Adams’ mistake was not, as some would have it, in angrily prosecuting his political enemies; it was, rather, in allowing others within his administration to pursue acts which went against his avowed political principles and instincts.

Tony Petersen received his M.A. in history from Fresno State, specializing in the the coming of the American Revolution and the relationship between patriots and loyalists. He has written for the online journal The Imaginative Conservative as well as the academic journal The Historian. Currently, he is a pastor and adjunct history professor in Fresno, California.

Editor’s Note

“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.

In January 1812, thanks to the badgering of Benjamin Rush, John Adams resumed his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson (under the guise of sending “a Packett containing two Pieces of Homespun”). [1] Though the two revolutionaries‐cum‐friends‐cum‐adversaries‐cum‐friends again would touch on all manner of things over 14 more years of letter writing, it took only four months for the awkward subject of their political disagreements to come up—and, naturally, it was the impetuous Adams who brought it to the fore: “Whether you or I were right Posterity must judge.” [2] Jefferson never replied how he thought posterity would judge, partly, one must imagine, thanks to Jefferson’s natural reticence, and partly thanks to Adams’ own vigorous hand: Between February and December of that year, Adams’ missives overwhelmed those from Jefferson, writing seven letters to Jefferson’s two.

In his private papers, however, Jefferson could be more blunt. While acknowledging Adams’ essential honesty and good character, Jefferson painted the second president as a man corrupted by his time spent as a diplomat abroad—“The glare of royalty and nobility, during his mission to England, had made him believe their fascination a necessary ingredient in government”—while the course of his administration was overtaken by “deceivers” within the Federalist Party who made Adams their “stalking horse” to carry out “their unbridled madness, and the terrorism with which they surrounded themselves.” [3]

For many years, it seemed “posterity” had given the edge to Mr. Jefferson. Mercy Otis Warren, in her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution , agreed with Jefferson, writing that Adams, whose “prejudices and passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment,” had become “so enamoured” with Great Britain during his stay there as a diplomat that he had “relinquished the republican system, and forgotten the principles of the American revolution.” [4] While most probably did not hold so harsh an opinion, Adams was, if not forgotten, then lumped together with other second‐​tier founders. [5] As for Jefferson, none other than Abraham Lincoln, in an 1854 speech against the Kansas‐​Nebraska Act, declared that he “was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician in our history.” [6] By 1948, Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone could plausibly place the writer of the Declaration of Independence alongside Lincoln and George Washington to form a “trinity of American immortals,” with Jefferson surpassing them both. [7]

Adams has since caught up, due in large part to the broad publication of his papers, which revealed his quick wit and a kind of George Costanza‐​esque lovable irascibility that has endeared him to many and caused a second look at his life and presidency. Some of the rehabilitation of his reputation is, in fact, a good thing—whatever his faults, he did, in the end, keep the United States out of a potentially disastrous war with France. However, Jefferson’s critique was largely correct: The course of the Adams Administration was, in many ways, nudged along by the scheming Hamiltonians in his cabinet and political party and, while it is too much to say that his political philosophy was overturned by his time spent in Europe, he was far more in favor of aristocracy than the rest of his countrymen.

John Adams was known as a fiery man whose passions often overwhelmed his good sense. Warren’s judgment was not uncommon: Jonathan Sewall, a loyalist who was perhaps Adams’ best friend before the Revolution, commented after the crisis that “Adams has a heart formed for friendship. … He is humane, generous, and open,” but that these qualities, though not “eradicated,” were “suspended” during the push for independence thanks to Adams’ “unbounded ambition”—his passions got the better of him. [8] This was a recurring criticism of his character. And yet, the single greatest reason for the failure of his presidency was not an impulsive series of rash decisions; rather, in an interesting twist, it was a passivity bordering on negligence.

Part of this was simply due to 18th‐​century custom. Congressmen, senators, and other members of the government spent many weeks and months away from the capital (in part to escape the annual summer spread of yellow fever). Candidates for president did not campaign for political office—indeed, they did not even declare their candidacies—under the assumption that one should be called into service rather than plead for it. [9] However, even by 18th‐​century standards, Adams was extreme. And this affected his presidency in a negative way.

