The Presidency of John Adams, Part II

Excerpt from Dr. Jack Bankston’s “The Founding Years”, University of New South Wales Press, 2017.

The Haiti Question

Initially the Adams administration only sought minor concessions from France. They sought an end to harassment on the high seas and the transfer of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the remaining Leeward Islands and Martinique. Haiti, Guiana and the Indian territories remained distant options, only to be pursued if Paris became obstinate.

And then Paris became obstinate.

Understanding the immense value of Haiti, and the critical role its politics were playing within the revolution in both Paris and Port-au-Prince, Adams opted to intervene. In yet another diplomatic master stroke, diplomat Matthew Morris opened a secret line of communication between Adams and the great Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture that led to military cooperation, Haitian independence and then annexation. Why L’Ouverture went along with the audacious plan remains a bit of mystery to historians but it is generally agreed that many factors influenced his decision. Throughout the later years of the 1790’s, L’Ouverture endured British and Spanish interference, repeated intervention from Paris and attempts at racial genocide from both blacks and whites. Rumors abounded of a French invasion force that could be sent to restore control as soon as 1800 and when Napoleon rose to power many questioned his commitment to abolitionist principles. In no position to defend herself without a navy, or even societal cohesion, L’Ouverture forewent France and independence and took up Adams on his offer of equal statehood within the ascendant United States (even if it meant Haitians had to tolerate being a free state surrounded by slave states). For Adams, Haitian annexation helped him to win the war and excised France from the New World altogether. Given the American spirit of hostility towards European empires, this meant that France and the Dutch would be gone, Britain on its last legs and only the Spanish and Portuguese remaining to knock out (as well as the Danish but their small holdings didn’t threaten anyone).

This answers the political question of why Haiti became included in the war plans. It also, to an extent, explains why Haiti would want to be a part of the United States. This fails to answer the cultural question. Why would a racist and largely pro-slavery society accept a state created via a slave rebellion into their country as an equal?

The answer is complex and historians widely vary on the issue. Four leading schools of thought have emerged to answer the question of “why” American society abruptly changed.

Some credit Vice President William Briggs with the annexationist victory. Throughout the spring of 1799, his letter “Concerning the Events in Hayti and Of the Future of the United States” circulated in pamphlets and newspapers across the country. Briggs’ was a widely popular character in the United States then as he is today, but this was especially so in the Caribbean where his role as “father of the U.S. Navy” shockingly secured independence against the overwhelming might of the Royal Navy. The fact that the Great Caribbeaner lent his name to the Haitian cause surely went a long way towards smoothing over white hysteria in the region. In his letter, Briggs’ argued against European imperialism and for the new American system that favored things like liberty, choice and freedom of enterprise. This played right into the nascent ideals of proto-manifest destiny and what could later be labeled “Americanism”. He also made pragmatic arguments saying that the Americas could not afford to let the excesses of European revolutions and wars spill over into their tranquil hemisphere.

Of course, Briggs’ was referring to Jacobinism but, interestingly, a copy of the Spanish Town Mirror made its way from Jamaica to Cartagena where a local printer translated the scandalous letter into Spanish. All that spring, Spanish merchants heard about Brigg’s letter through the grapevine and, obviously, the question of Haitian annexation was of great interest to Spanish colonial authorities. The translated letter quickly circulated amongst the intellectuals of Mexico City, Bogota, Lima and Buenos Aires. A few early revolutionaries discussed how Briggs’ letter demonstrated that Americanism was not just a white English political movement but a wider movement against feudalism and empire. If the English could ally with the French, Scotch-Irish and now, perhaps, even former black slaves and mullatoes, why not add the diverse vastness of the Spanish Empire into the mix and secure the Americas as a bastion of liberty from which to attack the forces of imperial Europe? Colonial authorities quickly outlawed Briggs’ letter by early 1800 but it proved a significant contributing factor to revolution thought and ideals in South America and the Mexicos for years.

Secondly, as demonstrated in Briggs’ letter, the only philosophy that could rival racism in those days was anti-imperialism. We have mountains of written accounts to prove that whites detested the thought of a truly free society. Free blacks in the north struggled to find societal acceptance and economic success in the face of the stuffy close mindedness of English bluebloods in Boston and New York. Blacks living in the mainland south and the Caribbean found themselves part of a tightly controlled and brutal slave culture. Free blacks in these regions could expect suspicion, isolation and sometimes-even enslavement if the appropriate documentation became lost (or disregarded). Slaves could expect a variety of treatments. In the southern mainland, some slaves had relatively “easy” lives even if they were denied their rights and become “arms length” members of smaller, poorer, families. This “ease” is in comparison to the majority of slaves who found work in the harsh conditions of Virginia tobacco plantations, Carolina rice paddies and the eventual rise of cotton plantations after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin allowed for mass production and harvest of cotton. And few slaves on the mainland encountered the truly hellish conditions of the Caribbean sugarcane fields where injury, death and disease forced men to count their life expectancy in months and required the continual of the just as hellish slave trade.

