- Historic Sites
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
On the other hand, the ongoing debate between Federalists and Republicans had degenerated into unrelenting ideological warfare in which each side sincerely saw the other as traitor to the core principles of the American Revolution. The political consensus that had held together during Washington’s first term and had then begun to fragment into Federalist and Republican camps over the Jay Treaty broke down completely in 1797. Jefferson spoke for many of the participants caught up in this intensely partisan and nearly scatological political culture when he described it as a fundamental loss of trust between former friends. “Men who have been intimate all their lives,” he observed, “cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch hats.” He first used the phrase a wall of separation —which would later become famous as his description of the proper relation between church and state—to describe the political and ideological division between Federalists and Republicans.
The very idea of a legitimate opposition did not yet exist in the political culture of the 179Os, and the evolution of political parties was proceeding in an environment that continued to regard the term party as an epithet. In effect, the leadership of the revolutionary generation lacked a vocabulary adequate to describe the politics they were inventing. And the language they inherited framed the genuine political differences and divisions in personal terms that only exacerbated their nonnegotiable character. “You can witness for me,” Adams wrote to his son John Quincy concerning Jefferson’s opposition, “how loath I have been to give him up. It is with much reluctance that I am obliged to look upon him as a man whose mind is warped by prejudice. … however wise and scientific as a philosopher, as a politician he is a child and the dupe of party.”
At the domestic level, then, Adams inherited a supercharged political atmosphere every bit as ominous and intractable as the tangle on the international scene. It was a truly unprecedented situation in several senses: His Vice President was in fact the leader of the opposition party; his cabinet was loyal to the memory of Washington, which several members regarded as embodied now in the person of Alexander Hamilton, who was officially retired from the government altogether; political parties were congealing into doctrinaire ideological camps, but neither side possessed the verbal or mental capacity to regard the other as anything but treasonable; and finally, the core conviction of the entire experiment in republican government—namely, that all domestic and foreign policies derived their authority from public opinion—conferred a novel level of influence on the press, which had yet to develop any established rules of conduct or standards for distinguishing rumors from reliable reporting. It was a recipe for political chaos that even the indomitable Washington would have been hard pressed to control.
What happened as a result was highly improvisational and deeply personal. Adams virtually ignored his cabinet, most of whom were more loyal to Hamilton anyway, and fell back on his family for advice, which in practice made Abigail his unofficial one-woman staff. Jefferson continued his partnership with Madison, the roles now reversed, with Jefferson assuming active command of the Republican opposition from the seat of government in Philadelphia and Madison dispensing his political wisdom from retirement at Montpelier. While the official center of the government remained in the executive and congressional offices at Philadelphia, the truly effective centers of power were located in two political partnerships based on personal trust. Having failed to revive-the great collaboration of the revolutionary era, Adams and Jefferson went their separate ways with different intimates.
There was an almost tribal character to the Adams collaboration. Adams himself, while vastly experienced as a statesman and diplomat, had no experience whatsoever as an executive. He had never served as a governor like Jefferson or as a military commander like Washington. And he regarded the role of party leader of the Federalists as not just unbecoming but utterly incompatible with his responsibilities as President, which were to transcend party squabbles in the Washington mode and reach decisions like a “patriot king” whose sole concern was the long-term public interest. As a result, the notion that he was supposed to manage the political factions in Congress or in his cabinet never even occurred to him. Instead, he would rely on his own judgment and on the advice of his family and trusted friends.
Abigail was his chief domestic ministerwithout-portfolio. In a very real sense, Adams did not have a domestic policy; indeed, he believed that paying any attention to the shifting currents of popular opinion and the raging party battles in the press violated his proper posture as President, which was to remain oblivious of such swings in the national mood. Abigail tended to reinforce this belief in executive independence. Jefferson, she explained, was like a willow who bent with every political breeze. Her husband, on the other hand, was like an oak: “He may be torn up by the roots, or break, but he will never bend.”