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The presidency of John Adams

Read about the major events of John Adams's presidency.

Overview

  • John Adams, a Federalist, was the second president of the United States. He served from 1797-1801.
  • John Adams's presidency was marked by conflicts between the two newly-formed political parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
  • The conflicts between the two political parties centered on foreign policy and the balance of power between the federal government and the states' governments.

Adams's presidency

The second person to take up the mantle of the presidency was John Adams, who had served as Vice President under George Washington. Adams was the nation’s first official Federalist president (although Washington had been aligned with the ideas of the Federalists, as president he had frowned on political parties and attempted to remain above partisan squabbling).
Portrait of John Adams.
Portrait of John Adams, painted by John Trumbull, c. 1793. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
During Adams's one-term presidency, the first two American political parties emerged and relations with France began to sour.

Rise of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans

During the Constitutional Convention, factions emerged almost immediately. These factions ended up forming the first two political parties in American history: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
On one side, there were the Federalists. Generally, Federalists lived along eastern seaboard and were wealthy merchants or well-educated people who lived in the city. They supported a stronger central government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution: the idea that what the Constitution didn't explicitly forbid, it allowed. The Federalists also supported fixing the relationship between the United States and Britain for trade reasons.
On the other side were the Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans frequently hailed from western regions and were more likely to be farmers than merchants. The Democratic-Republicans favored a weaker central government in favor of stronger state governments. They believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution: the idea that the federal government couldn't do anything the Constitution didn't explicitly permit. They also preferred a foreign alliance with France, as the French had supported the United States in the Revolutionary War.
Check your understanding: Can you fill in the missing information in the chart below?
BeliefsFederalistsDemocratic-Republicans
The federal government should be:StrongWeak
State governments should be:Weak
The United States should ally with:France
The Constitution should be interpreted:Loosely

The XYZ Affair

In 1794, George Washington sent John Jay, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to negotiate a treaty with the British that removed British forts from the Northwest Territory of the United States. He also hoped to negotiate free trade between the United States and the portion of the West Indies which was occupied by the British. In exchange, the United States agreed to settle colonial debts that were owed to British merchants.
Known as Jay's Treaty, the pro-British agreement angered the government of France, which had supported the United States in the American Revolution. In response, the French navy began attacking American merchant ships. In 1797, President Adams sent diplomats to create a treaty between the United States and France.
Political cartoon satirizing the XYZ Affair, showing a group of French men attempting to steal money from an allegorical figure of America. In the background, figures representing other nations look on and laugh.
Political cartoon satirizing the XYZ Affair, showing a group of French men attempting to steal money from an allegorical figure of America. In the background, figures representing other nations look on and laugh. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Upon arrival, three French diplomats, nicknamed “X”, “Y”, and “Z”, proceeded to ask for bribes in order to start negotiations. The story eventually made its way to the American public, inciting many Americans to write letters to Adams, pushing for an armed conflict with the French.
Over the next two years, the United States carried on an undeclared naval war with France.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

Fear of opposition to the war within the United States prompted many Federalists to call for a way to punish dissidents, chiefly those in the Anti-Federalist Party. This took the form of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
“Alien” refers to someone who is not from the country, and the Alien Act was created to allow the federal government to deport non-citizens who were a threat to national security. Sedition means to write or speak in a way as to get people to rebel against the authority of a government. The Sedition Act, however, was created as a way to punish American citizens who criticized the American government during the war with the intent to harm the government’s position.
Under the Sedition Act, the government charged and prosecuted several printers who spoke against the United States and the war. Even Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican Congress member, was jailed for criticizing President Adams in a Republican newspaper.
Test your knowledge
What amendment to the Constitution did the Sedition Act potentially violate? Why?
Choose 1 answer:

The Kentucky and Virginia resolutions

The Federalist Party supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, but the Democratic-Republican Party criticized them. They argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts gave too much power to the federal government.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, leading Democratic-Republicans, each wrote a resolution that were later adopted by Kentucky and Virginia, respectively. These resolutions pushed for a strict interpretation of the Constitution when it came to powers granted to the federal government. They also claimed that states had the power to ignore and disregard federal laws if they considered them outside of the bounds of their powers as described in the Constitution.
Debate about the balance between federal and state power would continue until the Civil War, remerging in issues like the Nullification crisis.

