Foreign and Domestic Crises in the Adams Administration

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Foreign and Domestic Crises in the Adams Administration


Approaching Storm. The French government, angry over Jays Treaty, ordered the seizure of all neutral ships bound for British ports starting on 1 July 1796. On 7 December the French foreign minister refused to meet with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the new U.S. minister to France. Newly elected president John Adams, who had narrowly defeated the Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, was determined to maintain an independent foreign policy that would favor neither France nor Britain. He was also determined to follow George Washingtons example of trying to remain above party politics. In May 1797 Adams asked Congress to appoint a peace mission

to France and authorize a series of defense measures. Congress appointed peace commissioners and appropriated money for a navy and a system of harbor fortifications, but Republicans defeated proposals for enlarging the army. Then, in April 1798, Adams released diplomatic dispatches to Congress reporting how, six months earlier, three agents of French foreign minister Charles de Talleyrand, identified only as X, Y, and Z, had demanded a bribe from American peace envoys John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry before the opening of negotiations. The publication of the XYZ Papers created war hysteria, and between May and July, Congress passed legislation authorizing the new U.S. Navy to capture French vessels, quadrupling the regular army, and authorizing a provisional army of fifty thousand. To Republicans the undeclared Quasi-War with France, with its large army, taxes, and other repressive legislation, was proof that the conflict was part of a Federalist conspiracy to destroy political opposition.


In June 1798 Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and publisher of the Republican newspaper Aurora, published a conciliatory letter from Charles de Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, to American peace envoys before President Adams had seen the letter. Republicans defended Bache for educating the public about the French desire for peace, but William Cobbett, publisher of the Federalist Porcupines Gazette, condemned Bache as a traitor:

It is here proved, that the man, who for six long years, has been incessantly employed in accusing and villifying your government, and in justifying the French in all their abominable injuries and insults, is absolutely in close correspondence with the insolent and savage despots by whom those injuries and insults have been committed, and who now demand of you an enormous TRIBUTE or threaten you, in case of disobedience, with the fate of VENICE, that is, first with subjugation, and then with being swapped away like cattle to that prince of state, who will give them the most in exchange for you!

Bache was charged with libel under common law two weeks before Congress passed the Sedition Act, but he died of yellow fever before he could be tried. Many Federalists believed justice had been served.

Sources : William Cobbett, The Defection of Benjamin Bache, Porcupines Gazette, 18 June 1798;

John C. Miller, Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951).

The Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalists also believed that the United States was in danger from a conspiracy between France and the Republican Party to introduce subversive ideas into the United States. Determined to suppress democracy, which Federalists believed inevitably ended in disorder and dictatorship, the Federalist-dominated Congress passed a series of four acts limiting freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rights of foreigners. Three of the acts were aimed at foreigners, targeted in the Federalist press as the convicts, fugitives of justice, hirelings of France, and disaffected offscourings of other nations. To make it harder for foreigners to become citizens and join the Republican Party, Congress passed the Naturalization Act (18 June 1798), increasing the residency period for citizenship from five to fourteen years. The Act Concerning Aliens (25 June) allowed the president to deport any alien during war or peace judged dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, but President Adams did not use this authority. The Act Respecting Alien Enemies (6 July) allowed the president to deport or imprison enemy aliens during wartime, but it did not go into effect because the United States never declared war against France. The most controversial law was the Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes, or the Sedition Act (14 July), which imposed fines and imprisonment on both citizens and aliens convicted of writing, publishing, or speaking anything of a false, scandalous and malicious nature against the government or its officers. Under the forceful prosecution of Federalist Secretary of State Timothy Pickering the government indicted fifteen individuals, ten of whom were convicted, including several prominent Republican newspaper editors and Congressman Matthew Lyon, the Spitting Lyon of Vermont. (A few months earlier, Lyon had spit in the face of Roger Griswold, a Federalist congressman from Connecticut, which led to a brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives.) Federalists were thrilled when Ragged Mat, the Democrat was fined and imprisoned for four months for libeling President Adams, but during his imprisonment he became a national hero and was reelected to office overwhelmingly.