Not that he had it easy. Immediately upon taking office, Adams had to deal with a hostile foreign power. France, America’s friend during the Revolution, changed her tune during the 1790s, refusing to receive American diplomats and announcing that American ships carrying British goods would be seized and their sailors impressed. Adams called a special session of Congress in May 1797 in response to the crisis, and decided to send special envoys to France to head off war. However, once they arrived in Paris in October, the French foreign minister refused to meet with them, instead instructing his agents—later known as X, Y, and Z—to demand bribes and an apology for a particularly bellicose speech by Adams. Once the reality of this indignity reached the American public, war fever set in. The Federalist Party in general, and Adams’ cabinet in particular, clamored for a response: an embargo on all trade and the abrogation of all treaties with France, the raising up of an army, the creation of the Navy Department, and a vast increase in expense on the navy. The so‐​called Quasi‐​War with France had begun. [10]

The Adams Administration’s most infamous response to the crisis were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Yet even here, we see in Adams a passivity and willingness to allow events to overtake him that would ultimately doom his political prospects. In order to root out any disloyalty among the French population of America, Congress passed the Alien Friends Act on June 25, 1798, giving the president the authority to kick out any foreigner he judged “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States”—basically, for any reason whatsoever. [11] The next month, on July 14, 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act to deal with a critical Republican press. Amazingly enough, the Sedition Act made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States.” [12]

Why would Adams, perhaps the most forceful advocate for independence throughout the 1770s, sign legislation that so obviously curtailed the cherished rights and liberties of the American people he helped found? Was it because of a change of heart experienced in the courts of Europe, as Jefferson and Warren charged? Hardly. Even in the throes of revolution, Adams was always a rather conservative figure. [13] He famously defended in court the British soldiers who fired upon a crowd of people in what became known as the Boston Massacre. In 1775, though he thought independence was inevitable, he defended himself and others as simply seeking traditional British liberties, saying of the charge that they sought independence, “nothing can be more wicked, or a greater slander.” [14] The last of his Discourses on Davila, written in 1791, included the rather infamous line, “hereditary succession was attended with fewer evils than frequent elections.” [15] One historian has even noted, “If the Federalists had won an enduring victory, they most probably would have built something like another England in America.” [16] Thus, it is no surprise that Adams himself supported these laws. Defending his actions to Jefferson in 1813 (with whom he hilariously tried to share the blame, due to his position as Vice President), Adams wrote, “French Spies then swarmed in our Cities and in the Country. … Was there ever a Government, which had not Authority to defend itself against Spies in its own Bosom? Spies of an Ennemy [sic] at War?” [17] As for the Sedition Act, 25 persons were arrested and 17 Republican journalists were indicted, something Adams presumably would not have allowed to happen had he not supported it. [18] This was a kind of tyranny, and Adams, in the most generous interpretation, did nothing to prevent it. And yet, his support was passive. In the aforementioned letter to Jefferson, Adams insisted that the Alien Act was not his idea and that he was not “concerned in the formation of” it. [19] This statement speaks to Adams’ view of the role of the executive branch. Rather than use his position to influence the formation of the law (as the presidency is used today) Adams saw the President as simply the one who executes the law. It was Congress’ duty to pass the laws. Adams’ duty was merely to carry them out.

None of this is to defend Adams, but to make clear his error. Adams’ mistake was not, as some would have it, in angrily prosecuting his political enemies; it was, rather, in allowing others within his administration to pursue acts which went against his avowed political principles and instincts. One would expect such subversion from the cabinet of a President lacking clear and defined political principles, who was a political neophyte without a long record of thinking through political issues; that it came from the cabinet of John Adams boggles the mind. This disorienting weakness is most evident when considering Adams’ role as a leader in the Federalist Party and his inability, until late in his presidency, to prevent Alexander Hamilton and his acolytes in the cabinet from manipulating government policy.

