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John Adams

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The only great flaw in Adams as Vice-President was his strange jealousy of Washington,--a jealousy hardly to be credited were it not for the uniform testimony of historians. But then in public estimation he stood second only to the "Father of his Country." He stood even higher than Hamilton, between whom and himself there were unpleasant relations. Indeed, Adams's dislike of both Hamilton and Jefferson was to some extent justified by unmistakable evidences of enmity on their part. The rivalries and jealousies among the great leaders of the revolutionary period are a blot on our history. But patriots and heroes as those men were, they were all human; and Adams was peculiarly so. By universal consent he is conceded to have been a prime factor in the success of the Revolution. He held back Congress when reconciliation was in the air; he committed the whole country to the support of New England, and gave to the war its indispensable condition of success,--the leadership of Washington; he was called by Jefferson "the Colossus of debate in carrying the Declaration of Independence" and cutting loose from England; he was wise and strong and indefatigable in governmental construction, as well as in maintaining the armies in the field; he accomplished vast labors affecting both the domestic and foreign relations of the country, and, despite his unpleasant personal qualities of conceit and irritability, his praise was in every mouth. He could well afford to recognize the full worth of every one of his co-laborers. But he did not. Magnanimity was certainly not his most prominent trait.

The duties of a vice-president hardly allow scope for great abilities. The office is only a stepping-stone. There was little opportunity to engage in the debates which agitated the country. The duties of judicially presiding over the Senate are not congenial to a man of the hot temper and ambition of Adams; and when party lines were drawn between the Federalists and Republicans he earnestly espoused the principles of the former. He was in no sense a democrat except in his recognition of popular political rights. He believed in the rule of character, as indicated by intellect and property. He had no great sympathy with the people in their aspirations, although springing from the people himself,--the son of a moderate farmer, no more distinguished than ordinary farmers. He was the first one of his family to reach eminence or wealth. The accusation against him of wishing to introduce a king, lords, and commons was most unjust; but he was at heart an aristocrat, as much as were Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. And the more his character was scrutinized after he had won distinction, the less popular he was. His brightest days were when he was inspiring his countrymen by his eloquence to achieve their independence.

In office Adams did not pre-eminently shine, notwithstanding his executive ability and business habits. It is true, the equal division of the Senate on some very important measures, such as the power of the President to remove from office without the consent of the Senate, the monetary policy proposed by Hamilton, and some others, gave him the opportunity by his casting vote to sustain the administration, and thus decide great principles with advantage to the country. And his eight years of comparative quiet in that position were happy and restful ones. But Adams loved praise, flattery, and social position. He was easily piqued, and quickly showed it. He did not pass for what he was worth, since he was apt to show his worst side first, without tact and without policy. But no one ever doubted his devotion to the country any more than his abilities. Moreover, he was too fond of titles, and the trappings of office and the insignia of rank, to be a favorite with plain people,--not from personal vanity, great as that was in him, but from his notions of the dignities of high office, such as he had seen abroad. Hence he recommended to Washington the etiquette of a court, and kept it up himself when he became president. Against this must be placed his fondness for leaving the capital and running off to make little visits to his farm at Quincy, Massachusetts, where he was always happiest.

I dwell briefly on his career as Vice-President because he had in it so little to do. Nor was his presidency marked by great events, when, upon the completion of Washington's second term, and the refusal of that great man to enter upon a third, Adams was elevated in 1797 to the highest position. The country had settled down to its normal pursuits. There were few movements to arrest the attention of historians.

The most important event of the time was, doubtless, the formation of the two great political parties which divided the nation, one led by Hamilton and the other by Jefferson. They were the natural development of the discussion on adopting the Federal Constitution. The Federalists, composed chiefly of the professional classes, the men of wealth and of social position, and the old officers of the army, wanted a strong central government, protection to infant manufactures, banks and tariffs,--in short, whatever would contribute to the ascendency of intellect and property; the Republicans, largely made up of small farmers, mechanics, and laboring people, desired the extension of the right of suffrage, the prosperity of agriculturists, and State ascendency, and were fearful of the encroachments of the general government upon the reserved rights of the States and the people at large.

