October 11, 2023

Charting His Own Course

It was clear from the inauguration that John Adams was far more interested in foreign affairs than domestic policy.

After a contested and controversial campaign that was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives for a decision, John Adams, former vice president and Federalist, was declared the president of the United States. However, it was a victory that was overshadowed by the fact that his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, had been elected as vice president. While the two patriots had earlier joined forces to stage the rebellion against Great Britain, their opinions about the most appropriate governmental policies for the new republic had forced them to opposite sides of the political division. It was going to be a rough ride…

How would John Adams choose to lead?

It was clear from the inauguration that Adams was far more interested in foreign affairs than domestic policy. After all, he had decades of experience as a diplomat representing the revolutionary government during the war and during his vice presidency. And he certainly had his opinions about the dangers posed by foreign powers — and the French-leaning Democratic-Republican party and its leader.

Adams had been elected in 1796 and the French Revolution was raging, impacting his foreign policy decisions and shaping his domestic mandates.

What had begun as a demand from the third estate, representing approximately 95% of the French people, for a more equitable power in the Estates General (think legislative body) through the Tennis Court Oath had in a period of seven years degenerated into a Reign of Terror that had seen thousands of French aristocrats and others, including King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antionette, executed on the guillotine. While we today look at the French Revolution as a fight for freedom similar to our own struggle for independence, the reality was quite different at the time. Both proved that the will of the people will be heard, but the courses chosen to manifest that “will” could not be more different.

In 1798, President Adams pushed legislation through the Federalists-dominated Congress that would allow him to set policy designed to undermine the influence of the Democratic-Republic party and back the United States away from any alliance or support of its former Revolutionary War ally, France. The four pieces of legislation, jointly known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, created a domestic uproar while impacting the U.S. and French diplomatic relationship.

Three of the laws were designed to deal with immigration.

Since the majority of new immigrant citizens appeared to support the Democratic-Republican party, posing a threat to the solidarity of the Federalist control, Adams took a firm stand on immigration. The controversial Naturalization Act altered the residency period required for citizenship from five to 14 years, while the less controversial Alien Act, passed with bipartisan support, allowed the detention of enemy aliens during war time without trial or counsel. The third law, the Alien Enemies Act, authorized the president to deport aliens he “deemed dangerous to national security.” The final act created a storm of protest since it allowed “subversive speech” to be punished with fines and imprisonment. Opponents pointed to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution specifically allowing free speech, both oral and written. As further support for the “unconstitutional” nature of the Sedition Act, opponents noted that all 15 indictments under the Sedition Act — and 10 convictions — targeted outspoken Democratic-Republicans.

Coupled with increasingly high taxes enacted by the Federalist Congress, a revolt was inevitable, and it would occur in eastern Pennsylvania, led by farmers for whom the taxes were prohibitive. They feared that the monies raised would be used to support a “standing army” that the Federalist president could use against opposition voices; and while there was no evidence Adams planned such an action, their perceptions became their realities. Fries’s Rebellion led to multiple arrests, with several farmers sentenced to death for treason. (Adams would pardon each just before the election of 1800, but…)

The pot was beginning to boil.

In response to Adams’s perceived heavy hand on personal liberties, Jefferson and Madison drafted a set of resolutions that would become known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves. They argued, without affixing their names to the documents, that the Constitution created a compact between the states but that the people, through their state legislatures, had the right and the authority to judge the validity of federal actions. Subsequently, the resolves declared the Alien and Sedition Acts to be “null and void.” (Do you see any foreshadowing of events that would occur 60 years later?) The Kentucky and Virginia Resolves rallied the Democratic-Republican loyal supporters, and Adams would find their opposition tiresome.

While domestic policies threatened the unity of the republic, Adams also faced the continuing storms created by the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the alliance of nations formed in opposition to the French threat of European dominance. How would the president respond? Would Adams continue Washington’s policy of neutrality? What about trade policies? Can a neutral nation engage in trade with nations now at war?

We’ll see…

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