Some of this stems from his high‐​minded disdain of political parties (or damaging political naïveté—whichever you prefer). This was a staple of his political philosophy from the beginning of his political career. In a letter to the Boston Gazette in 1763, Adams wrote, “I would quarrel with both parties, and with every individual of each, before I would subjugate my understanding, or prostitute my tongue or pen to either.” [20] To Jefferson, he wrote that the Spirit of Party” destroyed the republics of old—a spirit that he accused Jefferson of harboring as well. [21] However, Adams’ lack of interest in the party system as it developed both hurt him politically and helped maneuver Adams into actions he may not have favored otherwise. [22]

Adams’ cabinet—which Jefferson referred to as “the reign of witches”—was entirely left over from the Washington Administration. [23] This was done on purpose, to give the appearance of a passing of the baton from George Washington to his rightful successor John Adams, but in reality it gave Alexander Hamilton—Washington’s trusted adviser, Federalist Party leader, and man behind the curtain to the members of the cabinet—outsized influence in the trajectory of Adams’ presidency. From the belligerent speechmaking, to the passage of the nativistic and liberty‐​curbing Alien and Sedition Acts, to the formation of a standing army (with Hamilton as its de facto leader), the fingerprints of Hamilton and the Ultra Federalists were all over the actions of the administration. Adams was, for much of his presidency, a hapless figure, who refused to make his administration his own until it was, politically at least, too late. Indeed, in an almost too on‐​the‐​nose example, Adams (in his frustration with what he knew was going on behind the scenes with Hamilton and his ilk) considered using the Sedition Act to imprison Ultra Federalist newspaper editor William Cobbett, who had grown critical of Adams. [24] Such an act would preserve a certain independence on Adams’ part, and would give the act at least the appearance of fairness. Alas, he never actually followed through on his threat, revealing a President too weak to confront forces he knew were leading his political career—and the future of his country—astray. In February 1799, Adams, finally realizing that his entire presidency was slipping from his grasp, decided independently to send envoys to Paris to make peace with the French and put an end to the Quasi War, and when the Hamiltonians in his cabinet balked at his order, he fired two of them. Hamilton, dismayed at Adams’ turn, wrote a 54‐​page pamphlet that excoriated Adams and proclaimed him unfit for the office of President of the United States. (Nobody did self‐​destruction quite like Alexander Hamilton.) The split of the two wings of the Federalist Party doomed Adams’ chances in the election of 1800 and all but ensured a Jeffersonian victory. [25] Adams left office embittered, convinced he was the one virtuous man between the men devoted to the “spirit of party” on either side of him, blind to the role his passivity played in his political demise.

The Alien and Sedition Acts expired in 1800 and 1801, and the Federalist Party slowly dwindled until it ceased to exist, but Adams’ legacy lived on in the third branch of the U.S. government: the Judiciary. Though he lost the election of 1800, Adams remained in office until March 1801, when Jefferson was inaugurated, and that was ample time for the Federalists to leave their mark. In February, the Federalist‐​dominated Congress, urged on by Adams himself, passed a new Judiciary Act, increasing the number of federal court circuits to six instead of three, adding 16 new judgeships. (The act also reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, meaning that two justices would have to retire before Jefferson could even nominate one.) Adams wasted no time submitting his nominations for these new positions, the vast majority of whom were loyal Federalists. Even on March 3, inauguration eve, Adams still signed the commissions for three judges for the District of Columbia. Because these commissions were signed by Adams so close to Jefferson’s inauguration, the new appointees were labelled “midnight judges.” [26]

The incoming Republicans were incensed at what they considered to be a last‐​minute power grab. They painted a picture of John Adams furiously signing commissions by candlelight just before he was forced to vacate the White House. While the scene was not nearly so dramatic, the Federalist reform of the judiciary did strike many as unseemly. More lasting, however, was something that happened a bit earlier, in January 1801: the appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The appointment of Marshall was one of Adams’ most consequential decisions. Until Marshall, the Court was seen as, in Hamilton’s words, the “least dangerous” branch of government. Marshall, because he sought unanimity on the bench, helped steer a more moderate Federalist course for the Supreme Court, which helped it gain legitimacy with the American people. [27] Most notable, however, was his opinion in the Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, which, among other things, exercised the Court’s right to what became known as judicial review, that the Supreme Court can review the constitutionality of actions by the states and executive and legislative branches. As Marshall put it in his opinion, “a law repugnant to the constitution is void; and that courts … are bound by that instrument.” [28] While in many instances the Court has used this conspicuous power to enhance liberty, the critique of those like Madison that the judgment of constitutionality rests more in the legislative and executive branches rather than the judicial branch, is a powerful one. Madison himself would likely be mortified to see the power of the Supreme Court at work today. [29] Adams’ appointment of Marshall, while certainly not a bad one, did have many unforeseen negative consequences—and make no mistake, the fact that presidential elections hinge on Supreme Court nominations is a negative consequence.