But the leaders of this "people's party," men like the Clintons of the State of New York, were sometimes as aristocratic in their social life as the leaders of the Federalists. During the Revolutionary War the only parties were those who aimed at national independence, and the Royalists, or Tories, who did not wish to sever their connection with the mother-country; but these Tories had no political influence when the government was established under Washington. During his first term of office there was ostensibly but one party. It was not until his second term that there were marked divisions. Then public opinion was divided between those who followed Hamilton, Jay, and Adams, and those who looked up to Jefferson, and perhaps Madison, as leaders in the lines to be pursued by the general government in reference to banks, internal improvements, commercial tariffs, the extension of the suffrage, the army and navy, and other subjects.

The quarrels and animosities between these two parties in that early day have never been exceeded in bitterness. Ministers preached political sermons; the newspapers indulged in unrestricted abuse of public men. The air was full of political slanders, lies, and misrepresentations. Family ties were sundered, and old friendships were broken. The Federalists were distrustful of the French Revolution, and, finally, hostile to it, while the Republican-Democrats were its violent advocates. In New York nearly every Episcopalian was a Federalist, and in Massachusetts and Connecticut nearly every Congregational minister. Freethinkers in religion were generally Democrats, as the party gradually came to be called. Farmers were pretty evenly divided; but their "hired hands" were Democrats, and so were most immigrants.

Whatever the difference of opinion among the contending parties, however, they were sincere and earnest, and equally patriotic. The people selected for office those whom they deemed most capable, or those who would be most useful to the parties representing their political views. It never occurred to the people of either party to vote with the view of advancing their own selfish and private interests. If it was proposed to erect a public building, or dig a canal, or construct an aqueduct, they would vote for or against it according to their notions of public utility. They never dreamed of the spoils of jobbery. In other words, the contractors and "bosses" did not say to the people, "If you will vote for me as the superintendent of this public improvement, I will employ you on the works, whether you are industrious and capable, or idle and worthless." There were then no Tammany Hall politicians or Philadelphia Republican ringsters. The spoils system was unknown. That is an invention of later times. Politicians did not seek office with a view of getting rich. Both Federalists and Democrats sought office to secure either the ascendency of their party or what they deemed the welfare of the country.

As the Democratic leaders made appeals to a larger constituency, consisting of the laboring classes, than the Federalists did, they gradually gained the ascendency. Moreover, they were more united. The Federal leaders quarrelled among themselves. Adams and Hamilton were accused of breaking up their party. Jefferson adhered to his early principles, and looked upon the advance of democratic power as the logical result of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He had unlimited faith in the instincts and aspirations of the people, and in their ability to rule themselves, while Adams thought that the masses were not able to select their wisest and greatest men for rulers. The latter would therefore restrict the suffrage to men of property and education, while Jefferson would give it to every citizen, whether poor or rich, learned or ignorant.

With such conflicting views between these great undoubted patriots and statesmen, there were increasing alienations, ripening into bitter hostilities. If Adams was the more profound statesman, according to old-fashioned ideas, basing government on the lessons of experience and history, Jefferson was the more astute and far-reaching politician, foreseeing the increasing ascendency of democratic principles. One would suppose that Adams, born on a New England farm, and surrounded with Puritan influences, would have had more sympathy with the people than Jefferson, who was born on a Virginia plantation, and accustomed to those social inequalities which slavery produces. But it seems that as he advanced in years, in experience, and in honors, Adams became more and more imbued with aristocratic ideas,--like Burke, whose early career was marked for liberal and progressive views, but who became finally the most conservative of English statesmen, and recoiled from the logical sequence of the principles he originally advocated with such transcendent eloquence and ability. And Adams, when he became president, after rendering services to his country second only to those of Washington, became saddened and embittered; and even as Burke raved over the French Revolution, so did Adams grow morose in view of the triumphs of the Democracy and the hopeless defeat of his party, which was destined never again to rally except under another name, and then only for a brief period. There was little of historic interest connected with the administration of John Adams as President of the United States. He held his exalted office only for one term, while his rivals were re-elected during the twenty-four succeeding years of our national history,--all disciples and friends of Jefferson, who followed out the policy he had inaugurated. In general, Adams pursued the foreign policy of Washington, which was that of peace and non-interference. In domestic administration he made only ten removals from office, and kept up the ceremonies which were then deemed essential to the dignity of president.

