“One question only shall be respectfully insinuated: whether equal laws, the result only of a balanced government, can ever be obtained and preferred without some signs or other of distinction and degree? We are told that our friends, the National Assembly of France, have abolished all distinctions. But be no deceived, my dear countrymen. Impossibilities cannot be performed. Have they leveled all fortunes, and equally divided all property? Have they made all men and women equally wise, elegant and beautiful?”
– John Adams (pseudonymously) in “Discourses on Davila”
Excerpt from Dr. Jack Bankston’s “The Founding Years”, University of New South Wales Press, 2017.
Was John Adams a good president?
A difficult question that requires emotional composure. Many, including many historians, cannot separate the president from the revolutionary hero. There is no doubt that John Adams was an influential founding father, an incredibly talented politician, intellectual, and a worthy leader.
But was he a good president?
For this chapter we are going to judge the entirety of the United States’ second president by judging him on the whole over the four years from 1798 to 1802.
Adams is chiefly remembered for five key events during his presidency.
The first was his remarkable unity ticket with Commodore William Briggs, endorsed by George Washington, as the country spiraled towards war with France.
Second, he was the commander-in-chief during the entirety of the Franco-American War and the chief of foreign policy as America’s war with France turned into the War of the Second Coalition as well as the Napoleonic Coup on 18 Brumaire.
Third, as commander-in-chief and the director of foreign policy, Adams guided the integration of Haiti as an American state which immediately began to transform the soul of the nation, altered our collective history and brought into question what it meant to be an American.
Fourth, we remember Adams for his controversial security legislation that tested the constitution and the first amendment.
Lastly, we remember him for the failures of 1801 and 1802 that led to a peaceful transfer of power between his Federalist government and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans but also controversial moves such as his appointment of the midnight judges.
Every one of these points is fraught with controversy and made Adams many enemies even if they also landed him considerable accolades. In the modern age, Adams is remembered as a legendary president who oversaw expansions of territory, began to process of combating slavery, and bridging the gap between the political parties in the face of crisis. At the time however, Adams was panned as a tyrant, a warmonger and lead individual in the Haitian Question that would politically split the United States for decades.
Let us take each of these matters in turn.
The Unity Ticket
Obviously, Adams played a key role in the construction of the unity ticket when it became apparent that the United States and France would go to war just as Washington’s second term drew to a close. In 1797, Adams was a key player in the nascent Federalist Party that coalesced around a number of ideas largely propagated by Alexander Hamilton. Generally speaking, the Federalists supported the new constitution, favored a strong federal government, and favored a strong financial system to promote investment, development and trade. In the realm of foreign policy, they sought to encourage America’s place on the world stage, desired stronger economic ties with Britain and opposed the excesses of the French Revolution. Their power base lie along the east coast trading cities as well as various Caribbean island states who remained dependent on British trade for about 20 years after the revolution.
Opposing the Federalists were the so called “Democratic-Republicans”. A new party in their own right, they counted Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and William Briggs as their leaders. This party tended to favor and promote the more idealistic goals of the revolution, both of America and France. They favored a limited constitution and federal power and promoted the concepts that could be seen as a very early “states’ rights” movement. The opposed nobility (ironic since many of their prominent members were quasi-aristocratic plantation owners), remained wary of London’s influence and identified more with France than Britain. Their power base lie amongst the mainland southern states and the western frontier with mixed support amongst the Caribbean land owners and in Quebec (at least until the French Revolution began to indulge in excesses and more and more emigres made their way from France to the safety of Montreal and Quebec City).
As Washington prepared to step down and war became certain, the last thing the young country needed was a bitter election that could politically fracture the whole. Before the Grand Compromise, Adams believed he could win New England and the Mid-Atlantic states while splitting electors in Quebec and the Caribbean while Jefferson believed he could win the southern mainland, the west and make great showings in the Caribbean and Pennsylvania. The Grand Bargain, brokered by Washington, convinced the founders that politics must be set aside for the greater good. Jefferson, begrudgingly, agreed to this (not wanting to come off as obstinate and power hungry) but refused to run on the proposed ticket. Adams, being less divisive than Hamilton, secured the top billing while William Briggs ran as vice president to secure the confidence of the Caribbean.