Adams certainly deserves credit for committing himself to negotiations in France, however slowly he got around to it. He sacrificed his political standing for the good of the country, pushing for peace when a call for war may have ensured reelection. That in itself is a rarity in American presidential history. However, much of the rest of his time in office was a failure. He was a weak and indifferent leader, allowing schemers within his cabinet and party to run around him to further policies supported by a much stronger political leader, Alexander Hamilton. His weakness led him to push the country to the brink of war, at a time when it could scarcely afford one, and support the dangerous call for a standing army as well as the odious Alien and Sedition Acts. That he suffered for his courageous stand in 1799 is perhaps more emblematic of his political missteps than his bravery.

Posterity has judged Mr. Adams. He is the founder you would want to have a beer with (though the competition was hardly fierce). His independence, in our hyper‐​partisan era, strikes many as quite attractive, however politically unwise it may have been. His intellectual contributions to the formation of our government and political system are massive. His willingness to buck convention and risk unpopularity will always be an attractive character trait in our country that so loves the swashbuckling gunslinger. However, as for his presidency, posterity’s judgment has been rendered. Mr. Jefferson was right.

[1] John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1812, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams‐​Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 290.

[2] JA to TJ, May 1, 1812, in Cappon, ed., The Adams‐​Jefferson Letters, 301.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, “The Anas,” in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: Random House, 1993), 117–118.

[4] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Vol. 3 , (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1805), 392.

[5] Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), 215.

[6] Quote found in Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 85.

[7] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 1: Jefferson the Virginian, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), vii‐​viii.

[8] Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Vol. 1 (Boston: MA: Little and Brown, 1850–56), 57.

[9] John Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 85.

[10] See Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 239–247.

[11] A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875, 5th Congress, 2nd Session , 570–571.

[12] Ibid, 596 . Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 808–810. Was the Sedition Act unconstitutional? It would almost certainly be considered so today, but not in 1798. The Sedition Act merely codified into federal law what was considered common law, which was that the right to freedom of speech meant that speech could not be censored by the government, but that speech critical of the state could be punished after the fact. Interestingly enough, the Sedition Act actually liberalized the common law by making the veracity of one’s speech something that could be used in one’s defense, which was not previously the case. That being said, arguable constitutionality does not a good law make, and the Sedition Act was a bad one.

[13] Russell Kirk, in his survey of the conservative tradition in England and the United States, considered Adams the founder of true conservatism in America (see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001), 71).

[14] George W. Carey, ed., The Political Writings of John Adams, (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000), 53.

[15] Haraszti, Zoltán. “The 32nd Discourse on Davila.” The William and Mary Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1954): 89–92.

[16] John M. Murrin, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 276.

[17] JA to TJ, June 14, 1813, in Cappon, ed., The Adams‐​Jefferson Letters, 329.

[18] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 260–261.

[19] JA to TJ, June 14, 1813, in Cappon, ed., The Adams‐​Jefferson Letters, 329.

[20] Boston Gazette, August 29, 1763, in Robert J. Taylor, ed., Papers of John Adams, vol. 1, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1977), 77.

[21] JA to TJ, December 25, 1813, in Cappon, ed., The Adams‐​Jefferson Letters, 412; David McCullough, John Adams, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 442.

[22] Sean Wilentz, “The Problem with High‐​Minded Politics,” The Atlantic.

[23] Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, June 4, 1798, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 30, 1 January 1798 – 31 January 1799, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003, pp. 387–390.]

[24] Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson, 122.

[25] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 272–275.

[26] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 418–419; Page Smith, John Adams: Vol. 2, 1784–1826, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962), 1064–1065.

[27] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 431–438.

[28] David M. O’Brien, Constitutional Law and Politics, Volume One: Struggles for Power and Government Accountability, Seventh Edition, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 45–55.

[29] John Samples, ed., James Madison and the Future of Limited Government, (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2002), 52–54.