This week marks the 281st birthday of President John Adams. Adams served as the second president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, through both a tumultuous time in the nation’s history and a particularly ugly election. There is some comfort in knowing that, in a way, all election seasons are tumultuous, and Adams paid the price by losing the election of 1800. Presidential historians David and Jeanne Heidler recently educated us on the interesting parallels between Adams’ one-term woes and our present electoral dyspepsia.
America’s 1st Freedom: What was happening during Adams’ presidency that made the election of 1800 so pivotal?
Jeanne T. Heidler: When George Washington left the presidency in 1797 and Adams assumed office, the United States was in the midst of a serious diplomatic crisis with France. The French were at war with Great Britain and had been trying to enlist American aid under the terms of the alliance dating from the American Revolution. Instead, the United States not only committed to neutrality, but sought to improve trade relations with Britain.
David S. Heidler: France began seizing American ships that were trading with the British. Adams tried to open talks with France, but French officials demanded bribes as a precondition for negotiations. It was called the “XYZ Affair,” and it made relations between France and the United States even worse.
A1F: It seems that this turn of events would have made Adams a popular president. Why did it hurt him in his re-election bid?
JTH: It did make him popular, for a while. He was praised throughout the country for his strong, principled stand against the French. He recommended to Congress an increase in the size of the military, including a large provisional army and an aggressive building program for the navy. He also refused to treat with the French while they insisted on payments for simply engaging in traditional diplomacy.
A1F: What went wrong?
JTH: He overstepped—or rather, the Federalist majority in Congress overstepped, and Adams agreed to it.
DSH: Yes, problems actually started when Republicans in Congress frowned over expensive military increases, but the expanded army troubled them for reasons beyond the budget. They sensibly argued that there was little chance that the United States would be fighting a land war with France since we shared no borders with French territory. Republicans worried that the army could be used to suppress domestic dissent.He was praised throughout the country for his strong, principled stand against the French.
JTH: And it didn't help when their arch-nemesis Alexander Hamilton was named second-in-command. George Washington came out of retirement to assume command, but he planned to leave effective command to Hamilton until actual fighting commenced. But Republican complaints, particularly in Republican-owned newspapers, about these arrangements riled Federalists. Some regarded Republican criticisms as subversive during a time of national crisis. By then, the United States was fighting an undeclared naval war with France.
A1F: How did the activities of Federalists in Congress hurt John Adams?
JTH: The Federalists in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams made the mistake of signing them. One can understand the alarm over a large French immigrant population, but the Sedition Act is simply inexplicable. It made criticizing the United States government, either house of Congress or the president a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment.
A1F: How was it possible for Americans in 1798 to think that was a good idea?
DSH: Federalists claimed that the Sedition Act had protections against persecution built into it. For example, the crime would be in speaking or writing something false, malicious or scandalous. This implied that truth was an adequate safeguard. After all, distinguishing a statement as “false” or “true” seems straightforward enough, though everyone knows a determined prosecutor can put fine points on anything. Yet it was the terms “scandalous and malicious” that were most troubling. These were open to interpretation, setting up a subjective test for guilt that all but guaranteed successful prosecutions.
… but the Sedition Act is simply inexplicable. It made criticizing the United States government, either house of Congress or the president … punishable by fine and imprisonment.JTH: It really was an odious law with disturbing implications. Men endorsed it who had signed the Declaration of Independence, who had ratified the United States Constitution. Less than a decade after the approval of the First Amendment, Congress and President Adams outlawed political opposition by suppressing free speech and freedom of the press.
A1F: Did they actually enforce this measure?
DSH: Yes, with unseemly relish. Private citizens expressing an opinion or even making a joke wound up in court and ended up in jail. Federalists attacked Matthew Lyon, a Republican congressman from Vermont, for not supporting President Adams. Lyon said that he would like to support Adams, but he couldn’t stomach the President’s “continual grasp for power.” That statement was in the first count of Lyon’s indictment. A federal court convicted him and threw him in jail under a sentence of four months, with a $1,000 fine for good measure.
JTH: Adams wouldn’t commute the sentence, certainly wouldn’t pardon Lyon, even after the danger of war with France had passed. When Lyon won re-election from his cell, a journalist celebrated the triumph and was locked up for sedition.
A1F: How widespread was this?
JTH: There were only a few dozen of these cases, but there didn't need to be more. The prosecutions were examples to frighten the opposition. Thomas Jefferson called it “the Reign of Witches,” and his supporters, rather than cowering in fear, rallied the opposition, declaring men like Matthew Lyon martyrs to free speech and open political discourse.Private citizens expressing an opinion or even making a joke wound up in court and ended up in jail.
A1F: With the result?
DSH: The Sedition Act galvanized the Republicans. The Jeffersonian cohort before 1798 was a minority party in decline. After the Federalist overreach, the Republicans stormed to victory. Jefferson called his election to the presidency the Revolution of 1800. Adams returned home to Quincy, Mass., a bitter man. He did not think he could ever forgive his old friend Tom Jefferson for “turning him out.”
JTH: He did, though, but it took about 12 years before things could be patched up.