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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
This has pretty much been the verdict of history. for the peace delegation Adams appointed eventually negotiated a diplomatic end to the Quasi-War. Adams’s decision became the first substantive implementation of Washington’s message in the Farewell Address, as well as a precedent for American isolation from European wars that would influence American foreign policy for more than a century. In the immediate context of the party wars then raging, however, Adams’s unilateral action was politically suicidal. “He has sustained the whole force of an unpopular measure,” Abigail observed, “which he knew would … shower down upon his head a torrent of invective.” What she meant was that Adams had chosen to alienate himself from the mainstream of the Federalist party, which regarded his policy as pro-French, indeed just the kind of decision one might have expected from Jefferson and the Republicans. Federalist editorials in Porcupine’s Gazette turned against him, suggesting that their erstwhile leader was mentally unbalanced. (Adams, feeling his oats, wrote Abigail that he might now use the Sedition Act to shut down the Federalist press.) He was the epitome of the President without a party.
It was the trademark Adams style, which might be described as enlightened perversity. He actually sought out occasions to display, often in conspicuous fashion, his capacity for self-sacrifice. If a decision was politically unpopular, well, that only confirmed that it must be right. He had defended the British troops accused of the Boston Massacre, insisted upon American independence in the Continental Congress a full year before it was fashionable, and argued for a more exalted conception of the Presidency despite charges of monarchical tendencies. It all was part of the Adams pattern, an iconoclastic and contrarian temperament that relished alienation. (John Quincy and then great-grandson Henry exhibited the same pattern over the next century, suggesting that the predilections resided in the bloodstream.) The political conditions confronting the Presidency in 1798 were tailor-made to call forth his vintage version of virtue.
All the domestic and international challenges facing the Adams Presidency looked entirely different to Jefferson and Madison. Once they decided to reject Adams’s overture and set themselves up as the leaders of the Republican opposition, they closed ranks around their own heartfelt convictions and interpreted the foreign and domestic crises confronting Adams as heaven-sent opportunities to undermine the Federalist party, which they sincerely regarded as an organized conspiracy against the true meaning of the American Revolution. “As to do nothing, and to gain time, is everything with us,” Jefferson wrote to Madison, the very intractability of the French question and “the sharp divisions within the Federalist camp” worked to their political advantage. For the Republican agenda to win, the Federalist agenda needed to fail. Although Adams never fitted comfortably into either party category and seemed determined to alienate himself from both sides, as the elected leader of the Federalists he became the chief target of their organized opposition.
Jefferson’s nearly Herculean powers of self-denial helped keep the Republican cause pure, at least in the privacy of his own mind. In 1798 he commissioned James Callender, a notorious scandalmonger who had recently broken the story on Hamilton’s adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds, to write a libelous attack on Adams. In The Prospect Before Us , Callender delivered the goods, describing Adams as “a hoary headed incendiary” who was equally determined on war with France and on declaring himself President-for-life—both suggestions were preposterous—with John Quincy lurking in the background as his biological successor to “the American throne.” When confronted with the charge that despite his position as Vice President, he had paid Callender to write diatribes against the President, Jefferson claimed to know nothing about it. Callender subsequently published Jefferson’s incriminating letters, proving his complicity, and the Vice President seemed genuinely surprised at the revelation, suggesting that for Jefferson the deepest secrets were not the ones he kept from his enemies but the ones he kept from himself.
By modern standards Jefferson’s active role in promoting anti-Adams propaganda and his complicity in leaking information to pro-French enthusiasts like Bache were impeachable offenses that verged on treason. But, only ten years after the passage and ratification of the Constitution, what were treasonable or seditious acts remained blurry judgments without the historical sanction that only experience could provide. Lacking a consensus on what the American Revolution had intended and what the Constitution had settled, Federalists and Republicans alike were afloat in a sea of mutual accusations and partisan interpretations. The center could not hold because it did not exist.