Adams's midnight appointments

Arguably, Adams’ most influential act as president happened as he was leaving office. In his last moments as president, the night before his successor (Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican) took office, Adams attempted to appoint as many Federalists as possible into empty positions as justices of the peace. These "midnight judges" were a ploy to stack the courts against the incoming Democratic-Republican party.
Although Adams signed the judicial appointments, he failed to make sure they were delivered on time. When Jefferson took office, he refused to arrange for the delivery of the remaining appointments. One of the disappointed would-be judges, William Marbury, sued for his appointment. The Supreme Court case that followed, Marbury v. Madison, established the principle of judicial review: that the Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws if it judges that those laws violate the Constitution.

What do you think?

Why did the Adams administration pass the Alien and Sedition Acts?
What was the most important issue dividing the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans?

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky seedling style avatar for user Frankie Trader
    In my APUSH textbook, it says that Justice John Jay was sent to talk to Britain to discuss the British seizing and searching American merchant vessels, and forcing men into the British Navy. It also says that after a year of negotiations, Jay returned with a treaty in which the British agreed to evacuate its posts on the US Western frontier. The treaty didn't mention the British seizures of American merchant ships. Is this not true?
    (10 votes)
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    • purple pi purple style avatar for user rtlin2010
      Yeah, the treaty, subsequently coined the "Jay Treaty", was actually a treaty exchanging the removal of all British Forces and vacate forts on American soil (which they were already supposed to do under the Treaty of Paris). In exchange, America would become Britain's MFN (Most Favorable Nation) for trading. The treaty never includes the seizure of American ships, both by the British and French, and that continued until the War of 1812.
      (7 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Mighela
    What are the main 4 cons of John Adams?
    (6 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Manomay Shravage
      John Adams did many things that were not accepted by the people:
      1) He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the government to deport non-citizens and prosecute American citizens who spoke out against the Federalist Party.
      2) He tried to pick a war with France, who was an ally of the Americas.
      3) He used his position in government to attack any of his political rivals.
      4) In his last moments as president, he wanted to appoint as many Federalists as he could, as justices of peace.

      There's many more things that John Adams did wrong, but here are the 4 main things. So you see, unlike Washington, Adams misused his power as president.
      (13 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Avery Allen
    What are the similarities and differences in the two parties' views on economics and foreign policy?
    (6 votes)
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  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Emburr
    Question 1: cause they stupid

    Question 2: federalist dont follow their own law
    (6 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Nick Yakoobian
    Wasn't James Madison a Federalist? why does it say Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were both leading Democratic-Republicans?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Avonlea Brickman
    1. The Adams administration passed the Alien and Sedition Acts because they were afraid of people rioting against the government's war decisions.
    2. The most important issue dividing the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans was how closely they should follow the U.S. Constitution.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user delong.dylan
    why did this happen
    (2 votes)
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  • old spice man blue style avatar for user colep_baldwin
    Is the Alien act still implemented today? If not, has another act replaced it with the same function of deporting national threats?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user MoonTiger153
    In the sedition and alien acts section, it mentions that their cause was to suppress opposition to the war. Which war are they referring to, the revolutionary war or the undeclared naval war with france?
    (2 votes)
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  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Yuya Fujikawa
    Umm, wait a sec, James Madison was a Federalist, right? - He was dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of the US constitution in that its federal government exercised very limited authority. So why did he found the democratic-Republican party with Thomas Jefferson - which was in favor of weak federal govt? Hmm...
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      This is a huge oversimplification, but while Madison and Jefferson recognized the need for a central government that was "powerful enough" and certainly more powerful than was the case under the Articles of Confederation, they were simultaneously wary of the central government potentially gaining too much power at the expense of the individual states. Furthermore, Washington was far and away the leading figure in the new country following the American Revolution and favored a strong central government as necessary to establish the new democracy. While Jefferson and Madison were certainly among the elite of the Founding Fathers, they were nowhere near as powerful and influential as Washington was at the time of the Constitutional Convention through Washington's first term, so they temporarily took a back seat to the Washington/Adams/Hamilton "Federalist" positions at first, while biding their time to later assert their "Democratic Republican/Anti-Federalists" views.

      In addition, both Jefferson and Madison were brilliant thinkers but preferred to exercise their politics in a more behind the scenes manner which required a somewhat covert style until the political situation presented itself and offered a more opportunistic environment to reveal their actual views.
      (4 votes)