- 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
Adams virtually ignored his cabinet, most of whom were loyal to Hamilton, and fell back on his family for advice, which made Abigail his unofficial one-woman staff.
There are only a few universal laws of political life, but one of them guided the Republicans during the last year of the Adams Presidency—namely, never interfere when your enemies are busily engaged in flagrant acts of self-destruction. As soon as the Federalists launched their prosecutions of Republican editors and writers under the Sedition Act —a total of 14 indictments were filed—it became clear that the prosecutions were generally regarded as persecutions. Most of the defendants became local heroes and public martyrs. Madison quickly concluded that “our public malady may work its own cure,” meaning that the spectacle of Federalist lawyers descending upon the Republican opposition with such blatantly partisan accusations only served to create converts to the cause they were attempting to silence.
What Jefferson had described as “the reign of witches” even began to assume the shape of a political comedy in which the joke was on the Federalists. In New Jersey, for example, when a drunken Republican editor was charged with making a ribald reference to the President’s posterior, Republican commentators argued that the jury could return a verdict of not guilty, on the ground that truth was a legitimate defense. (In the end, the editor pleaded guilty and paid a fine.) There was even more room for irony. It was while James Callender was serving his sentence for libel in a Richmond jail that he first heard rumors of Jefferson’s sexual liaison with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings. He subsequently published the story after deciding that Jefferson had failed to pay him adequately for his hatchet job on Adams.
But this delectable morsel of scandal, which was confirmed as correct beyond any reasonable doubt only by DNA studies done in 1998, did not arrive in time to help Adams in the presidential election of 1800. Indeed, Adams’s string of bad luck or poor timing, call it what you will, persisted to the end. The peace delegation he dispatched to France so single-handedly negotiated a treaty ending the Quasi-War, but the good news arrived too late to influence the election.
Given this formidable array of bad luck, bad timing, and the highly focused political strategy of his Republican enemies, Adams did surprisingly well when all the votes were counted. He ran ahead of the Federalist candidates for Congress, who were swept from office in a Republican landslide. Outside of New York, he even won more electoral votes than he had in 1796. But thanks in great part to the deft political maneuverings of Aaron Burr, all twelve of New York’s electoral votes went to Jefferson. As early as May of 1800, Abigail, the designated vote-counter on the Adams team, had predicted that “New York will be the balance in the scaile , scale scaill (is it right now? it does not look so).” Though she did not know how to spell scale , she knew where the election would be decided. In the final tally, her husband lost to the tandem of Jefferson and Burr, 73-65.
The vision of above-the-fray political leadership embodied in the Washington and Adams administrations had been defeated.
When Madison declared that the Republican cause was now “completely triumphant,” he meant not only that they had won control of the Presidency and the Congress but also that the Federalist party was in complete disarray. Though pockets of Federalist power remained alive in New England for more than a decade, as a national movement it was a spent force. But no one quite knew what the Republican triumph meant in positive terms for the national government. It was clear, however, that a particular version of politics and above-the-fray political leadership embodied in the Washington and Adams administrations had been successfully opposed and decisively defeated. The Jefferson-Madison collaboration was the politics of the future. The Adams collaboration was the politics of the past.
What died was the presumption, so central to Adams’s sense of politics and of himself, that there was a long-term collective interest for the American Republic that could be divorced from partisanship, indeed rendered immune to politics altogether, and that the duty of an American President was to divine that public interest while ignoring the partisan pleadings of particular constituencies. After 1800, what Adams had called the classical ideal of virtue was dead in American political culture, along with the kind of towering defiance that both Washington and Adams had harbored toward what might be called the morality of partisanship. That defiance had always depended upon revolutionary credentials—those present at the creation of the American Republic could be trusted to act responsibly—and as the memory of the Revolution faded, so did the trust it conferred. The “people” had replaced the “public” as the sovereign source of political wisdom. No leader could credibly claim to be above the fray. As Jefferson had understood from the moment Washington stepped down, the American President must forever after be the head of a political party.