The unity ticket was not without controversy. A few partisan editors declared it “a corrupt bargain” and likened it to the constantly shifting power coalitions of English nobles in London where decisions were made in smoke filled backrooms and not at the ballot box. Overall, the ticket proved popular with the majority of Americans and Adams became the second president in 1798. His immediate concern was the war.
The War of the Second Coalition
The War of the Second Coalition began in 1798 as several conflicts combined into another, larger, coalitionary war. Questions about U.S. shipping rights, the lingering Dominica Crisis, the ongoing war in Haiti and the insult of the XYZ Affair caused the U.S. to declare war on France in December of 1797. Adams knew he would be getting into a war before he even took office but there were deep concerns that the U.S. was biting off more than it could chew. In 1797, France had made tentative peace with most of Europe and, while Paris was certainly a chaotic location, many Americans were concerned that the Directorie would throw the full weight of the French navy and French armies at the U.S.. Fears about a French attempt to take Caribbean islands, quash the revolution in Haiti and dislodge Quebec, or al of Canada, from the U.S. system raged in the early days of the war. To their credit, Washington, Adams and Briggs seemed well aware that France would not siphon more than some token forces to the American theater as they would be unwilling to expose the metropole to attack since the recent peace was shaky at best.
Luck also played a role.
French garrisons in the Caribbean and India were underfunded and undermanned due to the political chaos of the revolution, the meat grinder of Haiti, and recent bloody fighting with the British in the War of the First Coalition. Martinique, Guiana and the Franco-Batavian Leewards fell relatively quickly and with little bloodshed. In Europe, Napoleon led considerable naval and military resources east to Egypt instead of west across the Atlantic. The shortcomings of the Congress of Rastatt and the invasions of Malta and Egypt sparked war between France and most of Europe. The Franco-American War quickly slid to a lesser concern in Paris (though the loss of the overseas empire played a key role in eroding faith in the Directorie and contributed to 18 Brumaire).
The successes of the war and the fact that a major French counterattack never materialized ended up making the conflict popular. Some historians cite the Franco-American War as the earliest indication of a proto-manifest destiny movement as Americans began to think it was their God-given destiny to spread true liberty not just across the Americas, but the globe.
Of course, there was opposition to the war. Some Americans (mostly Democratic-Republicans) questioned just what the hell the U.S. Navy was doing adventuring around the Indian Basin. The capture of St. Pierre and Miquelon, St. Eustacius, Saint Martin, Saba and then Martinique had few opponents as these conquests wrapped up “European lose ends” in clearly American waters. Opponents of those battles tended to get lost in the legalities since some of those islands were technically Batavian Dutch, even though they had been occupied by the French, but then restored to the new Batavian client state. But why were the garrisons still French? And why did most of the islands’ citizens welcome the Americans? And what did it matter if the British simply sailed into the region in the next war and take those islands for themselves. It was a confusing situation that few truly understood and, luckily, few made a fuss about especially since the Franco-Dutch islanders simply desired stability and the continuance of slavery . And the cries from Amsterdam and Paris fell silent when Anglo-Russian troops landed in Holland, the Austro-Russians pushed across the Italies and the Germanies and 18 Brumaire upended the entire political system.
When Commodore Truxtun took Guiana there was some head scratching since the territory was desolate and distant but it was close enough to the Caribbean that few questioned the easy victory.
Then the Americans captured Port Louis and followed that up by taking Mahé. Democratic-Republicans painted Adams as a conquering tyrant bent on destroying liberty in favor of empire. Jefferson and Madison remained uncharacteristically quiet about the issue and the victories were popular with the general public. Few countries in history have ever looked upon military victories as a bad thing.