These economic and societal systems created a racial divide that was quite entrenched by 1800. But while Americans from Montreal to Montserrat had varying moral and economic views on slavery and the future of blacks in the United States, everyone detested European imperialism. To many, the imperial structures promoted war, social divide, debasement and corruption. Thirty years of revolution and peace demonstrated that the century-long conflict between Frenchmen and Englishmen over North America had not been about the men themselves but rather the whims of distant monarchs in Paris and London. The Quebecoise and their Louisianan cousins in the Spanish Empire still harbored old wounds about the Acadian Exile. Of course the King of England would seek out such an action but how could the King of France agree to it? Many Bostonians in 1800 had vivid memories of the Royal Navy closing their port and fond memories of the overland aid that their sister colonies had sent in support. Every Caribbean family had an uncle or grandfather who could remember a time when their islands, their homes, were traded like baseball cards to sweeten “more important” deals in Europe.

Yes the Haitian Revolution and its anti-slavery nature were a concern, a major one that some could never reconcile, but at least the slaves and the Americans had a common enemy. When Congress sat to vote on the matter of annexation, not a few members would later say their racially motivated “nay” vote was trumped by the Americanist motivated “yay” vote because it meant Paris would be forever removed from the Americas.

Thirdly, Americanism was not the only nascent philosophy motivating the public. Haiti brought questions of abolitionism and even proto-qualitism to the forefront. Moral questions regarding slavery, its racial component, and the treatment of humans are as old as the institution itself. By 1800, enlightenment and republican ideals began to clash with slavery in many different ways. Not a few Americans and Frenchmen could not reconcile their struggle for liberty with the reality that many of their territories depended on slave economies. For all of the anti-imperial blustering of the Americans in the decades following the revolution, many European nobles happily questioned how “all men are created equal” actually meant “white men are created equal”. It is interesting to look back on the era and compare the philosophical rhetoric with the actions of slave owners like Jefferson, Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette. A treasure trove of evidence exists that men like Jefferson and Washington had convictional concerns about the institution while men like Franklin and Lafayette were active members of abolitionist societies all while owning slaves. The mental gymnastics of some of these great men could at times be quite astounding. Letters between Washington and Lafayette excitedly discuss a harebrained scheme by Lafayette to purchase land in Guiana (when it was still French), buy the freedom of French slaves in the Caribbean and relocate them to Lafayette’s holdings where they would then pay rent and be educated into civilized French society. The Revolution derailed the plan but Lafayette’s proposal would hardly be the last example of “colonization”. Regardless, abolitionist sentiment gradually grew (initially buoyed by the realities that slave economics did not work in all locales) until the Haitian Question proved their great rallying point.

Abolitionists, despite few lobbying efforts on their part over the matter, were thrilled when the Adams Administration proposed the plan. These groups backed annexation and pressed hard for members to support the matter. Over time, Adams became a sort of folk hero amongst abolitionists. Indeed, a few wonder if Adams was not a closet abolitionist in his own right. In an 1819 letter, he revealed some of his true thoughts on slavery:

“I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.”

One cannot help but wonder if Adams support for Haiti included the hope that eventually that new state could become a bulwark against the peculiar institution.

Some philosophers regard the Haitian Question as the true beginning of qualitism. While it is true that Briggs’ letter has a certain semi-qualitist air to it, the reality is Gordon would not publish “The Qualities of Man and the Ordering of Society” until 1847. The only connection between Haiti and Qualities is historical influence and the fact that a young Charles Gordon lived next to Matthew Morris, the U.S. envoy to Haiti in the heady days of annexation, in 1800’s Connecticut. It remains no secret though that Gordon’s example of Haitian slaves rising up, overcoming their station, and defeating the entitled aristocrats demonstrated their quality and thus their earning their liberty, was originally inspired from the Revolution and his conversations with Morris and other Haitians.

Fourth, some historians argue that American society did not change with the annexation of Haiti. True, the Briggs letter and new political and social philosophies were beginning to form which helped soften the entry of Haiti (thus preventing an outright immediate civil war) but they point out that many Americans despised the new state and its inhabitants. A mountain of historical evidence for this enmity gives their argument weight. Supreme Court cases over interstate trade, difficulty working within the federal political system, the destruction of the Federalist Party south of the Mason-Dixon Line and, of course, the eventual Civil War all stand as examples that many Americans never accepted Haitian statehood and Congress’ affirmative annexation vote is the exception and not the rule of the era.

