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When John Adams was elected President, and Thomas Jefferson Vice President, each came to see the other as a traitor. Out of their enmity grew our modern political system.
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
Much like Adams, Jefferson was also preoccupied with the long shadow of George Washington. As he confided to James Madison: “The President [Washington] is fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others to hold the bag. Yet, as his departure will mark the moment when the difficulties begin to work, you will see, that they will be ascribed to the new administration. …” Jefferson was certain that “no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.” While strolling the grounds of Monticello with a French visitor, he expanded on his strategic sense of the intractable political realities: “In the present situation of the United States, divided as they are between two parties, which mutually accuse each other of perfidy and treason, … this exalted station [the Presidency] is surrounded with dangerous rocks; … and the most eminent abilities, will not be sufficient to steer clear of them all.” If Adams was planning for a bipartisan victory in the election, Jefferson seemed to be hoping for a defeat.
Jefferson got his wish. In early February 1797, when the electoral votes were counted, they revealed that in a razorthin victory, Adams had prevailed, 71-68. The question facing Jefferson now became painfully clear: As the newly elected Vice President, should he join hands with his old friend to establish a bipartisan executive team? As was his custom, Jefferson turned to his most trusted political confidant for advice, and James Madison provided a brutally realistic answer: “Considering the probability that Mr. A’s course of administration may force an opposition to it from the Republican quarter, and the general uncertainty of the posture which our affairs may take, there may be real embarrassments from giving written possession to him, of the degree of compliment and confidence which your personal delicacy and friendship have suggested.” In short, Jefferson must not permit himself to be drawn into the policymaking process of the Adams administration, lest it compromise his role as leader of the Republican opposition.
The decision played out in a dramatic face-to-face encounter. On March 6, 1797, Adams and Jefferson dined with Washington at the presidential mansion in Philadelphia. Adams learned that Jefferson was unwilling to join the cabinet; Jefferson learned that Adams had been battling with his Federalist advisers, who opposed a vigorous Jeffersonian presence in the administration. They left the dinner together and walked down Market Street to Fifth, two blocks from the very spot where Jefferson had drafted the words of the Declaration of Independence that Adams had so forcefully defended before the Continental Congress almost twenty-one years earlier. As Jefferson remembered it later, “We took leave, and he never after that said one word to me on the subject or ever consulted me as to any measure of the government.”
A few days later, at his swearing-in ceremony as Vice President, Jefferson joked about his rusty recall of parliamentary procedure, a clear sign that he intended to spend his time in the harmless business of monitoring debates in the Senate. After Adams was sworn in as President on March 4, he reported to Abigail that Washington had murmured under his breath: “Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest.” Predictably, the sight of Washington leaving office attracted the bulk of the commentary in the press. Adams informed his beloved Abigail that it was like “the sun setting full-orbit, and another rising (though less splendidly).” Jefferson was on the road back to Monticello immediately after the inaugural ceremony, setting up the Republican government-in-exile, waiting for the inevitable catastrophes to befall the Presidency of his old friend. As for Adams himself, without Jefferson as a colleague, with a Federalist cabinet filled with men loyal to Hamilton, he was left alone with Abigail, the only collaborator he could truly trust. In a number of letters, his call to her mixed abiding love with a sense of desperation: “I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life,” he pleaded; “The times are critical and dangerous and I must have you here to assist me. …’; “You must leave the farm to the mercy of the winds. I can do nothing without you.” Adams intended to practice the old politics of trust while Jefferson began perfecting the new politics of partisanship.
The consensus that had held together under the first President fragmented and then broke down completely.
Beyond the daunting task of following the greatest hero in American history, Adams faced a double dilemma. On the one hand, the country was already waging an undeclared war, called the Quasi-War, against French privateers in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Should the United States declare war on France or seek a diplomatic solution? Adams, like Washington, was committed to American neutrality at almost any cost, but he coupled this commitment with a buildup of the American Navy, which would enable the United States to fight a defensive war if negotiations with France broke down.