring ships of the line contemplated the possibility of obtaining them by transfer from England, not through formal alliance but as an incident of a coöperation to be arranged by negotiation, whose objects would also include aid in placing a loan and permission for American ships to join British convoys. This feature of McHenry's recommendations could not be carried out. Pickering soon informed Hamilton that the old animosities were still so active "in some breasts" that the plan of coöperation was impracticable.

Meanwhile the composite mission had accomplished nothing except to make clear the actual character of French policy. When the envoys arrived in France, the Directory had found in Napoleon Bonaparte an instrument of power that was stunning Europe by its tremendous blows. That instrument had not yet turned to the reorganization of France herself, and at the time it served the rapacious designs of the Directory. Europe was looted wherever the arms of France prevailed, and the levying of tribute both on public and on private account was the order of the day. p207Talleyrand was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and he treated the envoys with a mixture of menace and cajolery. It was a part of his tactics to sever the Republican member, Gerry, from his Federalist colleagues. Gerry was weak enough to be caught by Talleyrand's snare, and he was foolish enough to attribute the remonstrances of his colleagues to vanity. "They were wounded," he wrote, "by the manner in which they had been treated by the Government of France, and the difference which had been used in respect to me." Gerry's conduct served to weaken and delay the negotiations, but he eventually united with his colleagues in a detailed report to the State Department, which was transmitted to Congress by the President on April 3, 1798. In the original the names of the French officials concerned were written at full length in the Department cipher. In making a copy for Congress, Secretary Pickering substituted for the names the terminal letters of the alphabet, and hence the report has passed into history as the X. Y. Z. dispatches.

The story, in brief, was that on arriving in Paris the envoys called on Talleyrand, who said that he was busy at that very time on a report to the Directory on American affairs, and in a few days p208would let them know how matters stood. A few days later they received notice through Talleyrand's secretary that the Directory was greatly exasperated by expressions used in President Adams's address to Congress, that the envoys would probably not be received until further conference, and that persons might be appointed to treat with them. A few more days elapsed, and then three persons presented themselves as coming from Talleyrand. They were Hottinguer, Bellamy, and Hauteval, designated as X. Y. Z. in the communication to Congress. They said that a friendly reception by the Directory could not be obtained unless the United States would assist France by a loan, and that "a sum of money was required for the pocket of the Directory and Ministers, which would be at the disposal of M. Talleyrand." This "douceur to the Directory," amounting to approximately $240,000, was urged with great persistence as an indispensable condition of friendly relations. The envoys temporized and pointed out that their Government would have to be consulted on the matter of the loan. The wariness of the envoys made Talleyrand's agents the more insistent about getting the "douceur." At one of the interviews Hottinguer exclaimed:— p209"Gentlemen, you do not speak to the point; it is money; it is expected that you will offer money." The envoys replied that on this point their answer had already been given. " 'No,' said he, 'you have not: what is your answer?' We replied, 'It is no; no; not a sixpence.' " This part of the envoys' report soon received legendary embellishment, and in innumerable stump speeches it rang out as, "Not one cent for tribute; millions for defense!"

The publication of the X. Y. Z. dispatches sent rolling through the country a wave of patriotic feeling before which the Republican leaders quailed and which swept away many of their followers. Jefferson held that the French Government ought not to be held responsible for "the turpitude of swindlers," and he steadfastly opposed any action looking to the use of force to maintain American rights. Some of the Republican members of Congress, however, went over to the Federalist side, and Jefferson's party was presently reduced to a feeble and dispirited minority. Loyal addresses rained upon Adams. There appeared a new national song, Hail Columbia, which was sung all over the land and which was established in lasting popularity. Among its well-known lines is an exulting stanza beginning:

p210 "Behold the chief who now commands,

Once more to serve his country stands."