The biggest takeaways from the Haitian Question are surely these. The question became a seminal moment in world history, it played a major role in ending the Franco-American War,  it thrust slave politics into the spotlight, destroyed the viability of the Federalists in the southern states, cost William Briggs his political future and cost John Adams a second presidential term.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

If the Haitian Question did not destroy Adams political future then the Alien and Sedition Acts probably would have anyways. While we remember Adams as a bold and successful commander-in-chief, we often forget his shortcomings on the domestic front.

While the unity ticket is widely praised, the unity government was anything but. Adams’ Federalists lamented the inclusion of so many Democratic-Republicans in the government. While technically in the same party, there was no love lost between Adams and Hamilton. By late 1798 it was clear that Hamilton, not Washington, was handling the army. Several of Hamilton’s political enemies cursed Adams for allowing this “coup” but what could Adams do? Reprimand George Washington?!  Adams tolerated the situation through gritted teeth, thankful that the war remained primarily an overseas affairs conducted by the navy.

And there were unpopular provisions imposed to support the war. The U.S. debt rose once again as the government purchased war materials. Adams instituted a Direct Tax on property to help pay for the war with France that was deeply unpopular. Not a few merchants and plantation owners went bankrupt when French harassment and the subsequent war impacted their trade routes. Planters on Dominica, St. Vincent and Grenada who historically sold their sugar through old French contacts, and sent their products to French ports, saw their markets evaporate overnight. Interestingly, smuggling exploded in popularity since the price of sugar skyrocketed in France. The war in St. Domingue, the closing of trade with the U.S., the British blockade, and the chaotic situation on the European fronts all combined to create a wildly unstable market for many tropical goods in Paris. This further angered the populace against the Directorie contributing to their downfall.

Yet, the lasting policy failure of Adams remains the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalists designed these acts to support the war effort, quell public dissent and head off fanciful plots of a second revolution in the United States instigated by Jacobin agents and radical Democratic-Republicans. The Federalist Congress passed four measures to assist in the war effort on this front. The Naturalization Act increased the period of residence to 14-years for an immigrant to attain citizenship (naturally those naturalized citizens tended to vote Democratic-Republican). The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act combined to allow the president to deport any foreigner, regardless if they hailed from a friendly, or a hostile country, which he considered dangerous to the United States. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or government officials with penalties including jail time and/or a substantive fine.

In the spirit of the “unity government”, the Adams Administration initiated 27 indictments under the Sedition Act, as well as suits against seven of the eight most prominent Democratic–Republican newspapers [1]. The historical impact of the acts remains mixed. Adams past, and current opponents, typically point out the many coincidental ways the laws targeted Democratic-Republicans and how the timing of some criminal trials just happened to occur in the fall of 1801 before the elections. Adams’ supporters indicate that the laws were never used all that much and Jacobin fears were very real. To the proponents credit, the opponents of the Acts typically state that the Jacobin threat was overblown and the laws were clearly political only to turn around and praise Briggs’ for his progressive advocacy towards Haiti. Naturally, they forget that a crux of Briggs’ argument came on the proposition that Haiti could become a New World toehold for the very Jacobinism they claim existed as a mere boogeyman. Even today in the evaluation of Adams’ presidency the Jacobins hiding behind every shadow seem to confuse the task. Interestingly, Adams would only use the Alien Enemies Act once when an airtight case came to light that a Directory agent, Pierre Féraud, posing as a wine merchant, had come to Quebec City with the true intention of evaluating the potential for a Québécoise revolt [2]. Instead of a city on the edge, he discovered an ardently American (and almost royaliste) city full of emigres who knew full well the dangers of Jacobinism. If one chooses to believe the legend, the man who discovered Féraud’s true nature was none other than Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the great chemist [3]. Drama aside, the Alien and Sedition Acts proved to be little more than a partisan distraction and a tarnish on Adams’ legacy.

The Midnight Judges

Perhaps the lesser known of Adams’ legacy is his influence on the judiciary. Adams appointed two Supreme Court justices during his administration, including the great chief justice John Marshall, to replace the ailing Oliver Ellsworth. Any first year law student understands the tremendous impact Marshall would have on American law and the judicial branch. Another controversial point in Adams tenure came after the 1801 election and the knowledge that he and the Federalist Congress were on the out. In the waning hours of his presidency, Adams and the Federalists passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 that reorganized the court system and created 22 new judgeships. The legislation stemmed from the difficulty Supreme Court justices endured in those days of “riding circuit” where they would sit as judge on the various circuit courts. This led to situations where justices enacted an opinion at the circuit level only to reiterate that same opinion again on appeal to the Supreme Court. The system was confusing and thankless, made all the more difficult by the vast geography of the country and the reality that many French attorneys (ironically displaying their constitutional ignorance) would show up to an appellate hearing only to learn the justice spoke English. Few argued against some form of appellate reform but the lame-duck attempt to pack the court rankled the Democratic-Republicans, and especially Jefferson who hardly wanted a powerful, federalist, judiciary. Jefferson and his Congress would repeal the law in 1803.

