I’ll be honest, I didn’t really think there would be an interesting presidential election until Andrew Jackson formed the Democratic Party in 1824. But this one is a doozy! There were some pretty serious issues on the table, and lots of highly partisan, ugly campaigning. So buckle up! It’s going to be a bumpy ride!
The Last Four Years
Adams, of course, lived in Washington’s shadow. He had to live up to the most popular American of all time! On top of that, the rules for transition of power were slightly unclear. Adams chose to keep all of Washington’s cabinet to maintain continuity, even though he didn’t have to (sadly, Hamilton and Jefferson had stepped down a few years earlier). Adams continued Hamilton’s aggressive economic policies, but didn’t allow him to have the kind of influence on his administration that Washington had granted him. Hamilton thought that was BS.
Adams’ tenure as president almost entirely revolved around the US’s Quasi-War with France. His initial position was to remain neutral in Europe’s wars, as Washington had. Unfortunately, France wasn’t too thrilled about the Jay Treaty between the US and Britain (making us best friend trade buddies). In response, French ships started attacking American merchant ships. Adams sent a peace commission to France to resolve the crisis.
The commission consisted of Chief Justice John Marshall (don’t you have court cases to hear?), Minister to France Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and former Massachusetts Representative Elbridge Gerry. The crew was not welcomed warmly by the French government. Instead, three agents of French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (say that three times fast!) met with the Americans and demanded bribes in order to continue negotiations. This became known as the XYZ Affair, as Adams had referred to this terrible trio as Agents X, Y, and Z. When news of the failed meeting got back to the US, the Federalists demanded war.
Adams knew the US couldn’t get lucky in a war against a European powerhouse again. He avoided actually declaring war. But that didn’t stop him from building up the military. For starters, he expanded the US Navy. He also allowed for the creation of a provisional army, to prepare for full-out war. In a cheeky move, he appointed professional nominee-of-stuff-he-doesn’t-want-to-do George Washington as commander. Washington agreed, but only under the condition that he be allowed to hand-pick his subordinates. Adams had envisioned a bipartisan group of officers, but Washington picked all Federalists, with professional partisanship-lover Alexander Hamilton as his second-in-command. As it turns out, Washington was too old to lead an army now, leaving Hamilton to be the de facto leader, and he wanted war.
Through all this turmoil, Adams and the Federalists became afraid of attacks from the opposition. To counter this fear, they passed some of the most un-American laws ever, the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Acts were designed to target French immigrants by making it more difficult to become a US citizen and granting the government increased deportation power. Even worse, the Sedition Acts made it a crime to criticize the government. So that was pretty fucked up.
To pay for the increase in military might, Adams passed a Direct Tax on property. It went over really smoothly and no one rebelled. Wait, no. We had our third rebellion of the early American government, Fries Rebellion. Another group of feisty Pennsylvanians, led by the titular John Fries, attacked tax collectors. The militia was sent in, and again, the rebel group broke up upon their arrival. John Fries was arrested and eventually convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. Luckily for him, Adams granted him a pardon before the full power of the Sedition Acts could be unleashed.
The conflict with France finally came to an end as Napoleon Bonaparte took power. This set up a surprisingly good relationship between the US and someone who was ready to sell a lot of land.
In lighter news, at the end of the Adams administration, the US government officially moved to Washington, DC! Adams became the first resident of the “President’s House” (colors hadn’t been invented yet) that summer.
With his handling of the Quasi-War, Adams made a lot of enemies. Federalists called for war at every turn, but Adams didn’t give in. But he did give in just enough to piss off the Republicans. They spoke out against the military build-up and ultimately supported the French Revolution. Adams was seen as a lover of British monarchy and a wannabe king for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Hamilton had had about enough. Adams wouldn’t let him lead the party, he wouldn’t let him control his cabinet, and he wouldn’t let him lead the army into war. It wasn’t fair! Hamilton’s closest friends were known as the High Federalists, even more partisan and extreme than the normal Federalists. He went so far as to say he wished Jefferson was president because Adams was a disgrace to the party.
Meanwhile, the Republicans were looking for a rematch. The Federalist agenda had run amok for far too long. Many Americans believed Adams had betrayed American values and thought maybe it would have been better to have a President Jefferson, after all.
To Hamilton’s chagrin, the Federalists backed Adams for a second term. Hamilton’s dream for Pinckney political dominance continued with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (brother of his preferred choice in 1796, Thomas Pinckney), but Charles was slated for the VP spot behind Adams.
The Republicans supported their boy, Thomas Jefferson, again. This time, things would be different. For VP, they backed Aaron Burr, who had switched parties from the Federalists, for his own political benefit.
Campaigning got way dirtier this time around. As I said earlier, Adams was accused of wanting to form his own monarchy in America. Jefferson was attacked for being a supporter of the radical French Revolution and for not being a true Christian. The most extremely partisan believed a President Jefferson would bring political, economic, and religious chaos to America. One woman asked wrote a neighbor, asking him to help hide her bible, knowing Jefferson’s cronies would surely confiscate it. In a really crazy strategy, some Federalists claimed that Jefferson had DIED and thus couldn’t serve as president. Turns out, it was a slave by the same name. That’s a bold move, Cotton!
Things are finally turning around for the Republicans! 73 electors voted for Jefferson! Adams only received 65 votes. So that wraps it up! Let me just check the VP results and… oh shit. Aaron Burr also received 73 votes. Remember that, under the original rules, presidential and vice presidential ballots were not separate. Each elector had two votes to give out. The second-place finisher became the VP. So the strategy of the parties was to have all but one elector from their party vote for their vice presidential pick. That would assure that the VP would come in second, assuming everyone from the party votes for the same president. Buuuut the Republicans forgot to do that. Does anyone remember what happens if the electoral college ends in a tie? That’s right kids, it goes to the House of Representatives! We’ll just have them choose Jefferson as planned and wrap this up quickly.
Slight problem. The newly victorious Republicans don’t control the House, the Federalists do. And they’re not super interested in voting for Jefferson. Voting began on February 11th, 1801. Six days and 35 votes later, it was still a tie. Some representatives pleaded with Burr to return to his Federalists roots. Make a few promises, and he can win. But he didn’t buy it. Believe it or not, Hamilton actually campaigned for Jefferson, his bitter rival. Though he despised Jefferson’s political beliefs, Hamilton found him to be of better character than Burr, who was a man of no principles that had switched parties. Burr took this very well.
Finally, on the 36th vote, some Federalists who had been supporting Burr chose to cast blank ballots instead.
Phew! That was a long one. Thomas Jefferson wins!
What Did It Say About America?
Four elections in, we had two unanimous elections, one split ticket, and one tie. Is it time for the 12th Amendment yet?
Elections were getting a lot nastier. It might be the case that extreme partisanship is actually the norm in US politics. As it turns out, Adams’ most important legacy might have been his last action as president, to hand over power to the opposing party in a peaceful transition. Some Federalists wanted to unseat Jefferson by any means necessary, believing a civil war was coming. But Adams saw it much more simply than that. While his moderation had alienated him from both sides of the aisle, it allowed him to do his duty and pass the torch. His loss in the election was one of the best things that could have happened for peaceful democracy.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah, I think so. With the huge caveat that Adams and his son were the only non-slave-holder presidents for the country’s first 50 years, he wasn’t a very good president. Though it was good that he prevented full-out war with France, the Alien and Sedition Acts are a serious low point of his administration. They were very clearly un-American. Jefferson was ready to restore democracy and populism (though not for everyone in America).