This is an allusion to the fact that Washington had left his retirement to take charge of the national forces. The envoys had been threatened that, unless they submitted to the French demands, the American Republic might share the fate of the Republic of Venice. The response of Congress was to vote money to complete the frigates, the United States, the Constitution, and the Constellation, work on which had been suspended when the Algerine troubles subsided; and further, to authorize the construction or purchase of twelve additional vessels. For the management of this force, the Navy Department was created by the Act of April 30, 1798. By an Act of May 28, the President was authorized to raise a military force of ten thousand men, the commander of which should have the services of "a suitable number of major-generals." On July 7, the treaties with France that had so long vexed the United States were abrogated.

The operations of the Navy Department soon showed that American sailors were quite able and willing to defend the nation if they were allowed the opportunity. In December, 1798, the Navy p211Department worked out a plan of operations in the enemy's waters. To repress the depredations of the French privateers in the West Indies, a squadron commanded by Captain John Barry was sent to cruise to the windward of St. Kitts as far south as Barbados, and it made numerous captures. A squadron under Captain Thomas Truxtun cruised in the vicinity of Porto Rico. The flagship was the frigate Constellation, which on February 9, 1799, encountered the French frigate, L'Insurgente, and made it strike its flag after an action lasting only an hour and seventeen minutes. The French captain fought well, but he was put at a disadvantage by losing his topmast at the opening of the engagement, so that Captain Truxtun was able to take a raking position. The American loss was only one killed and three wounded, while L'Insurgente had twenty-nine killed and forty-one wounded. On February 1, 1800, the Constellation fought the heavy French frigate Vengeance from about eight o'clock in the evening until after midnight, when the Vengeance lay completely silenced and apparently helpless. But the rigging and spars of the Constellation had been so badly cut up that the mainmast fell, and before the wreck could be cleared away the Vengeance was able to p212make her escape. During the two years and a half in which hostilities continued, the little navy of the United States captured eighty-five armed French vessels, nearly all privateers. Only one American war vessel was taken by the enemy, and that one had been originally a captured French vessel. The value of the protection thus extended to American trade is attested by the increase of exports from $57,000,000 in 1797 to $78,665,528 in 1799. Revenue from imports increased from $6,000,000 in 1797 to $9,080,932 in 1800.

The creation of an army, however, was attended by personal disagreements that eventually wrecked the Administration. Without waiting to hear from Washington as to his views, Adams nominated him for the command and then tried to overrule his arrangements. The notion that Washington could be hustled into a false position was a strange blunder to be made by anyone who knew him. He set forth his views and made his stipulations with his customary precision, in letters to Secretary McHenry, who had been instructed by Adams to obtain Washington's advice as to the list of officers. Washington recommended as major-generals, Hamilton, C.C. Pinckney, and Knox, in that order of rank. Adams made some demur to p213the preference shown for Hamilton, but McHenry showed him Washington's letter and argued the matter so persistently that Adams finally sent the nominations to the Senate in the same order as Washington had requested. Confirmation promptly followed, and a few days later Adams departed for his home at Quincy, Massachusetts, without notice to his Cabinet. It soon appeared that he was in the sulks. When McHenry wrote to him about proceeding with the organization of the army, he replied that he was willing provided Knox's precedence was acknowledged, and he added that the five New England States would not patiently submit to the humiliation of having Knox's claim disregarded.

From August 4 to October 13, wrangling over this matter went on. The members of the Cabinet were in a difficult position. It was their understanding that Washington's stipulations had been accepted, but the President now proposed a different arrangement. Pickering and McHenry wrote to Washington explaining the situation in detail. News of the differences between Adams and Washington of course soon got about and caused a great buzz in political circles. Adams became angry over the opposition he was meeting, and on p214August 29 he wrote to McHenry that "there has been too much intrigue in this business, both with General Washington and with me"; that it might as well be understood that in any event he would have the last say, "and I shall then determine it exactly as I should now, Knox, Pinckney, and Hamilton." Washington stood firm and, on September 25, wrote to the President demanding "that he might know at once and precisely what he had to expect." In reply Adams said that he had signed the three commissions on the same day in the hope "that an amicable adjustment or acquiescence might take place among the gentlemen themselves." But should this hope be disappointed, "and controversies shall arise, they will of course be submitted to you as commander-in-chief."