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. According to Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the United States government after ten years of Federalist rule had become more arbitrary, and has swallowed more of the public liberty than even that of England. In late 1798 Jefferson anonymously wrote the Kentucky Resolutions while James Madison authored the Virginia Resolutions. They presented the manifestos as respectful protests against the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts by states who professed a warm attachment to the union of the states. Their goal was not just the immediate issue of repealing the Alien and Sedition Acts but the larger issue of protecting the states from the centralizing power of the federal government. As Jefferson and Madison interpreted the Constitution, the federal government was created by a compact among the states, in which the states delegated specific powers to the federal government. Since the federal government was a creation of the states, the states had the right to judge the constitutionality of federal laws. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions declared that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and thus void and of no force. The other states did not support state nullification of unconstitutional federal laws as the rightful remedy, but the resolutions had important effects. The goal of protecting liberty from the grasp of the Federalists gave the Republicans a party platform for the presidential election of 1800. In the long term, and with more disastrous results, nullification and the states rights doctrine of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions influenced the southern states decision to secede from the Union in 1861.


In the aftermath of the Sedition Act, Tunis Wortman, a lawyer and New York Republican, defended the necessity of freedom of political inquiry:

The freedom of speech and opinion, is not only necessary to the happiness of man, considered as a moral and Intellectual Being, but indispensably requisite to the perpetuation of Civil Liberty.

it should therefore be established as an essential principle, that freedom of investigation is one of the most important rights of a people. It is true to a proverb, that ignorance is the parent of vice. Knowledge is therefore a more powerful corrective than coercion. By enlightening the understanding, you lay the foundation of positive virtue and benefit.

It cannot be denied, that the powers of government are not original, but strictly derivative; that the only fountain from whence its authority proceeds is public delegation. It must ever remain the inherent and incontrovertible right of society, to dissolve its political constitution, whenever the voice of public opinion has declared such dissolution to be essential to the general welfare. Society must, therefore, necessarily possess the unlimited right to examine and investigate. the government which attempts to coerce the progress of opinion, or to abolish the freedom of investigation into political affairs, materially violates the most essential principles of the social state.

Source : Tunis Wortman, A Treatise Concerning Political Inquiry and the Liberty of the Press (1800).

Protest, Peace, and Political Defeat. President Adams had several compelling reasons to reopen peace negotiations with France in 1799. In the fall of 1798 peace envoy Elbridge Gerry and Dr. George Logan, a private citizen from Philadelphia, returned to the United States with news that France was interested in peace. In February 1799 John Fries led a group of armed men in Pennsylvania who freed two men imprisoned for refusing to pay the direct tax on land imposed to support the enlarged army. Federal troops put down the rebellion, and Fries was convicted of treason but pardoned by the president. The Alien and Sedition Acts, the direct tax, and the use of federal soldiers to suppress the Fries Rebellion fueled Republican claims that the Federalists were determined

to extinguish liberty. In fact, the Federalists were split between moderates under President Adams and High Federalists under former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Although he retired from office in January 1795, Hamilton continued to exert influence over High Federalists in the federal government. Robert Goodloe Harper introduced Hamiltons proposal for a provisional army of fifty thousand in Congress; Secretary of War James McHenry nominated Hamilton as major general of the enlarged army; and Hamilton drafted for several cabinet members papers opposing peace negotiations. The High Federalists also expressed expectations that the new army would have to be used against domestic enemies. In contrast, Adams had always spoken of the dangers of a large standing army. Determined to obtain peace, assert control over his cabinet, and disassociate himself from Hamiltons policies, Adams dispatched a three-man peace mission to France in November 1799. On 30 September 1800 the United States and France signed an agreement ending the Quasi-War. Adams believed that his act of sending peace envoys to France was the most disinterested, the most determined and the most successful of my whole life. Unfortunately, his political independence split the Federalist Party and helped Republican vice president Thomas Jefferson become president in 1800.


Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 17831802 (New York: Macmillan, 1975);

Stephen G. Kurtz, The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 17951800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957);

John C. Miller, Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951);

Miller, The Federalist Era, 17891801 (New York: Harper Torch-books, 1963);

Paul A. Varg, Foreign Policies of the Founding Fathers (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1963).

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Foreign and Domestic Crises in the Adams Administration

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