John Adams, who became the second president of the United States, has been accused by some historians of being the closest thing America ever had to a dictator or monarch (Onuf, 1993). Such strong accusations should be examined in the context of the era in which Mr. Adams lived and served. A closer examination of the historical events occurring during his vice presidency and his term as president, strongly suggests that Adams was not, in fact, a dictator. Indeed, except for his lack of charisma and political charm, Adams had a very successful political career before joining the new national government. He was, moreover, highly sought after as a public servant during the early formation of the new federal power (Ferling, 1992).
Adams was a well educated, seasoned patriot, and experienced diplomat. He was the runner-up in the election in which George Washington was selected the first United States President. According to the electoral-college system of that time, the second candidate with the most electoral votes became the Vice President (Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). As president, Washington appointed, among others, two influential political leaders to his original cabinet; Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, a veteran politician became the Secretary of State and Hamiliton, a young, outspoken New Yorker lawyer, became the Secretary of the Treasury (Ferling, 1992). Jefferson, like Adams, had also signed the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, however, was the only cabinet member relatively unknown to Adams (Ferling, 1992). It was Hamilton, nonetheless, who excelled during this new administration by initiating numerous, innovative, and often controversial programs, many of which were quite successful.
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Adams and Hamilton were both Federalists. Unlike Hamiliton, Adams was more moderate (Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). During this first administration, Adams and Hamilton quarreled (Washington Retires, 1995), and Adams contemptuously began referring to Hamilton as “his puppyhood” (DeCarolis, 1995). This created a rift in the administration, for Washington generally favored Hamiliton (Smelser & Gundersen, 1975), and disregarded Adams (Ferling, 1992). Hamilton also went to great lengths to drive Jefferson out of the cabinet (Allison, 1966). Jefferson did finally, indeed, resign from the cabinet.
The Federalists “party,” of which Hamiliton was the leader (DeCarolis, 1995) was greatly divided and even violent, at times, under his leadership (Allison, 1966). This is significant in assessing Hamilton’s and others’ arguments of Adams being a dictator after his presidential victory in 1796 A.D. There are several traits that were conspicuous about John Adams. First, he was known as an honest man of integrity (Ferling, 1992; Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). He was also often described as “stubborn,” quick-tempered, and even cantankerous at times (Liesenfelt, 1995; Smelser & Gundersen, 1975; Wood, 1992). He was, however, quite intelligent and apparently had a secure self-esteem, being quite willing the challenge tradition (Wood, 1992). Adams was an intensely self-introspective man, though confident (Calhoon, 1976). By 1795, conflict was raging with France.
Washington made it clear that he was not returning to office. This, for the first time, provided the impulse for the two differing political philosophies to align into separate parties, even though the Federalists never considered themselves to be a party (Wood, 1992). Hamilton tried to by-pass Adams by nominating Carolinian Thomas Pickney (Ferling, 1992). He had instigated a similar conspiracy to keep Adams from defeating Washington in the second national election, as Adams had discovered (DeCarolis, 1995). In spite of the divided Federalists, Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson by three electoral votes. He became the second president and Jefferson, having the second largest number of votes, became vice-president.
This event, too, is significant because for the first time in office here were two men of totally different philosophies of government, attempting to run the country together. Adams’ presidency was stressful from the moment of his inauguration. In his address, he sought to make it clear that he was not a monarchist (Allison, 1966). France had decreed to seize American ships. The country was divided over whether to be pro-British (as was Hamilton) or pro-France (as was Jefferson). Hamiliton eventually resigned the position of inspector general, but continued to send Adams unsolicited recommendations regarding foreign policy issues (DeCarolis, 1995). Adams resented Hamilton’s meddling in his executive prerogatives.
He eventually expelled two other Hamiltonian cabinet members. The height of Adam’s presidency and popularity came primarily from the victories the navy had over French vessels, and the exposure of the scandal called the XYZ Affair, in which Adams was applauded for revealing the dishonesty and corruption of the French officials, and French insistence on demanding bribes. This period, however, was very unstable and uncertain, both at home and abroad. Hamilton made bitter attacks on Adams’ policies (Elser, 1993). The fiscal situation was desolate.