Adams, of course, knew quite well that such matters did not settle themselves, but he seems to have imagined that all he had to do was to sit tight and that matters would have to come his way. The tricky and shuffling behavior to which he descended would be unbelievable of a man of his standing were there not an authentic record made by himself. The suspense finally became so intolerable that the Cabinet acted without consulting the President any longer on the point. The Secretary p215of War submitted to his colleagues all the correspondence in the case and asked their advice. The Secretaries of State, of the Treasury, and of the Navy made a joint reply declaring "the only inference which we can draw from the facts before stated, is, that the President consents to the arrangement of rank as proposed by General Washington," and that therefore "the Secretary of War ought to transmit the commissions, and inform the generals that in his opinion the rank is definitely settled according to the original arrangement." This was done; but Knox declined an appointment ranking him below Hamilton and Pinckney. Thus, Adams despite his obstinacy, was completely baffled, and a bitter feud between him and his Cabinet was added to the causes now at work to destroy the Federalist party.

The Federalist military measures were sound and judicious, and the expense, although a subject of bitter denunciation, was really trivial in comparison with the national value of the enhanced respect and consideration obtained for American interests. But these measures were followed by imprudent acts for regulating domestic politics. By the Act of June 18, 1798, the period of residence required before an alien could be admitted to p216American citizenship was raised from five years to fourteen. By the Act of June 25, 1798, the efficacy of which was limited to two years, the President might send out of the country "such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof." The state of public opinion might then have sanctioned these measures had they stood alone, but they were connected with another which proved to be the weight that pulled them all down. By the Act of July 14, 1798, it was made a crime to write or publish "any false, scandalous, and malicious" statements about the President or either House of Congress, to bring them "into contempt or disrepute," or to "stir up sedition within the United States."

There were plenty of precedents in English history for legislation of such character. Robust examples of it were supplied in England at that very time. There were also strong colonial precedents. According to Secretary Wolcott, the sedition law was "merely a copy from a statute of Virginia in October, 1776." But a revolutionary Whig measure aimed at Tories was a very different p217thing in its practical aspect from the same measure used by a national party against a constitutional opposition. Hamilton regarded such legislation as impolitic, and, on hearing of the sedition bill, he wrote a protesting letter, saying, "Let us not establish tyranny. Energy is a very different thing from violence."

But in general the Federalist leaders were so carried away by the excitement of the times that they could not practice moderation. Their zealotry was sustained by political theories which made no distinction between partisanship and sedition. The constitutional function of partisanship was discerned and stated by Burke in 1770, but his definition of it, as a joint endeavor to promote the national interest upon some particular principle, was scouted at the time and was not allowed until long after. The prevailing idea in Washington's time, both in England and America, was that partisanship was inherently pernicious and ought to be suppressed. Washington's Farewell Address warned the people "in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party." The idea then was that government was wholly the affair of constituted authority, and that it was improper for political activity to surpass the p218appointed bounds. Newspaper criticism and partisan oratory were among the things in Washington's mind when he censured all attempts "to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities." Hence judges thought it within their province to denounce political agitators when charging a grand jury. Chief Justice Ellsworth, in a charge delivered in Massachusetts, denounced "the French system-mongers, from the quintumvirateº at Paris to the Vice-President and minority in Congress, as apostles of atheism and anarchy, bloodshed, and plunder." In charges delivered in western Pennsylvania, Judge Addison dealt with such subjects as Jealousy of Administration and Government, and the Horrors of Revolution. Washington, then in private life, was so pleased with the series that he sent a copy to friends for circulation.

Convictions under the sedition law were few, but there were enough of them to cause great alarm. A Jerseyman, who had expressed a wish that the wad of a cannon, fired as a salute to the President, had hit him on the rear bulge of his breeches, was fined $100. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, while canvassing for reëlection to Congress, charged the President with "unbounded thirst for ridiculous p219pomp, foolish adulation, and a selfish avarice." This language cost him four months in jail and a fine of $1000. But in general the law did not repress the tendencies at which it was aimed but merely increased them.

