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September 3rd, 2018

John Adams and the Quasi-War

As we have seen from the two previous posts in this series, polarizing political issues are not something of recent invention. It seems that George Washington's vision of a nation undivided by factions lasted about a minute before Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were gathering up sides for their positions on such polarizing issues as England vs. France vs. neutrality, a strong central government vs. states' rights, and rule by legislature vs. popular vote. When John Adams succeeded George Washington in 1797, residual resentment remained from the perceived shortcomings of the Jay Treaty. Adams also had to deal with a new issue: French reaction to the treaty and to America's unwillingness to come to France's aid in its conflict with Britain. This led to something that has come to be known as the "Quasi-War" with France.

In a letter that John Adams wrote to James Lloyd in January of 1815, the second president told his friend, "I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800." One might imagine that not starting a war was something reasonably expected, but for Adams who had to contend with significant political pressure, by not taking his nation into war, he paid a political price in order to do the right thing.

Peace with France was not the obvious choice for Adams, given the times. During Adams' term, he struggled to keep the United States out of the expanding conflicts taking place in Europe, especially the war between Britain and France. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists favored Britain, while Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France. The French wanted Jefferson to be elected president, and when he lost the election of 1796, the French displayed antagonism against the Adams administration. When Adams entered office, he realized the importance of continuing Washington's policy of staying out of the European war. This was difficult because many Americans felt short-changed by the Jay Treaty of 1795. This polarized politics within the nation.

The French saw America as too closely allied with Britain and as a result, they began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. Many Americans remained pro-French, because of France's assistance during the Revolutionary War. Because of this, many Americans turned against Adams. But support for France declined with an incident that became known as the "XYZ Affair."

When an American team of diplomats were sent to France to negotiate a solution to French seizure of American ships, the French demanded huge bribes before any discussions could commence. When Americans learned of this, support for France in the United States rapidly declined. The Jeffersonians, who were friends to France, lost popularity and many Americans called for war with France. Adams and his advisers knew that America would be unable to win a war against such a strong military nation. Instead, Adams pursued a strategy in which American ships harassed French ships in an effort to stop the French assaults on American interests. This was in effect an undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France that became known as the Quasi-War, which began in 1798.

Fearing the danger of invasion from the much larger and more powerful French forces, Adams and the Federalist Congress built up the army, bringing back George Washington at its head. Washington wanted Hamilton to be his second-in-command and, given Washington's fame, Adams reluctantly agreed. Adams also built up the US Navy, adding six fast, powerful frigates, most notably the USS Constitution. To pay for the new Army and Navy, Congress imposed new taxes on property, known as the Direct Tax of 1798. This in turn angered taxpayers. In southeast Pennsylvania, the bloodless Fries's Rebellion broke out among rural German-speaking farmers.

As Hamilton asserted greater control over the War department, the rift between Adams and Hamilton's supporters grew wider. Hamilton tried to usurp presidential power by demanding that he control the army. He refused to recognize the necessity of giving prominent Democratic-Republicans positions in the army, while Adams wanted to balance power in order to gain Democratic-Republican support. Many became uncomfortable with Hamilton building a large standing army, adding to political divisions in the nation.

Adams knew victory in an all out war against imperial France would be folly. In spite of the adverse affect on his popularity, Adams sought peace with France. In February 1799, he sent diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon, not wishing to spread his army too thin, realized that the conflict was unwise, and expressed a willingness for friendly relations. At the Convention of 1800, a peace was achieved. Adams demobilized the emergency army.

Adams avoided war, but in the process, he split his own party. Peace hurt his popularity and probably cost him a second term in office. Nevertheless, Adams found satisfaction at having kept the nation out of what could have been a costly and potentially disastrous war.
Today is Labor Day in the United States (and Labour Day in Canada). This holiday is celebrated on the first Monday in September. In the United States (and probably elsewhere) it is intended as a celebration of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers.

The concept of Labor Day was first formally promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, who organized the first parade in New York City. In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the CLU (Central Labor Union) of New York. The idea was also proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after he had attended the annual labour festival held in Toronto, Ontario in Canada.

On May 4, 1886, the Haymarket Massacre took place at Haymarket Squeare in Chicago, in which what was intended as a peaceful protest of the death of several workers by police, turned ugly after someone in the crowd threw a dynamite bomb at police attempting to break up the protest. As the result of the blast and the ensuing gunfire, seven police officers and four workers were killed and many others were wounded.

President Grover Cleveland was concerned that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 would become an opportunity for renewed bad feelings over the Haymarket Massacre. Labor Day was created as a holiday which individual states could declare, but it was not yet a national holiday.

Cleveland was defeated for re-election in 1888, but returned to the White House following his victory in the election of 1892. In 1894, Cleveland was afraid of further labor violence following the deaths of a number of workers who were killed by the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike. Cleveland had called in the military in order to keep the trains running during the strike. Over the course of the strike about 30 people were killed.


Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894, just six days after the end of the strike. The September date originally chosen by the Central Labor Union of New York and observed by many of the nation's trade unions for the past several years was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers' Day because Cleveland was concerned that observance of the latter would be associated with the May 1st day that a number of Anarchist movements would rally on to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in International Workers' Day. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories have made it a statutory holiday.


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