Because the United States just kept winning, Adams never faced significant backlash for his ambitious war plans. How easy would it have been for disease to wipe of Truxtun’s forces in Guiana (as had just occurred to the British in Haiti) or for his fleet to be wiped out by a French force or a cyclone? Any number of easily foreseeable dangers could have derailed the war and Adams’ presidency. Call it luck or administrative genius, Adams came out on top.
In addition, the Adams administration’s diplomacy must be commended as well. The United States picked off French colonies almost at will and no European powers (namely Britain) intervened. Shortly after the U.S. and France went to war, numerous European powers joined the United States in arms over French aggression in the lowlands, the Italies and Egypt. Yet, the United States kept her conflict apart from the European theatre. Secretary of State John Marshall kept the U.S. out of the coalitionary system of alliances that dominated Europe at the time and ensured the U.S. remained a co-belligerent. This allowed the United States to propagate its own conflict while the frustrated Directorie was distracted with more pressing concerns. Lastly, Marshall secured a favorable peace that saw America keep its gains (this has more to do with the rise of Napoleon and his own schemes than anything else).
After the war, Adams found himself in the unique position of organizing America’s new territories. Some congressmen frowned at Commodore Truxtun’s promises of Mascarene statehood but most understood the tight political situation the commodore had been under in distant seas. Adams appointed a select committee to handle the details of integrating the far-flung lands into the U.S. fold. This committee found little opposition amongst Mascarene leaders (Truxtun and his French counterparts having handled most of the annexationist details) and few Americans advocated for leaving their new allies out in the wild, but there were concerns. A proposed Mascarene state would easily be the most isolated state in the country, being located almost on the literal opposite end of the globe. Many committeemen expressed interest in making the Mascarenes a territory for a period of ten years so as to properly integrate the islands and make sure no funny business happened in their isolation. Adams privately balked at the concept stating it went against American honor, hinting at Truxtun’s promise of statehood. Mascarene officials pressed hard for the Indian ports to become parishes of their proposed state but this drew skepticism from many committeemen. Marshall privately stated to Adams that he could not help but wonder if Port Louis was attempting to use American power to build a new French Indian empire. Ultimately, the committee struck a deal. The Indian ports would be separated from the Mascarene state and made into their own separate territory while the U.S. addressed the extremely complex situation in India. In exchange, the Mascarenes would be allowed immediate statehood and the new “Governor of the Indian Territories” would be stationed in Port Louis, not on the subcontinent (at least for the moment). In 1801, Congress approved the creation of the “United States Territories of India” and the “State of the Mascarene Islands”.
More complex, amazingly, was the organization of captured Caribbean territory. The United States now held Guiana, Martinique, Saint Martin, Saint Eustacius, Saint Berthelemy, and Saba. Saba, Eustacius and Bart’s all sported populations of less than 4,000 and only Saint Martin and Martinique proved to be sizeable locales with a combined Franco-Dutch-African population of about 40,000 in Saint Martin and about 80,000 Franco-Africans in Martinique. There was no way Congress would approve six new states out of these territories, especially when the Haitian Question flared tensions over slavery and all six of these territories allowed slavery. Some proposed lumping the smaller islands into the Leeward Islands state but the Leewarders refused, not wishing their own modestly populated islands to be steamrolled by the inclusion of Saint Martin. Another proposal considered lumping the islands into a “French Antilles” state and a “Dutch Antilles” state. Existing francophone congressmen from Quebec, Dominica, Grenada and St. Vincent protested at the blatant “French Quarantine” which they claimed flew in the face of American ideals and stacked the deck for Anglo politicians. Those very Anglo politicians were quick to point out that, currently, the Leeward Islands state acted as its own “English Quarantine” while Francophone representatives in the Windwards had far greater voice in both Congress and presidential elections. Naturally the French pointed to the dominance of Anglo politicians on the mainland and the situation devolved into childish squabble. Ironically, the Dutchmen actually liked the idea of their own state but, not being actual citizens yet with representation, had little say in the matter. The situation stalled, especially when the extent of anti-Federalist blowback over Haiti became known in the northern states. It appeared nothing would be accomplished on the issue until the next Administration.
