John Adams 2 Essay, Research Paper
John Adams, who became the second president of the United States, hasbeen accused by some historians of being the closest thing America everhad to a dictator or monarch (Onuf, 1993). Such strong accusationsshould be examined in the context of the era in which Mr. Adams livedand served. A closer examination of the historical events occurringduring his vice presidency and his term as president, strongly suggeststhat Adams was not, in fact, a dictator. Indeed, except for his lack ofcharisma and political charm, Adams had a very successful politicalcareer before joining the new national government. He was, moreover,highly sought after as a public servant during the early formation ofthe new federal power (Ferling, 1992). Adams was a well educated, seasoned patriot, and experienceddiplomat. He was the runner-up in the election in which GeorgeWashington was selected the first United States President. According tothe electoral-college system of that time, the second candidate with themost electoral votes became the Vice President (Smelser & Gundersen,1975). As president, Washington appointed, among others, two influentialpolitical leaders to his original cabinet; Thomas Jefferson andAlexander Hamilton. Jefferson, a veteran politician became the Secretaryof State and Hamiliton, a young, outspoken New Yorker lawyer, became theSecretary of the Treasury (Ferling, 1992). Jefferson, like Adams, hadalso signed the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, however, was theonly cabinet member relatively unknown to Adams (Ferling, 1992). It wasHamilton, nonetheless, who excelled during this new administration byinitiating numerous, innovative, and often controversial programs, manyof which were quite successful. Adams and Hamilton were bothFederalists. Unlike Hamiliton, Adams was more moderate (Smelser &Gundersen, 1975). During this first administration, Adams and Hamiltonquarreled (Washington Retires, 1995), and Adams contemptuously beganreferring to Hamilton as “his puppyhood” (DeCarolis, 1995). This createda 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 thecabinet (Allison, 1966). Jefferson did finally, indeed, resign from thecabinet. The Federalists “party,” of which Hamiliton was the leader(DeCarolis, 1995) was greatly divided and even violent, at times, underhis leadership (Allison, 1966). This is significant in assessingHamilton’s and others’ arguments of Adams being a dictator after hispresidential 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, quiteintelligent and apparently had a secure self-esteem, being quite willingthe challenge tradition (Wood, 1992). Adams was an intenselyself-introspective man, though confident (Calhoon, 1976). By 1795, conflict was raging with France. Washington made itclear that he was not returning to office. This, for the first time,provided the impulse for the two differing political philosophies toalign into separate parties, even though the Federalists neverconsidered themselves to be a party (Wood, 1992). Hamilton tried toby-pass Adams by nominating Carolinian Thomas Pickney (Ferling, 1992). He had instigated a similar conspiracy to keep Adams from defeatingWashington in the second national election, as Adams had discovered(DeCarolis, 1995). In spite of the divided Federalists, Adams defeatedThomas Jefferson by three electoral votes. He became the secondpresident and Jefferson, having the second largest number of votes,became vice-president. This event, too, is significant because for thefirst time in office here were two men of totally different philosophiesof government, attempting to run the country together. Adams’ presidencywas stressful from the moment of his inauguration. In his address, hesought to make it clear that he was not a monarchist (Allison, 1966). France had decreed to seize American ships. The country wasdivided over whether to be pro-British (as was Hamilton) or pro-France(as was Jefferson). Hamiliton eventually resigned the position ofinspector general, but continued to send Adams unsolicitedrecommendations regarding foreign policy issues (DeCarolis, 1995). Adamsresented Hamilton’s meddling in his executive prerogatives. Heeventually expelled two other Hamiltonian cabinet members. The height ofAdam’s presidency and popularity came primarily from the victories thenavy had over French vessels, and the exposure of the scandal called theXYZ Affair, in which Adams was applauded for revealing the dishonestyand corruption of the French officials, and French insistence ondemanding bribes. This period, however, was very unstable and uncertain, both athome and abroad. Hamilton made bitter attacks on Adams’ policies (Elser,1993). The fiscal situation was desolate. The national debt and thethreat of what appeared to be inescapable war caused great stress,
opposition, and even occasional violence (Onuf, 1993). Matters onlybecame worse. The Federalist Congress created a provisional army which,though needed, added to the financial strain. Congress then passedthree major oppressive measures all within a two-week period: the AlienAct, the Naturalization Act, and the Sedition Acts, all of which causedAdam’s popularity to decrease and his political direction to bequestioned (Ferling, 1992). The army, needed because of the Frenchconflict, was very expensive to maintain. The Alien Act permitted thepresident to deport those who are considered a threat to the government. Many immigrants did return to Europe because of fear. The NaturalizationAct placed new stipulations on becoming a citizen and required fourteenyears of residency. The last, and most offensive act, the Sedition Act,was purely a censorship tactic, which did result in severalanti-federalists (Republicans) being indicted for printing criticismsagainst the government (Ferling, 1992). Adams never recommended any suchmeasures, but he did sign the bill (Allison, 1966). This law prohibitedattacks on the government, oral or written, and upon arrest thedefendant had to prove his innocence (Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). Due tothese congressional measures, citizens, including Jefferson, began tofear that the provisional army would not just fight France, but also usetheir military strength to attack protesting Americans, hence beginninga civil war. That Sedition Act had no immediate impact may be evidencethat the Federalists were acting out of paranoia in their immediatefrenzy 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, increasedtensions that lead some to accuse the second president of being adictator. Adams was proactive, but he was not a dictator. According toFerling, “President Adams sought to control events rather than to becontrolled” (1992). At the approach of the 1800 election, Jefferson andBurr entered the presidential race against Adams. This eventuallyresulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, upon which the Congresschose Jefferson. Consequently, the election was not a landslide, nor didAdams 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 thepeople were quite disunited, or undecided, about which politicaldirection the country should go. Second, Adams received almost as manyvotes as his opponents, suggest that he may not have made such a poorpolitical performance, as has been suggested. In this writer’s opinion, the Federalistic Congress probably didover-react, as well as obscure their democratic aims. It was, however,these described events, and the fact of Adams’ lack of politicalcharisma, that proved unproductive in building support and popularity inthe latter part of his term. It should also be pointed out that thoughthe Sedition Act was anti-democratic in practice, Thomas Jefferson, whodefeated Adams, used it against the Federalists in 1803 (People v. Croswell) and indicted a publisher (DeCarolis, 1995). Jefferson was notaccused of being a dictator for such non-democratic actions. Adams wasneither dictatorial in his conduct, or imperial in his policies. Heappeared to have had the interest of the common people at heart. Theconflict with France, the high taxes needed to keep the army and navyoperating, and the poor legislative faux pas Congress made during periodtime, all cast a negative reflection on President Adams. This providedhis opponents, like Hamilton, Burr, and even Jefferson, with politicalleverage to use against him, just as politicians and political partiesdo in our own modern era. If Adams were a dictator, then one must askwould the citizens elect his son to be the future president, twenty-fouryears later? Or, how his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, becameAmerica’s minister to London. Apparently the citizenry rememberedPresident Adams in a positive, democratic way, and not as a dictator.
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