The Republicans, too weak to make an effective stand in Congress, tried to interpose state authority. Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolutions, adopted by the state legislature in November, 1798. They hold that the Constitution is a compact to which the States are parties, and that "each party has an equal right to judge for itself as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress." The alien and sedition laws were denounced, and steps were proposed by which protesting States "will concur in declaring these Acts void and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these Acts, nor any others of the general Government, not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories." The Virginia Resolutions, adopted in December, 1798, were drafted by Madison. They view "the powers of the federal Government as resulting from the compact to which the States are parties," and declare that, if those powers are exceeded, the p220States "have the right and are in duty bound to interpose." This doctrine was a vial of woe to American politics until it was cast down and shattered on the battlefield of civil war.a It was invented for a partisan purpose, and yet was entirely unnecessary for that purpose.

The Federalist party as then conducted was the exponent of a theory of government that was everywhere decaying. The alien and sedition laws were condemned and discarded by the forces of national politics, and state action was as futile in effect as it was mischievous in principle. It diverted the issue in a way that might have ultimately turned to the advantage of the Federalist party, had it possessed the usual power of adaptation to circumstances. After all, there was no reason inherent in the nature of that party why it should not have perpetuated its organization and repaired its fortunes by learning how to derive authority from public opinion. The needed transformation of character would have been no greater than has often been accomplished in party history. Indeed, there is something abnormal in the complete prostration and eventual extinction of the Federalist party; and the explanation is to be found in the extraordinary character of Adams's administration. p221It gave such prominence and energy to individual aims and interests that the party was rent to pieces by them.

In communicating the X. Y. Z. dispatches to Congress, Adams declared: "I will never send another Minister to France without assurance that he will be received, respected, and honored, as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation." But on receiving an authentic though roundabout intimation that a new mission would have a friendly reception, he concluded to dispense with direct assurances, and, without consulting his Cabinet, sent a message to the Senate on February 18, 1799, nominating Murray, then American Minister to Holland, to be Minister to France. This unexpected action stunned the Federalists and delighted the Republicans as it endorsed the position they had always taken that war talk was folly and that France was ready to be friendly if America would treat her fairly. "Had the foulest heart and the ablest head in the world," wrote Senator Sedgwick to Hamilton, "been permitted to select the most embarrassing and ruinous measure, perhaps it would have been precisely the one which has been adopted." Hamilton advised that "the measure must go into effect with the additional p222idea of a commission of three." The committee of the Senate to whom the nomination was referred made a call upon Adams to inquire his reasons. According to Adams's own account, they informed him that a commission would be more satisfactory to the Senate and to the public. According to Secretary Pickering, Adams was asked to withdraw the nomination and refused, but a few days later, on hearing that the committee intended to report against confirmation, he sent in a message nominating Chief Justice Ellsworth and Patrick Henry, together with Murray, as envoys extraordinary. The Senate, much to Adams's satisfaction, promptly confirmed the nominations, but this was because Hamilton's influence had smoothed the way. Patrick Henry declined, and Governor Davie of North Carolina was substituted. By the time this mission reached France, Napoleon Bonaparte was in power and the envoys were able to make an acceptable settlement of the questions at issue between the two countries. The event came too late to be of service to Adams in his campaign for reëlection, but it was intensely gratifying to his self-esteem.

Some feelers were put forth to ascertain whether Washington could not be induced to be a candidate p223again, but the idea had hardly developed before all hopes in that quarter were abruptly dashed by his death on December 1, 1799, from a badly treated attack of quinsy. Efforts to substitute some other candidate for Adams proved unavailing, as New England still clung to him on sectional grounds. News of these efforts of course reached Adams and increased his bitterness against Hamilton, whom he regarded as chiefly responsible for them. Adams had a deep spite against members of his Cabinet for the way in which they had foiled him about Hamilton's commission, but for his own convenience in routine matters he had retained them, although debarring them from his confidence. In the spring of 1800 he decided to rid himself of men whom he regarded as "Hamilton's spies." The first to fall was McHenry, whose resignation was demanded on May 5, 1800, after an interview in which — according to McHenry — Adams reproached him with having "biased General Washington to place Hamilton in his list of major-generals before Knox." Pickering refused to resign, and he was dismissed from office on May 12. John Marshall became the Secretary of State, and Samuel Dexter of Massachusetts, Secretary of War. Wolcott retained the Treasury portfolio p224until the end of the year, when he resigned of his own motion.

