John Adams



John Adams


John Adams, who became the second president of the United States, has
been accused by some historians of being the closest thing America ever had to a
dictator or monarch (Onuf, 1993). Such strong accusations should be examined in
the context of the era in which Mr. Adams lived and served. A closer examination
of the historical events occurring during his vice presidency and his term as
president, strongly suggests that Adams was not, in fact, a dictator. Indeed,
except for his lack of charisma and political charm, Adams had a very successful
political career before joining the new national government. He was, moreover,
highly sought after as a public servant during the early formation of the new
federal power (Ferling, 1992).
Adams was a well educated, seasoned patriot, and experienced diplomat.
He was the runner-up in the election in which George Washington was selected the
first United States President. According to the electoral-college system of that
time, the second candidate with the most electoral votes became the Vice
President (Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). As president, Washington appointed, among
others, two influential political leaders to his original cabinet; Thomas
Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, a veteran politician became the
Secretary of State and Hamiliton, a young, outspoken New Yorker lawyer, became
the Secretary of the Treasury (Ferling, 1992). Jefferson, like Adams, had also
signed the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, however, was the only cabinet
member relatively unknown to Adams (Ferling, 1992). It was Hamilton, nonetheless,
who excelled during this new administration by initiating numerous, innovative,
and often controversial programs, many of which were quite successful. Adams and
Hamil ton were both Federalists. Unlike Hamiliton, Adams was more moderate
(Smelser & Gundersen, 1975). During this first administration, Adams and
Hamilton quarreled (Washington Retires, 1995), and Adams contemptuously began
referring to Hamilton as “his puppyhood” (DeCarolis, 1995). This created a rift
in the administration, for Washington generally favored Hamiliton (Smelser &
Gundersen, 1975), and disregarded Adams (Ferling, 1992). Hamilton also went to
great lengths to drive Jefferson out of the cabinet (Allison, 1966). Jefferson
did finally, indeed, resign from the cabinet. The Federalists “party,” of which
Hamiliton was the leader (DeCarolis, 1995) was greatly divided and even violent,
at times, under his leadership (Allison, 1966). This is significant in assessing
Hamilton’s and others’ arguments of Adams being a dictator after his
presidential victory in 1796 A.D.
There are several traits that were conspicuous about John Adams. First,
he was known as an honest man of integrity (Ferling, 1992; Smelser & Gundersen,
1975). He was also often described as “stubborn,” quick-tempered, and even
cantankerous at times (Liesenfelt, 1995; Smelser & Gundersen, 1975; Wood, 1992).
He was, however, quite intelligent and apparently had a secure self-esteem,
being quite willing the challenge tradition (Wood, 1992). Adams was an intensely
self-introspective man, though confident (Calhoon, 1976).
By 1795, conflict was raging with France. Washington made it clear that
he was not returning to office. This, for the first time, provided the impulse
for the two differing political philosophies to align into separate parties,
even though the Federalists never considered themselves to be a party (Wood,
1992). Hamilton tried to by-pass Adams by nominating Carolinian Thomas Pickney
(Ferling, 1992). He had instigated a similar conspiracy to keep Adams from
defeating Washington in the second national election, as Adams had discovered
(DeCarolis, 1995). In spite of the divided Federalists, Adams defeated Thomas
Jefferson by three electoral votes. He became the second president and Jefferson,
having the second largest number of votes, became vice-president. This event,
too, is significant because for the first time in office here were two men of
totally different philosophies of government, attempting to run the country
together. Adams’ presidency was stressful from the moment of his inauguration.
In his address, he sought to make it clear that he was not a monarchist
(Allison, 1966).
France had decreed to seize American ships. The country was divided over
whether to be pro-British (as was Hamilton) or pro-France (as was Jefferson).
Hamiliton eventually resigned the position of inspector general, but continued
to send Adams unsolicited recommendations regarding foreign policy issues
(DeCarolis, 1995). Adams resented Hamilton’s meddling in his executive
prerogatives. He eventually expelled two other Hamiltonian cabinet members. The
height of Adam’s presidency and popularity came primarily from the victories the
navy had over French vessels, and the exposure of the scandal called the XYZ
Affair, in which Adams was applauded for revealing the dishonesty and corruption
of the French officials, and French insistence on demanding bribes.
This period, however, was very unstable and uncertain, both at home and
abroad. Hamilton made bitter attacks on Adams’ policies (Elser, 1993). The
fiscal situation was desolate. The national debt