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The Adams Administration

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Adams Administration

John Adams, who supported the Federalist view, was elected president in 1796. In a twist of fate, Jefferson, despite being a member of the opposing party, won the second-highest total of votes and thus became vice president. Although Adams and Jefferson had become close friends during the battle for American independence, their political differences placed a severe strain on their friendship.

Adams had never been popular among his colleagues. Where Jefferson was silent and reserved, Adams was combative and forthright—an undiplomatic diplomat and a politician who did not know how to play political games. He was known as a warm and loyal friend, his integrity and honesty were agreed to be unimpeachable, and he was intellectually brilliant. However, his blunt outspokenness earned him the dislike of many of the leaders in government.

Foreign Policy

In protest against Jay’s Treaty, France had begun seizing American ships in the West Indies. Wanting to avoid war with France if possible, Adams sent diplomats to France to negotiate a settlement. Three French agents asked the American diplomats to pay France’s foreign minister a heavy bribe and to lend France $10 million before any negotiations. When Adams informed the Congress of this demand, he referred to the French agents as X, Y, and Z, rather than revealing their names. The XYZ Affair turned public opinion even further against France.

Deciding that the best chance to maintain peace lay in a show of strength, Adams ordered a major buildup of the navy. The ploy worked; French foreign minister Talleyrand, alarmed at the prospect of an all-out naval war with the United States, agreed that France would stop seizing American ships. Soon after, American diplomats signed a peace agreement with Napoleon. The issue of relations with France divided the Federalists; many supported Adams’s desire to maintain peace, but others had hoped for war and considered that the president had made the United States look weak.

The low point of the Adams administration came with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts, passed by Congress in 1798, allowed the president to deport any foreigner thought to be dangerous to the country, and made it illegal to speak or act against the government. Many people thought that these acts infringed on the liberties they were guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. Jefferson and Madison, who found the acts outrageous, were instrumental in writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These state laws, passed in 1798 and 1799, claimed that a state could not be forced to obey a federal law if the law were unconstitutional.

The Alien and Sedition Acts are important because they marked the first time that an American president, balancing the apparently opposing interests of civil liberty and national security, opted for security. The late 1790s were a period of unrest in the United States; war threatened with both France and Britain. In times of unrest or all-out war, leaders have often found it necessary to curtail certain civil liberties in the interest of national security. This would happen time and time again in American history; Adams was only the first of several presidents to take such a step.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Establishing a New Nation and the First Four Presidents Practice Test

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