The events of the summer of 1800 completed the ruin of the Federalist party. That Adams should have been so indifferent to the good will of his party at a time when he was a candidate for reëlection is a remarkable circumstance. A common report among the Federalists was that he was no longer entirely sane. A more likely supposition was that he was influenced by some of the Republican leaders and counted on their political support. In biographies of Gerry it is claimed that he was able to accomplish important results through his influence with Adams. At any rate, Adams gave unrestrained expression to his feelings against Hamilton, and finally Hamilton was aroused to action. On August 1, 1800, he wrote to Adams demanding whether it was true that Adams had "asserted the existence of a British faction in this country" of which Hamilton himself was said to be a leader. Adams did not reply. Hamilton waited until October 1, and then wrote again, affirming "that by whomsoever a charge of the kind mentioned in my former letter, may, at any time, have been made or insinuated against me, it is a base, wicked, and cruel calumny; destitute even p225of a plausible pretext, to excuse the folly, or mask the depravity which must have dictated it."

Hamilton, always sensitive to imputations upon his honor, was not satisfied to allow the matter to rest there. He wrote a detailed account of his relations with Adams, involving an examination of Adams's public conduct and character, which he privately circulated among leading Federalists. It is an able paper, fully displaying Hamilton's power of combining force of argument with dignity of language, but although exhibiting Adams as unfit for his office it advised support of his candidacy. Burr obtained a copy and made such use of parts of it that Hamilton himself had to publish it in full.

In this election the candidate associated with Adams by the Federalists was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. Though one Adams elector in Rhode Island cut Pinckney, he would still have been elected had the electoral votes of his own State been cast for him as they had been for Thomas Pinckney, four years before; but South Carolina now voted solidly for both Republican candidates. The result of the election was a tie between Jefferson and Burr, each receiving 73 votes, while Adams received 65 and Pinckney 64. p226The election was thus thrown into the House, where some of the Federalists entered into an intrigue to give Burr the Presidency instead of Jefferson, but this scheme was defeated largely through Hamilton's influence. He wrote: "If there be a man in this world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson. With Burr I have always been personally well. But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration."

The result of the election was a terrible blow to Adams. His vanity was so hurt that he could not bear to be present at the installation of his successor, and after working almost to the stroke of midnight signing appointments to office for the defeated Federalists, he drove away from Washington in the early morning before the inauguration ceremonies began. Eventually he soothed his self-esteem by associating his own trials and misfortunes with those endured by classical heroes. He wrote that Washington, Hamilton, and Pinckney formed a triumvirate like that of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, and "that Cicero was not sacrificed to the vengeance of Antony more egregiously than John Adams was to the unbridled and unbounded ambition of Alexander Hamilton in the American triumvirate."


Thayer's Note:

a The author's contention that the War Between the States was a good thing because it voided by force of arms the cornerstone of the Constitution, the great virtue that made American polity unique in the history of nations — the rights of the States, ensuring the impossibility of federal tyranny — the contention is a monstrous doctrine. What could be the harm that States should choose to go their own way? Where is it stated in the Constitution that a State cannot secede? and does that Constitution itself not explicitly state that rights not spelled out in it continue to belong to the States that contracted to adopt it? The War Between the States, in which four hundred thousand people died and another half million maimed in order to prevent States from deciding their own laws and destiny, finds a justification only in the minds of those who worship power over right and law; and in the ever-spiralling encroachments of the modern federal government on the rights of states and individuals, Americans continue to be paid back many times over for the shortsightedness of those that insisted on war and coercion instead of respect for the Constitution.


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 17 Nov 07