The interest in his administration centred in the foreign relations of the government. It need not be added that he sympathized with Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution,"--that immortal document which for rhetoric and passion has never been surpassed, and also for the brilliancy with which reverence for established institutions is upheld, and the disgust, hatred, and scorn uttered for the excesses which marked the godless revolutionists of the age. It is singular that so fair-minded a biographer as Parton could see nothing but rant and nonsense in the most philosophical political essay ever penned by man. It only shows that a partisan cannot be an historian any more than can a laborious collector of details, like Freeman, accurate as he may be. Adams, like Burke, abhorred the violence of those political demagogues who massacred their king and turned their country into a vile shambles of blood and crime; he equally detested the military despotism which succeeded under Napoleon Bonaparte; and the Federalists generally agreed with him,--even the farmers of New England, whose religious instincts and love of rational liberty were equally shocked.

Affairs between France and the United States became then matters of paramount importance. Adams, as minister to Paris, had perceived the selfish designs of the Count de Vergennes, and saw that his object in rendering aid to the new republic had been but to cripple England. And the hollowness of French generosity was further seen when the government of Napoleon looked with utter contempt on the United States, whose poverty and feebleness provoked to spoliations as hard to bear as those restrictions which England imposed on American commerce. It was the object of Adams, in whose hands, as the highest executive officer, the work of negotiation was placed, to remove the sources of national grievances, and at the same time to maintain friendly relations with the offending parties. And here he showed a degree of vigor and wisdom which cannot be too highly commended.

The President was patient, reasonable, and patriotic. He curbed his hot temper, and moderated his just wrath. He averted a war, and gained all the diplomatic advantages that were possible. He selected for envoys both Federalists and Democrats,--the ablest men of the nation. When Hamilton and Jefferson declined diplomatic missions in order to further their ambitious ends at home, who of the statesmen remaining were superior to Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry? How noble their disdain and lofty their independence when Talleyrand sought from them a bribe of millions to secure his influence with the First Consul! "Millions for defence, not a cent for tribute," are immortal words. And when negotiations failed, and there seemed to be no alternative but war,--and that with the incarnate genius of war, Napoleon,--Adams, pacific as was his policy, set about most promptly to meet the exigency, and recommended the construction of a navy, and the mustering of an army of sixteen thousand men, and even induced Washington to take the chief command once more in defence of American institutions. Although at first demurring to Washington's request, he finally appointed Hamilton, his greatest political rival, to be the second general in command,--a man who was eager for war, and who hoped, through war, to become the leader of the nation, as well as leader of his party. When, seeing that the Americans would fight rather than submit to insult and injustice, the French government made overtures for peace, the army was disbanded. But Adams never ceased his efforts to induce Congress to take measures for national defence in the way of construction of forts on the coast, and the building of ships-of-war to protect commerce and the fisheries.

