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The First 100 Days: John Adams

John Adams had a lawyer, a diplomat and a one of the leaders in the independence movement in the American Colonies. He served two terms as the first Vice-President of the United States, but was not really part of George Washington's inner circle. He did not attend cabinet meetings and it is said that Washington rarely asked Adams for advice on policy and legal issues. He was mocked by his political enemies during his term as Vice-President for being too formal and officious. For example, he became deeply entwined in a month-long Senate controversy over the official title of the President. Adams favored grandiose titles such as "His Majesty the President" or "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties." This was at odds with the point of view of his political polar opposite, Thomas Jefferson, who though the proposed titles to be "superlatively ridiculous." Because of the pomposity of his view of the subject, as well as his carrying a few extra pounds, caused his enemies to give Adams the nickname "His Rotundity."


Adams' two terms as Vice President were unsatisfying and frustrating for him. He wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

But when Washington decided, after serving two terms as President, Adams was the presumptive presidential nominee of the Federalist Party. Washington saw Adams as the closest adherent to Federalist principles and was less partisan-minded than either Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton. As it turned out, Adams won the election of 1796 by a narrow margin of 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson. Under the system at the time, Jefferson became the vice president.

Adams took the oath of office as the second President of the United States on March 4, 1797. At the time, the nation had a population of five million, with two-thirds of those inhabitants living within one hundred miles of the East Coast of the United States. Learning from the mistakes of his vice presidency, Adams wore an unpretentious suit to his inauguration. In his inaugural address, Adams praised Washington and called for political unity. He also stated his desire to avoid war. Though he was perceived as pro-British by his opponents, he praised the nation of France in his address, something that some of the Federalists disliked.

Adams moved into the President's House, which at the time was located in the capital of Philadelphia. Later in his term, he would become the first President to live in what would later become the White House in Washington, D.C. As was prone to happen to early presidents, Adams was soon besieged by job applicants and office seekers. He chose to keep Washington's top officials in the cabinet. This would prove to be a mistake, as Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of War James McHenry, and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. were all more loyal to Hamilton than Adams. They often actively worked against Adams and his policies. Adams was aware of the problem, but he believed that keeping these men in their positions ensured a smoother succession. Because of the lack of support from these cabinet members, Adams often made decisions independently of his cabinet. It was not until his last year in office that he dismissed Pickering and McHenry in 1800.

In his farewell address, George Washington had warned about the dangers of the nation becoming involved in European affairs, and Adams had to contend with the factions in his government that wanted to take sides in the conflict between Great Britain and France, who were at war. Hamilton and the Federalists supported Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France. While we may think of today's politics as being very polarized, in 1797, the United States was also politically polarized, following the Jay Treaty in 1795. The treaty had resolved few of the major American complaints against the British, and foremost among these was the British practice of impressment of American sailors. British ships would board American vessels and force their sailors into service in the British Navy. America could do little about this because of the state of British Naval superiority. While Washington and Adams were outraged by the practice, they viewed the treaty that Jay was able to negotiate as preferable over fighting another war with the British.

The French were outraged by the Jay Treaty and they too began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. In the 1796 elections, the French supported Jefferson for president, and became even more belligerent against American ships, following Jefferson's his loss. When Adams took office, pro-French sentiment in the United States remained strong, notwithstanding the French action against American ships, because Americans remembered how France had provided assistance during the Revolutionary War. Later in his term, Adams would be forced to confront French aggression during what became known as the XYZ affair, when French foreign minister Tallyrand sought a bribe before embarking on negotiations with the United States. He would also prepare the United States navy to fight the undeclared "Quasi-War" with France on the high seas. But all of that would come later.

Adams spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts. The demands of the presidency were not what they are today, and Adams was not confronted with the demands of instantaneous communication that exist today. This also afforded him the luxury of ignoring the demand of political patronage. It was in his first year, but after his "first 100 days" that Adams, on November 22, 1797, gave what is considered as his first State of the Union Address in the Congress Hall of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This address gives us a good picture of the issues foremost on his presidential plate during his first year in office.

At the time of the address, sickness was spreading through Philadelphia. In his introduction to the speech, Adams said that he was tempted to relocate the seat of government at this time, but that he chose not to do so because of the expense and general inconvenience.

Adams began his State of the Union Address by talking about the number one issue of the day: European aggression towards American merchant vessels. He noted the importance of his nation's growing role in international commerce, proudly citing American accomplishments in agriculture and commercial fishing. During the summer months of July and August that year, American delegates traveled to the Batavian Republic and then to France, arriving in Paris on September 19. Their goal was to began negotiations to improve relations between the two nations. At the time the speech was delivered, Adams did not know how those meetings were going, but he knew and stated in the speech that war, with France or even with other European countries such as Great Britain, was a reasonable possibility. His own Federalist Party wanted to go to war with the French, but Adams knew that the nation was not prepared to fight such a war. He had to fend off these pressures within his own party.

Adams told his audience that "respect to treaties has been so diminished". He was referring to the violation of the Treaty of Alliance by the French, as well as the violation of Pinckney's Treaty by the Spanish through illegal garrisons in the western U.S. frontiers. The Jay Treaty, Pinckney's Treaty, the Treaty of Tripoli, the Treaty with Tunis, and France's attempt at forming a similar treaty with the U.S. in March 1797 were all highly unfavorable to the U.S. Adams realized this and knew that until the U.S. could build up its navy and militia, it would be on the losing end of an imbalance of power with European nations. Adams also condemned efforts by Spanish foreign agents to incite an insurgency among Native Americans.

Another subject Adams directly addressed in this address was the national debt and taxation that was necessaryin order to fund a larger, more mobile Army. He warned Congress against incurring loans as he believed that they had contributed to the vast debt and economic collapse of historical empires. He concluded his address by reiterating his central theme about the necessity to militarize to adequately defend against foreign intimidation.

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Adams would lose his bid for re-election in 1800. This was due in part to divisions within the Federalist Party, to the unity of the pro-Jefferson faction, and also to a national backlash against the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts and to the taxation required to fund the strengthening of the American navy and militia. Although he did not win re-election, Adams deserves to he revered for his strength of character and for his strong adherence to principle. He was the perhaps the most independent-minded of the founding founders. Although he was a member of the Federalist Party, he was really a party unto himself. (In fact, a 2006 biography of Adams by James Grant is cleverly and appropriately titled John Adams: Party of One He is often described as "prickly", but his tenacity was the product of strong-willed determination to resist political pressure in favor of making decisions that he saw to be in the best interests of his country, no matter how much opposition he faced. Adams himself later admitted that in sticking to his guns, he could be disagreeable at times. He wrote: "I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore." By keeping the United States out of war with France, Adams allowed the young nation to grow and prosper into the nation it eventually became.


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