Intimate Enemies

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Nevertheless, she followed the highly partisan exchanges in the Republican newspapers and provided her husband with regular reports on the machinations and accusations of the opposition. When an editorial in the pro-Republican Aurora described Adams as “old, querelous, Bald, blind, [and] crippled,” Abigail joked that she alone possessed the intimate knowledge to testify about his physical condition. She relished reporting the Fourth of July toast: “John Adams. May he, like Samson , slay thousands of Frenchmen with the jawbone of Jefferson.” She passed along gossip circulating in the streets of Philadelphia about plans to mount pro-French demonstrations, allegedly orchestrated by “the grandest of all grand Villains, that traitor to his country—the infernal Scoundrel Jefferson.” She predicted that Jefferson and his Republican friends “will … take ultimately a station in the public’s estimation like that of the Tories in our Revolution.”

Although we can never know for sure, there is considerable evidence that Abigail played a decisive role in persuading Adams to support passage of those four pieces of legislation known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These infamous statutes, unquestionably the biggest blunder of the Adams Presidency, were designed to deport or disenfranchise foreign-born residents, mostly Frenchmen, who were disposed to support the Republican party, and to make it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States. …” Adams went to his grave claiming that these laws never enjoyed his support, that he had signed them grudgingly and reluctantly.

All this was true enough, but sign them he did, despite his own reservations and against the advice of the moderate Federalists like John Marshall. Abigail, on the other hand, felt no compunctions. “Nothing will have an Effect until congress passes a Sedition Bill,” she wrote her sister in the spring of 1798. “The wrath of the public ought to fall upon their [the Republican editors’] devoted Heads.” In a later letter she went on to say, “In any other Country [Benjamin Franklin] Bache [editor of the Aurora ] and all his papers would have been seazd. …” Her love for her husband, and her protective sense as chief guardian of his Presidency, pushed her beyond any doubts. She even urged that the Alien Act be used to remove Albert Gallatin,the Swiss-born leader of the Republican party in the House of Representatives. Gallatin, she observed, “that specious, subtle, spare Cassius, that imported foreigner,” was guilty of treasonable behavior by delivering speeches or introducing amendments “that obstruct their cause and prevent their reaching their goals.” Gallatin, along with all the henchmen in the Jefferson camp, should be regarded “as traitors to their country.”

Ironically, the most significant—and in the long run the most successful—decision of the Adams Presidency occurred when Abigail was recovering from a bout with rheumatic fever back in Quincy. Federalists who opposed the policy attributed it to her absence. This was Adams’s apparently impulsive decision, announced on February 18, 1799, to send another peace delegation to France. (The first delegation had failed when the French government brazenly demanded a bribe before negotiating.) Theodore Sedgwick, a Federalist leader in Congress, claimed to be “thunderstruck” and summed up the reaction of his Federalist colleagues: “Had the foulest heart and the ablest head in the world … have been permitted to select the most … ruinous measure, perhaps it would have been precisely the one which has been adopted.” Timothy Pickering, the disloyal Secretary of State, whom Adams had come to despise, also described himself as thunderstruck and offered a perceptive reading of Adams’s motives: ”… it was done without any consultation with any member of the government and for a reason truly remarkable—because he knew we should all be opposed to the measure .”

The stories circulating in the Philadelphia press suggested that Adams had acted impulsively because his politically savvy wife had not been available to talk him out of it. (For the preceding two months Adams had in fact been complaining in public and private that he was no good as a “solitudionarian” and he “wanted my talkative wife.”) Abigail had noted an editorial in Porcupine’s Gazette regretting her absence. “I suppose,” she wrote her husband, “they will want somebody to keep you warm.” The announcement of the new peace initiative then gave added credibility to the charge that without Abigail, Adams had lost either his balance or his mind. Adams joked about these stories. “This ought to gratify your vanity,” he wrote Abigail, “enough to cure you!” For her part, Abigail returned the joke but with a clear signal of support: “This was pretty saucy, but the old woman can tell them they are mistaken, for she considers the measure a master stroke of policy.…”