Guest Essayist: Kevin Gutzman


John Adams’ narrow victory over Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1796 foreshadowed the contentious political environment of Adams’ sole term. Soon enough, the Republican opposition went into full battle mode, and Adams’ refusal to respond by playing party chieftain goes a long way toward explaining his narrow loss in 1800.

As the 1796 returns slowly came in, Jefferson confided to his close political ally James Madison that he did not yearn to be president. Since Adams had always been his political senior, Jefferson would be happy in case of an Electoral College tie to concede victory to him. Madison certainly did not pass this message along to their political coadjutors.

The Constitution did not envision the development of political parties. Thus, in those pre-12th Amendment days, the top vote-getter in the Electoral College became president, and the runner-up ascended to the second chair. Although both the Federalists and the Republicans advanced vice presidential candidates, Adams and Jefferson outpolled them both. Adams would be president, then, and Jefferson would be vice president.

Early in Adams’ administration, he approached Jefferson about cooperating in running the Executive Branch. The idea was for James Madison to be given a key diplomatic appointment by the new president, evidently with an eye toward Jefferson’s having input into administration policymaking—and probably also with the goal of making it impossible for Madison to continue to coordinate the Republican opposition. Jefferson essentially sloughed the idea off, and Adams abandoned his bipartisanship gambit. Insofar as policy was concerned, Jefferson would be an opposition vice president.

Adams at this point did not recognize another significant problem which would bedevil his administration. The first president to succeed another, he did not have our idea that each chief magistrate should have his own Cabinet. Rather, he kept on George Washington’s top appointees. Unbeknownst to Adams, several of them were loyal to Federalist generalissimo Alexander Hamilton, the former treasury secretary and original organizer of the Federalist Party. Eventually, learning that they were running issues discussed in the Cabinet by Hamilton before telling Adams their conclusions, Adams fired them.

Like Washington’s, Adams’ tenure must be understood against the backdrop of the massive wars associated with the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. In the late 1790s, French anger toward America over a neutrality policy at least arguably inconsistent with the United States’ obligations under the French treaty of 1778 led to escalating military confrontation at sea.

Adams sent his sharp congressional ally, Jefferson’s cousin John Marshall, along with a couple of others to reach a modus vivendi with the French government. Foreign Minister Talleyrand, however, did not meet with them, instead sending some underlings (now infamous as “X, Y, and Z”) to demand a pecuniary payment first. Supposedly, one of the Americans replied, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!” and the negotiation broke up before it had begun. When the news hit the American papers, the effect was electric.

Given this political gift, Federalists overreacted. Congress passed and Adams signed into law an immigration reform bill and the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. The former extended to fourteen years—still the longest in American history—the period during which an immigrant must live in the United States before obtaining citizenship. Noticing that Francophone and Irish immigrants tended overwhelmingly to become Republicans, the Federalist leadership had decided to keep them from voting.

More controversial, however, were the Alien & Sedition Acts. One of them, the Alien Friends Act, drew Republicans’ ire by giving the president power both to identify dangerous aliens and to expel them. Here, the opposition insisted, were violations of the First Amendment (for how would the president find someone “dangerous” without relying on his speech, publications, or associations?) and of the principle of separation of powers (for why was the president to judge?). Far more loathsome to them, however, was the Sedition Act. Signed by President Adams on Bastille Day, July 14, probably in mockery of Republican love of revolutionary France, this law made it a crime to say anything that tended to bring the Federal Government into ill repute.

Vice President Jefferson wrote to ex-congressman Madison that here the Federalists made clear their intention to ignore the Constitution altogether. He said this law flew in the teeth of a constitutional amendment putting the press beyond the power of Congress to regulate. Meeting in secret, the Virginia Republican high command drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. What was unknown to the public was that the Virginia Resolutions were drafted by Madison, the Kentucky Resolutions by Jefferson. Those states’ legislatures went on record as insisting on the principles they stated.

Since the Federal Government had been created by the states, the Resolutions said, and since it had been delegated only certain enumerated powers, the states “have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose” (in Virginia’s words) whenever the Federal Government adopted legislation that was both unconstitutional and dangerous. In a federal—rather than national—system, the component parts—the states—remained responsible for proper functioning of the government they had created. The Alien & Sedition Acts, threats to republican elections, were such unconstitutional and dangerous acts.

Twenty-five cases were brought under the Sedition Act. Everyone who went to trial was convicted, and several suffered fines and imprisonment. Those convicted included a Vermont congressman and numerous leading Republican journalists.

Virginia and Kentucky sent these resolutions to the other state legislatures in hopes that they would join in them. Instead, several states objected. Massachusetts, for example, said that it liked the Sedition Act, wished it had been adopted sooner, and hoped to see more prosecutions. Kentucky replied to the criticisms in 1799 with resolutions, outlined by Jefferson, saying that it would be among the last states to secede. Far from moderate, this was the first official threat of such secession.