In regard to the domestic matters which marked his administration the most important was the enactment of the alien and sedition laws, now generally regarded as Federal blunders. The historical importance of the passage of these laws is that they contributed more than all other things together to break up the Federal party, and throw political power into the hands of the Republicans, as the Democrats were still called. At that time there were over thirty thousand French exiles in the country, generally discontented with the government. With them, liberty meant license to do and say whatever they pleased. As they were not naturalized, they were not citizens; and as they were not citizens, the Federalists maintained that they could not claim the privileges which citizens enjoyed to the full extent,--that they were in the country on sufferance, and if they made mischief, if they fanned discontents, if they abused the President or the members of Congress, they were liable to punishment. It must be remembered that the government was not settled on so firm foundations as at the present day; even Jefferson wrought himself to believe that John Adams was aiming to make himself king, and establish aristocratic institutions like those in England. This assumption was indeed preposterous and ill-founded; nevertheless it was credited by many Republicans. Moreover, the difficulties with France seemed fraught with danger; there might be war, and these aliens might prove public enemies. It was probably deemed by the Federalists, governing under such dangers, to be a matter of public safety to put these foreigners under the eyes of the Executive, as a body to be watched, a body that might prove dangerous in the unsettled state of the country.

The Federalists doubtless strained the Constitution, and put interpretations upon it which would not bear the strictest scrutiny. They were bitterly accused of acting against the Constitution. It was averred that everybody who settled in the country was entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," according to the doctrine taught in the Declaration of Independence. And this was not denied by the Federalists so long as the foreigners behaved themselves; but when they gave vent to extreme liberal sentiments, like the French revolutionists, and became a nuisance, it was deemed right, and a wise precaution, to authorize the President to send them back to their own countries.

Now it is probable that these aliens were not as dangerous as they seemed; they were ready to become citizens when the suffrage should be enlarged; their discontent was magnified; they were mostly excitable but harmless people, unreasonably feared. Jefferson looked upon them as future citizens, trusted them with his unbounded faith in democratic institutions, and thought that the treatment of them in the Alien Laws was unjust, impolitic, and unkind.

The Sedition Laws were even more offensive, since under them citizens could be fined and imprisoned if they wrote what were called "libels" on men in power; and violent language against men in power was deemed a libel. But all parties used violent language in that fermenting period. It was an era of the bitterest party strife. Everybody was misrepresented who even aimed at office. The newspapers were full of slanders of the most eminent men, and neither Adams, nor Jefferson, nor Hamilton, escaped unjust criminations and the malice of envenomed tongues. All this embittered the Federalists, then in the height of their power. In both houses of Congress the Federalists were in a majority. The Executive, the judges, and educated men generally, were Federalists. Men in power are apt to abuse it.

It is easy now to see that the Alien and Sedition Laws must have been exceedingly unpopular; but the government was not then wise enough to see the logical issue. Jefferson and his party saw it, and made the most of it. In their appeals to the people they inflamed their prejudices and excited their fears. They made a most successful handle of what they called the violation of the Constitution and the rights of man; and the current turned. From the day that the obnoxious and probably unnecessary laws were passed, the Federal party was doomed. It lost its hold on the people. The dissensions and rivalries of the Federal leaders added to their discomfiture. What they lost they never could regain. Only war would have put them on their feet again; and Adams, with true patriotism, while ready for necessary combat, was opposed to a foreign war for purposes of domestic policy.

Yet the ambitious statesman did not wish to be dethroned. He loved office dearly, and hence he did not yield gracefully to the triumph of the ascendent party, which grew stronger every day. And when their victory was assured and his term of office was about to expire, he sat up till twelve o'clock the last night of his term, signing appointments that ought to have been left to his successors. Among these appointments was that of John Marshall, his Secretary of State, to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,--one that reflected great credit upon his discernment, in spite of its impropriety, for Marshall's name is one of the greatest in the annals of our judiciary. On the following morning, before the sun had risen, the ex-president was on his way to Braintree, not waiting even for the inauguration ceremonies that installed Jefferson in the chair which he had left so unwillingly, and giving vent to the bitterest feelings, alike unmanly and unreasonable.