The national debt and the threat of what appeared to be inescapable war caused great stress, opposition, and even occasional violence (Onuf, 1993). Matters only became worse. The Federalist Congress created a provisional army which, though needed, added to the financial strain. Congress then passed three major oppressive measures all within a two-week period: the Alien Act, the Naturalization Act, and the Sedition Acts, all of which caused Adam’s popularity to decrease and his political direction to be questioned (Ferling, 1992). The army, needed because of the French conflict, was very expensive to maintain. The Alien Act permitted the president to deport those who are considered a threat to the government.
Many immigrants did return to Europe because of fear. The Naturalization Act placed new stipulations on becoming a citizen and required fourteen years of residency. The last, and most offensive act, the Sedition Act, was purely a censorship tactic, which did result in several anti-federalists (Republicans) being indicted for printing criticisms against the government (Ferling, 1992). Adams never recommended any such measures, but he did sign the bill (Allison, 1966).
This law prohibited attacks on the government, oral or written, and upon arrest the defendant had to prove his innocence (Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). Due to these congressional measures, citizens, including Jefferson, began to fear that the provisional army would not just fight France, but also use their military strength to attack protesting Americans, hence beginning a civil war.
That Sedition Act had no immediate impact may be evidence that the Federalists were acting out of paranoia in their immediate frenzy to stop domestic opposition (Ferling, 1992). These events, along with the establishing of political parties, as well as John Adam’s non-charismatic political style, increased tensions that lead some to accuse the second president of being a dictator. Adams was proactive, but he was not a dictator. According to Ferling, “President Adams sought to control events rather than to be controlled” (1992). At the approach of the 1800 election, Jefferson and Burr entered the presidential race against Adams.
This eventually resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, upon which the Congress chose Jefferson. Consequently, the election was not a landslide, nor did Adams do poorly. He received 65 of the electoral votes, or 24 percent. The significance of this election is not necessarily that Adams lost, but that the votes were divided almost equally among the candidates, with no one gaining a decisive victory. This first suggests that the people were quite disunited, or undecided, about which political direction the country should go. Second, Adams received almost as many votes as his opponents, suggest that he may not have made such a poor political performance, as has been suggested.
In this writer’s opinion, the Federalist Congress probably did over-react, as well as obscure their democratic aims. It was, however, these described events, and the fact of Adams’ lack of political charisma, that proved unproductive in building support and popularity in the latter part of his term. It should also be pointed out that though the Sedition Act was anti-democratic in practice, Thomas Jefferson, who defeated Adams, used it against the Federalists in 1803 (People v. Croswell) and indicted a publisher (DeCarolis, 1995). Jefferson was not accused of being a dictator for such non-democratic actions.
Adams was neither dictatorial in his conduct, or imperial in his policies. He appeared to have had the interest of the common people at heart. The conflict with France, the high taxes needed to keep the army and navy operating, and the poor legislative faux pas Congress made during period time, all cast a negative reflection on President Adams.
This provided his opponents, like Hamilton, Burr, and even Jefferson, with political leverage to use against him, just as politicians and political parties do in our own modern era. If Adams were a dictator, then one must ask would the citizens elect his son to be the future president, twenty-four years later? Or, how his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, became America’s minister to London. Apparently the citizenry remembered President Adams in a positive, democratic way, and not as a dictator.
Allison, J. M. (1966). Adams and Jefferson: The story of a friendship. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Calhoon, R. M. (1976). John Adams and the psychology of power. Review of American History, December 1976, 520-525. DeCarolis, L. M. (1995). The precipice of power: The quasi war with Adams, 1789-1800. [On-line], Available: http://grid.let.rug.nl/~welling/usa/hamilton/hamil36.htm. Esler, L. A.. (1993). Presidents of our United States. Chicago: Rand McNally. Ferling, J. E. (1992). John Adams: A Life. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press. Liesenfelt, J. (1995). John Adams (1735-1826): Childhood. A biography of John Adams. [On-line], Available: http://grid.let.rug.nl/~welling/usa/adams/ad_ch1.html Onuf, P. S. (1993). Thomas Jefferson: Federalist. Essays in History, 35, n.p. [On-line], Available: http://www.lib.virginia.edu/journals/EH/EH35/onuf1.html#26 Smelser, M. & J. R. Gundersen. (1978). American history at a glance. (4th ed.). New York: Barnes and Noble Books. Washington Retires. (1995). [On-line], Available: http://grid.let.rug.nl/~weling/usa/ch3_p8.html Wood, G. S. (1992). The radicalism of the American revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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