Virginia’s legislature, for its part, adopted a report written by Madison (who came out of political retirement to sponsor it) which said that Massachusetts and other critical states were wrong to deny that the states had created the Federal Government. The word “state,” he said, had more than one signification: it could refer to the state’s territory, it could refer to its government, or it could refer to its sovereign people. Article VII of the Constitution had used the word “state” in this last sense, and so did the Republicans when they insisted the states had created the Federal Government.

Meanwhile, Adams threw a thunderbolt among his own Federalist Party. While Hamiltonians wanted a military buildup in preparation for a war with France, the president sent negotiators to work out a peace. When Hamilton’s allies in his Cabinet protested, he told them they were fired.

Hamilton, incensed, circulated a “private” pamphlet explaining at great length why he held Adams unfit to be reelected. Predictably, the pamphlet made its way into the papers. Republicans privately expressed great glee at the spectacle at their opponents’ leading hero (Washington having died in 1799) attacking their president.

Elections to the New York legislature further damaged Adams’ prospects. In New York City, Aaron Burr engineered a swing from the Federalist into the Republican column, turning the legislature pro-Jefferson. In state legislatures, politicians in several states debated changing the ways that Electoral College electors from each state were allocated. Hamilton wrote to fellow Federalist Governor John Jay saying that New York should change its laws to give the outgoing Federalist rather than the incoming Republican legislature the task of casting New York’s votes. Jay, prim and proper to the death, wrote on Hamilton’s letter that it recommended a party measure it would not become him to adopt.

In Virginia, on the other hand, Madison had no such scruples. From his new perch in the House of Delegates, he moved swiftly to revise Virginia law. Where formerly the Old Dominion’s presidential electors had been assigned on a district basis, now they would be elected statewide; the few islands of concentrated Federalist support would no longer be able to divert one or two Virginian electors to John Adams.

With New York now in the “R” column and Virginia solidly Jeffersonian, Republicans took control of the Executive Branch in the 1800 election, beating the Federalists by three votes. His running mate Burr tied Jefferson in the Electoral College, however, which meant it took three dozen House ballots to make the Master of Monticello president. Jefferson, Madison, and their fellows espied both Burr’s perfidy and Federalist machinations in these developments. So too did they find Adams’ post-election decision to sign the Judiciary Act of 1801, which opened up several new federal judgeships for him to fill in his final days as president, problematic. Jefferson took it as a personal and philosophical affront: he and his party had won control of the government, and Federalists should not be ensconcing his enemies in judicial posts to try to thwart him.

There was no bipartisan mood in Washington, D.C., then, when Jefferson headed to his March 4, 1801 inauguration. He memorably said in his First Inaugural Address there would be no punishments of the defeated party’s leaders (as there had been in republican France). John Adams did not hear this vow, however: he rose early and headed back to Massachusetts without a “fare thee well.” The transfer of power was non-violent, but the anger and hurt feelings roused by the politics of John Adams’ administration kept former friends Jefferson and Adams estranged for many more years.

Kevin R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D. is Professor and Chairman, Department of History, Western Connecticut State University, a faculty member at, and Author of James Madison and the Making of America.

2 replies
  1. Constitutional believer
    Constitutional believer says:

    Wow what an Essay! It is interesting to read how political posturing was not a 21st century invention! Although our politicians throw insults at eachother for standing in the way to ‘progress’ our country was built on the effort to frustrate action taken by political opponents. America was four did as a battle ground of ideologies!

  2. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    A great essay. I do not think John Adams has been given the position he deserves amongst the founding fathers. He wrote the Massachusetts’ constitution, which included separation of powers. He, perhaps more than any founding father, studied ancient law and governments and knew how and why Republics worked and failed.

    I think he is relegated to 2nd fiddle because 1) he was ambassador to France/Netherlands during the war, 2) unreserved, outspoken, passionate speeches and debates, 3) his political blunders.

    We tend to ascribe honor to those who see “action” more than those who serve to support those who see action. The Negotiations with France for military support was crucial, but overshadowed by B. Franklin. We needed Dutch money, but very exciting.

    He was renowned or even infamous for his fiery speeches. His proposed title for Washington was easily portrayed as being pro monarchy, which he definitely was not. To me Adam’s exposed his thinking in public forums whereas Jefferson and Madison did more so in the more private, better controlled written forum. Jefferson also has the benefit of writing in philosophical terms whereas Adams verbally addressed here and now. These are more non contributors to his fame than detractors.

    The Alien and Sedition Acts were blunders and legitimate negatives. My reading of Adams indicated he was very conflicted over signing them but acquiesced to his cabinet’s [Hamilton’s] wishes. My understanding is he later realized the mistake and regretted doing so.

    When I read the essay’s title I thought, “what a shame Adams did not get a 2nd chance to improve his record.” But then, “No, it was better that we had the opportunity for many of our founding fathers to be President while there was time. If all had served 2 terms who wouldn’t have served?” The window was quickly closing.

    I am thankful we have has peaceful transitions. Also that Adams/Jefferson reconciled. San Jose and others – please take notice.



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