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The Presidency of John Adams Previous Next
Digital History ID 2977

 

The new president was a 61 year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who had been an early leader in the struggle for independence. Short, bald, overweight, and vain, he was known, behind his back, as "His Rotundity."

Adams was the first president to live in what would later be called the White House. Just 6 of the structure's 30 rooms were plastered. The White House's main staircases were not installed for another four years. The mansion's grounds were cluttered with workers' shanties, privies, and stagnant pools of water. The president's wife, Abigail, hung laundry to dry in the East Room. The city of Washington consisted of a brewery, a half-finished hotel, an abandoned canal, an empty warehouse and wharf, and 372 dwellings, "most of them small miserable huts." Cows and hogs ran freely in the capital's streets, and snakes frequented the city's many bogs and marshes. The entire population consisted of 500 families and some 300 members of government.

During Adams' presidency, the United States faced its most serious international crisis yet: an undeclared naval war with France. In the Jay Treaty, France perceived an American tilt toward Britain, especially in a provision permitting the British to seize French goods from American ships in exchange for financial compensation. France retaliated by capturing hundreds of vessels flying the United States flag.

Adams sent a negotiating team to France to settle the dispute. The French foreign minister continually postponed official negotiations. Meanwhile, three French emissaries (known later simply as X, Y, and Z) demanded that the Americans pay a bribe of $250,000 and provide a $10 million loan. The Americans refused to pay anything.

Word of the "XYZ affair" aroused a popular demand for war. The popular slogan was "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." The Federalist-controlled Congress prepared for war by authorizing a 20,000 man army and calling George Washington out of retirement as commander in chief. During the winter of 1798, an undeclared naval war took place between France and the United States.

In the midst of the crisis, the Federalist dominated Congress passed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which were designed to suppress public criticism of the government. These laws:

  • lengthened the period necessary before immigrants could become citizens from 5 to 14 years;
  • gave the president the power to imprison or deport any foreigner believed to be dangerous to the United States; and
  • made it a crime to attack the government with "false, scandalous, or malicious" statements or writings.

    These acts contributed to Thomas Jefferson's election as president in 1800 and gave the Federalist party a reputation for political repression. Federalist prosecutors used the Sedition Act to convict ten editors and printers. The most notorious use of the law to suppress dissent involved Luther Baldwin, who was arrested in a Newark, N.J. tavern. While cannons roared to celebrate a presidential visit to the city, Baldwin was overheard saying "that he did not care if they fired through [the president's] arse." For his drunken remark, Baldwin was imprisoned for two months and fined.

    Republicans accused the Federalists of violating fundamental liberties. The state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia adopted resolutions written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison denouncing the Alien and Sedition Acts as an infringement on freedom of expression. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions advanced the idea that the states had a right to declare federal laws null and void, and helped to establish the theory of states' rights.

    Adams succeeded in averting full-scale war with France, but at the cost of a second term as president. Hamilton vowed to destroy Adams: "If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible."

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