The election of 1801 lacked the drama of the unity ticket in 1797. By this point, it became apparent that the Haitian Question had broken Federalist Party influence in the slave states. Jefferson downed Adams 139-97 in the electoral college sweeping himself and his running mate the Pennsylvanian Peter Muhlenberg, into office [4]. In a sign of the politics to come, Adams failed to win a single slave state.

These main issues comprise the bulk of Adams short but busy tenure as president, but they are not a comprehensive list. In his four years at the country’s helm, Adams saw the move of the capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. and established cordial diplomatic relations with the new Bonapartist regime in Paris after the coup of 18 Brumaire. Of course, the initial cordiality was in an attempt to gain peace and a favorable treaty with France but it ended up shaping the destiny of continents in the years to come.

Perhaps the last thing we should note regarding the Adams presidency was an event that occurred on March 8, 1801. No matter how great a man’s stature, or how beloved he may be, no man can escape the callous disregard of time. On that day, George Washington, the father of the United States, passed in his sleep [5]. He had complained the prior day of headaches and numbness. Doctors believe the old general to have succumbed to a stroke at the age of 70. The country, and Adams, mourned. A devastated Hamilton, Washington’s longtime protégé wrote “he was an aegis, very essential to me.” Jefferson, who often politely sparred with Washington, paid his respects privately and refused a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon lest he create a political scene. Guy Carleton lamented the loss writing “we have lost our pole star and I pray our ship does not crash as a result.” Even one of Washington’s harshest critics, Philip Freneu, the republican editor of The National Gazette, published some poignant versus:

“No tongue can tell, no pen describe

The frenzy of a numerous tribe,

Who, by distemper’d fancy led,

Insult the memory of the dead.


He was no god, ye flattering knaves,

He own’d no worlds, he ruled no waves;

But – and exalt it, if you can

He was the upright, Honest Man.


This was his glory, this outshone

Those attributes you doat upon;

On this strong ground he took his stand,

Such virtues saved a sinking land.”


Excerpt from the Minutes of Order Secretary James Madison, Monticello, Virginia; March 10, 1801.

Meeting began at nine o’clock on March 10, 1801 per the request of Mr. J. Adams made yesterday to the members.

With the passing of Mr. Washington, the powers of his office devolved to the office of the warden. Therefore, Mr. S. Adams, as warden, took lead of the meeting and, without opposition, submitted to the members nominations for Order President.

Mr. Briggs nominated Mr. Carleton. No further nominations occurred.

Mr. Carleton elected Order President by unanimous vote.

Mr. Carleton submitted a motion to delay filling Mr. Washington’s chair for one month. He proposed a meeting on April 9, 1801 for members to submit nominations and hold a vote with a possibility for a message and initiation. Location to be the same.

The motion passed unanimously.

I inquired if there would be any new business.

Mr. Carleton urged mourning and prayer.

Seemed a wise decision. I have no clue what we shall do now.

Meeting adjourned at half past the hour.

———– Author’s Notes ————

[1]: Actually there were only 14 indictments and they sued five top Democratic-Republican newspapers but I’ve upped the numbers to indicate the wider scope of the United States.

[2]: In our timeline Adams never used the Alien Enemies Act to deport anyone.

[3]: In our timeline, Lavoisier was executed by the revolution on trumped up embezzlement charges. In this timeline, American Quebec becomes a very popular destination for fleeing emigres, one of which is Lavoisier.

[4]: I see no reason for Jefferson to tie his ship to the divisive Aaron Burr in this timeline because, with the solid backing of the slave states, he has no need for Burr’s New York political machine to defeat Adams. This also means Burr is not the subject of Alexander Hamilton’s attacks when the tied election gets thrown into the House. Speaking of which, because the characters are less divisive in this election, the electoral balloting worked this time (i.e. a voter abstained on one ballot so Jefferson would beat Muhlenberg) so the original electoral system presses on.

[5]: In our timeline, Washington died in 1799 but the changes in this one result in him living another two, peaceful and uneventful years at Mount Vernon.

Source Materials

“John Adams’ Discourses on Davila.” The Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress – Presidential Fellows Blog. March 20, 2012. Accessed January 14, 2018.

“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.

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: the art of power. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.

Lebert, Katie. “French Revolution Archives.” The Washington Papers. Accessed January 14, 2018.

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