I have not dwelt on the minor events of his presidency, such as his appointments to foreign missions, since these did not seriously affect the welfare of the country. I cannot go into unimportant events and quarrels, as in the case of his dismissal of Pickering and other members of his Cabinet. Such matters belong to the historians, especially those who think it necessary to say everything they can,--to give minute details of all events. These small details, appropriate enough in works written for specialists, are commonly dry and uninteresting; they are wearisome to the general reader, and are properly soon forgotten, as mere lumber which confuses rather than instructs. No historian can go successfully into minute details unless he has the genius of Macaulay. On this rock Freeman, with all his accuracy, was wrecked; as an historian he can claim only a secondary place, since he had no eye to proportion,--in short, was no artist, like Froude. He was as heavy as most German professors, to whom one thing is as important as another. Accuracy on minute points is desirable and necessary, but this is not the greatest element of success in an historian.

Some excellent writers of history think that the glory of Adams was brightest in the period before he became president, when he was a diplomatist,--that as president he made great mistakes, and had no marked executive ability. I think otherwise. It seems to me that his special claims to the gratitude of his country must include the wisdom of his administration in averting an entangling war, and guiding the ship of state creditably in perplexing dangers; that in most of his acts, while filling the highest office in the gift of the people, he was patient, patriotic, and wise. We forget the exceeding difficulties with which he had to contend, and the virulence of his enemies. What if he was personally vain, pompous, irritable, jealous, stubborn, and fond of power? These traits did not swerve him from the path of duty and honor, nor dim the lustre of his patriotism, nor make him blind to the great interests of the country as he understood them,--the country whose independence and organized national life he did so much to secure. All cavils are wasted, and worse than wasted, on such a man. His fame will shine forevermore, in undimmed lustre, to bless mankind. Small is that critic who sees the defects, but has no eye for the splendors, of a great career!

There is but little more to be said of Adams after the completion of his term of office. He retired to his farm in Quincy, a part of Braintree, for which he had the same love that Washington had for Mount Vernon, and Jefferson for Monticello. In the placid rest of agricultural life, and with a comfortable independence, his later days were spent. The kindly sentiments of his heart grew warmer with leisure, study, and friendly intercourse with his town's-people. He even renewed a pleasant correspondence with Jefferson. He took the most interest, naturally, in the political career of his son, John Quincy Adams, whom he persuaded to avoid extremes, so that it is difficult to say with which political party he sympathized the most. _In mediis tutissimus ibis_.

In tranquil serenity the ex-president pondered the past, and looked forward to the future. His correspondence in the dignified retirement of his later years is most instructive, showing great interest in education and philanthropy. He was remarkably blessed in his family and in all his domestic matters,--the founder of an illustrious house, eminent for four successive generations. His wife, who died in 1818, was one of the most remarkable women of the age,--his companion, his friend, and his counsellor,--to whose influence the greatness of his son, John Quincy, is in no small degree to be traced.

Adams lived twenty-five years after his final retirement from public life, in 1801, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, dividing his time between his farm, his garden, and his library. He lived to see his son president of the United States. He lived to see the complete triumph of the institutions he had helped to establish. He enjoyed the possession of all his faculties to the last, and his love of reading continued unabated to the age of ninety-one, when he quietly passed away, July 4, 1826. His last prayer was for his country, and his last words were,--"Independence forever!"


Life of John Adams, by J.T. Morse, Jr.; Life of Alexander Hamilton, by Lodge; Parton's Life of Jefferson; Bancroft, United States; Daniel Webster, Oration on the Death of Adams and Jefferson; Life of John Jay, by Jay, Flanders, and Whitelocke; Fiske's Critical Period of American History; Sparks' Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution; Rives' Life of Madison; Curtis's History of the Constitution; Schouler's History of the United States; McMaster's History of the People of the United States; Von Holst's Constitutional History; Pitkin's History of the United States; Horner's Life of Samuel Adams, Magruder's Marshall.