John Adams–lawyer, political theorist, revolutionary, and president–left a complicated legacy.
Among America’s founding fathers, John Adams was never one of my favorites. This was largely because of his support for the Alien and Sedition Acts, which became law during his presidency (1797–1801). The Sedition Act (the fourth in a series of laws passed by the Senate in 1798) made publications against the government, Congress, or the President punishable by two years imprisonment and a hefty fine. I also did not like the “midnight appointments” by Adams, which pushed additional Federalists into the judiciary and thereby lessened the power of the next president, Thomas Jefferson (who served as vice‐president under Adams), to set America on a more libertarian course.
Adams’s support of Federalist measures surprised me because of his former support of libertarian measures during the revolutionary period. He was among the first to call for American independence, during which he expressly endorsed the right of resistance against unjust laws. He played a pivotal role during the first and second Continental Congresses, when he wrote several crucial documents and relentlessly campaigned for American independence.
Adams also wrote Novanglus, 12 detailed newspaper articles published in the Boston Gazette (January 23‐April 17, 1775). These were a response to “Massachusettenis” (a pseudonym of Daniel Leonard), who supported the colonial cause until the Boston Tea Party caused him to switch sides. In contrast to Massachusettenis, who argued that parliament is the legitimate sovereign of the American colonies, Adams maintained that Americans owed allegiance to the king but never to parliament (except in matters pertaining to the regulation of commerce). The Novanglus essays provided those Americans who agreed with Adams, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, with extensive legal justification for their position. The Novanglus essays proved to be one of the most important publications during the revolutionary era.
Early in his career, Adams protested eloquently against governmental attempts to suppress the freedom of newspapers. Consider this passage from A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765):
And you, Messieurs Printers, whatever the tyrants of the earth may say of your paper, have done important service to your country, by your readiness and freedom in publishing the speculations of the curious. The stale, impudent insinuations of slander and sedition, with which the gormandizers of power have endeavor’d to discredit your paper, are so much the more to your honour; for the jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out to destroy, the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. And if the public interest, liberty and happiness have been in danger, from the ambition or avarice of any great man or number of great men whatever may be their politeness, address, learning and ingenuity and in other respects integrity and humanity, you have done yourselves honor and your country service, by publishing and pointing out that avarice and ambition.
The kind of freedom defended here, which includes freedom for newspapers to publish “speculations of the curious,” was precisely the kind of freedom prohibited by the Sedition Act. Any criticisms of the federal government were punishable by fines, imprisonment, and deportations. It was no secret that this law was intended to curtail criticisms of the Adams administration (and of his supporters in Congress) by Jeffersonians. A dozen or more pro‐Jeffersonian editors were convicted under the Sedition Act, which was slated to expire on March 3, 1801. Adams had lost the presidency to Jefferson by then, but Jefferson was not about to reinstate a law that he condemned as despotic and unconstitutional, especially in his Kentucky Resolution of 1798.
Supporters of the Sedition Act argued that it was necessary to protect America from the subversive activities of the thousands of French citizens who had recently immigrated to the colonies. Although many Americans applauded the French Revolution of 1789, most changed their minds upon learning of the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon. Many Americans feared that similar things might happen in America, thanks to the French, and Federalist senators exploited this public panic to push the Sedition Act into law.
We should remember that the notion of competing political parties was not popular in America at that time. What we call “parties” were typically called “factions” in those days, and factions were viewed as threats to the stability of the American government. America’s first political system emerged as Jefferson organized opposition to the Adams presidency. Jeffersonians were called the Democratic‐Republican Party (or, more simply, the Republican Party), while they pitted themselves against the Federalist Party, with Alexander Hamilton at its head.
One good thing about John Adams is that he refused to play the role of a party man. For example, many Federalists called for a declaration of war against France, but President Adams refused to go along and kept America out of war. Adams’s deviations from the Federalist party line so frustrated Hamilton that he once said that it might be better if Jefferson rather than Adams won the upcoming election of 1800. He even wrote a pamphlet attacking Adams for his supposed incompetence as president. Although Hamilton denied that he was attempting to persuade Federalists to support a candidate other than Adams in the election of 1800, he made his preference for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney clear in other circumstances.
Although Republican papers universally attacked Hamilton’s pamphlet, many Federalists disliked it as well. They cautioned Hamilton against publishing it, maintaining that it would probably cause a split in the Federalist Party and virtually destroy Hamilton’s political influence. Adams didn’t even comment on Hamilton’s allegations until nine years after they were published. He said that the piece did more harm to Hamilton himself than to his intended target, John Adams.
Adams made many enemies during his political life. At the top of his villains list was Alexander Hamilton. Adams did not trust Hamilton, and he refused his appointment to commander of the military, despite the fact that Washington had favored the appointment. Also high on his list of unlikeables was Thomas Paine, primarily because of Paine’s defense of the French Revolution and the similarity of Paine’s ideas to the “ideologues” (as Adams called them) of the French Enlightenment.
Adams’s early reaction to Paine’s Common Sense was relatively favorable. It was lucid and defended the same views that Adams had defended for years. But the similarities annoyed Adams; Paine received credit for views he did not originate, since calls for American independence really went back to 1760, or even earlier. Adams was upset because he had not received proper credit, but it was not until the French Revolution that Adams’s dislike of Paine reached the boiling point. Paine was now “a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Butch Wolf.” If one takes the disasters and excesses of the French Revolution as emblematic of the age, then the eighteenth century should be called “the Age of Paine.” But in the final analysis, according to Adams, Thomas Paine was “a disgrace to the moral Character and Understanding of the Age.”
In future essays I hope to make clear why Adams attacked Paine with such vigor. Here I shall confine myself to noting that, in Common Sense, Paine called for a national American government that included a unicameral legislature. This was red meat for Adams who wrote extensively on the need for a bicameral legislature. He wrote lengthy critiques of Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Richard Price, and other famous philosophers who shared Paine’s belief that one‐house legislatures were sufficient for American states. Adams won this controversy; all American states, except Pennsylvania, adopted bicameral systems. Indeed, Adams drafted most of the original constitution for Massachusetts, and its bicameral system influenced some constitution‐makers at the 1787 convention in Philadelphia. Adams regarded this separation into two legislative branches as essential to his plan for checks and balances in the states and federal government.
In the beginning of this essay, I noted that John Adams has never been on my short list of favorite founding fathers. I did not hold him in the same esteem as Thomas Jefferson, for example, because of his support for the Alien and Sedition Acts. I also accepted the common, if false, allegation that Adams came to endorse a monarchical form of government as a result of the many years he spent in Europe. This charge was even levelled by close friends of Adams, such as Mercy Otis Warren in her great two‐volume work, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805).
Adams hit back against this charge, and he hit back hard. He claimed that Warren and other critics had not taken sufficient care to understand what he had written. After reading the major writings of Adams on this topic, I have changed my mind. I now believe that the critics were wrong and that Adams was right.
If I now hold Adams in higher esteem than I used to, this is mainly owing to one book: John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, by C. Bradley Thompson (1998). I first read this book around six months ago. I have read so many books on the founding fathers during the past five decades that I never expected a single book to dramatically change my views on an event or a person, but Thompson’s book did exactly that. If I am still puzzled by Adams and his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, I now have no doubt of his brilliance.