In mid-1801, however, the Quebecoise Federalist Jean-Pierre Rochambeau struck an accord with the Vice President, and Great Caribbeaner, William Briggs. Briggs, seeking to regain some influence in the Caribbean in the wake of his pro-Haitian letter, and Rochambeau, seeking to stem a Jeffersonian push for six new slave states that would put American politics into the hands of about 400,000 Antilleans (most of whom could not vote) found common ground in an immediate solution. The roughly 10,000 Dutchmen that inhabited Sint Eustacius, Saba and the southern half of Sint Maarten would be incorporated into the Leeward Islands with special provisions regarding county administration as would occur in Newfoundland with St. Pierre and Miquelon. The French northern half of Saint Martin, St. Barthelemy and Martinique would become a new state and distant Guiana would become the third and final new state in the region. This satisfied geographic practicalities (after all, everyone knew that Guiana needed to be its own state due to its location), extended a modest olive branch to the Francophones and maintained the integrity of the Leeward Islands since the Americans there would outnumber their new Dutch citizens by a 4-1 ratio. It also took into account future Caribbean changes. If, for whatever reason, the Americans one day seized the Dutch-majority islands off the coast of South America, then the Dutch counties of the Leeward Islands could easily remove themselves and combine to form a more solid Dutch-Caribbean state. If, for that same reason, the Americans one day acquired Guadeloupe or St. Lucia, those French-majority islands could easily combine with the new state of Martinique and St. Martin to form a Windward Islands state. This was all very “hypothetical” of course.
The Federalist Congress and Adams approved the creation of the two new states and the Leeward Islands, somewhat begrudgingly, approved the inclusion of the Dutch territories into their own state. Interestingly, some of the most complex debate occurred over the name of the new state that combined Martinique, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy. Martinique alone did not convey the disparate territory of the state. Martinique and the French Antilles was deemed too “imperial”. The proposed “Martinique and the Two Saintes” had some traction but died in committee because of the similarity with the existing Italian kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The final desperate agreement on a name landed at “Martinique and the New Antilles”. The confusing name wouldn’t last in the long run if for no other reason than it divided the Caribbean into a Greater and Lesser Antilles and, now, a vague Old and New Antilles based on American territorial conquest. Some Democratic-Republicans cried foul as the acts occurred in December 1801, when the Congress and Adams were in their lame-duck period but likely more so because they saw six solidly Democratic-Republican states reduced to two. Jefferson’s deafening silence on the matter, especially compared to his vocal opposition of other lame-duck Federalist policy items, eventually won out and the matter became a non-issue in 1802. The move did help Briggs’ rehabilitate his image amongst Caribbeaners but the powerbase he enjoyed in 1797 never rematerialized. His political career ended, his friend Jefferson happily appointed the great naval commander to be his Secretary of War after his election.
But, while Historians view Adams favorably as a commander-in-chief, one theater of the war secured his long-term legacy and destroyed his short-term political ambitions: Haiti.
—————— Author’s Notes —————–
: Technically abolition had been declared in these territories like in Haiti but the chaos of the revolution and the staunch opposition of slave owners meant that enforcement was lacking. Unlike Haiti where the slave population dwarfed the white population, these smaller islands are a bit more equitable in racial ratio and geographically easier to control.
“John Adams’ Discourses on Davila.” The Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress – Presidential Fellows Blog. March 20, 2012. Accessed January 14, 2018. https://presidentialfellows.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/john-adams-discourses-on-davila/.
“Online Library of Liberty.” The Works of John Adams, vol. 6 (Defence of the Constitutions Vol. III cont’d, Davila, Essays on the Constitution) – Online Library of Liberty. Accessed January 14, 2018. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/adams-the-works-of-john-adams-vol-6/simple#lf1431-06_head_009.
Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: the art of power. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.