Presidential Review–John Adams

24 Feb

Gosh,  if there ever was a president stuck with impossible odds, John Adams was it.  It’s not easy to follow a saint, and the inherent unfairness of John Adams’s situation–George Washington was above politics, but he was in a very specific situation that allowed him to take this stance, being a popular hero and not particularly political (in comparison to the other patriots anyway) proving his worth on the battlefield, which is a measurable set of accomplishments.  John Adams, however, started in politics, grew in politics, and ended in politics.  This, despite the fact that he wasn’t especially good with people.

In politics the middle way is none at all.  John Adams

Yep, there he is, very much on his high horse.  Actually his maxim seems to be speak loudly and at great lengths and often, and wear a sour expression as much as possible.  Honestly, his speeches almost make me cringe in their arrogance, even for its time which was big on speechifying.  In fact, when he was Washington’s vice-president, he so annoyed congress with his irate speeches that they threatened him with a gag-order.  It was all good and fine when he was having apoplectic fits against the British, but now that he’s dealing with Americans that he had to deal with every day, it became more of a problem.  That’s the other part of Adams’s predicament–unlike Washington who ignored a lot of the political maneuvering going on around him, Adams could not resist jumping right in the middle of it.

Anyway, Adams had one issue that dominated his term–relations with France.   To give a short rundown, the French Revolution was in full swing, and France was at war with Britain.  The United States was divided as to which side it supported.  The Federalists were on the British side because even though we had tension with England, most Americans still had roots there, and commercial interests were still heavily British oriented.  The Democratic-Republicans were more on the French side, because France had embraced democracy and England had not.  Really the sides on this issue mirrored the concerns in how the American government should take form–the Federalists for a strong central federal government, the Democratic-Republicans favoring more strength in state and local governments.

Added to this was both France and Britain’s insistence on commandeering American merchant ships suspected of  selling goods to their enemies, which is why we felt pressured to take a side in the first place.  Jay’s treaty, which firmed things up with Britain, enraged France and set things up for war.

So we start with the XYZ affair, which was Adams trying to come to a peaceful resolution with France.  Unfortunately, Tallyrand, France’s ambassador had a satanic level of diplomatic skullduggery and he fired at our three diplomats everything he had.  He demanded bribes, had unofficial pre-negotiations that dragged on and on trying to set up agreeable standards for negotiations to commence, he set the three American diplomats against each other, messed with their passports, used the negotiations to further himself in French politics.  Honestly, look up Tallyrand when you get a chance, the man played the game like no other.

So Adams tried to get congress to agree to further negotiations before action, and Adams’s opponents demanded that the papers from negotiations up until now be released because they mistakenly thought he was leaving facts out that would indicate peace with France was possible.  When the papers were released, there was a firestorm of anger against France, leading us into our first undeclared military engagement.  It’s called the Quasi War, but basically it gave American ships permission to do the same to French vessels in the Caribbean as they have been to us in Europe.  Minor sea battles ensued.

In the meantime, because of growing protest regarding this state of affairs (American merchants particularly suffered) Adams pushed through the Alien and Sedition acts in order to “protect the government.”  Essentially, he made it illegal to criticize the government publicly, curtailed free press, and made it more difficult for people to immigrate into the United States.   The French threat really was an excuse to pass these laws, and it wasn’t a coincidence that most immigrants tended to be Democratic-Republican rather than Federalist.  Immediately after that Kentucky and Virginia passed laws indicating that those laws were invalid in their states, thus challenging the federal government.

What scared the Federalists, which the French Revolution brought into clear focus as it went on, is the distinction between Democracy and mob rule.  It’s a very tough line to draw, but while the French Revolution devolved into a bloody mess, there was significant concern on the American side that we could go down that road too.  To the Federalists, the government is not just there to fulfill the wishes of the people, but also to slow the process down so that we take sensible courses that are good for everybody rather than acting on public (emotional) impulse.  I actually agree with them this far down the road, because public reaction to things initially often ends up being extreme and not thought out, and tends to normalize itself given a little time.

However, they were so certain that they were completely correct in this line of thinking, they felt that they had to protect these ideas by cutting off the very freedoms they claimed to protect.

In the end, Bonaparte taking control of France saved this diplomatic impasse, very quickly signing a treaty that ended tensions between the two countries for the time being.

So for Adams I can grade his dealings with the French as a B (he really was trying for peace, Congress messed that up), but a big giant F for the Alien and Sedition acts.  In general he was much more moderate than he had the reputation for, and by the end of his term Federalists felt like he had betrayed them by not following rank and file.

What about social issues?  Well, on slavery Adams really didn’t do anything one way or another.    While personally Adams was very much against slavery, he was not for simply ending it on a national scale.  He really thought that slavery was working its way out of our system, and that Federal action would just cause unnecessary conflict.  He also wasn’t a man who felt that everybody ever would be equal, not because of racism or anything like that, but because society always has people with more power than others.  Rather than trying to change that fact, his aim was to make sure that everybody gets better treatment whether they have power or not.  (Really, this line of thinking defines the philosophical differences between conservatives and liberals today, whether people can be equally free or not.)  As for Native American relations, Adams didn’t really do anything on that line either.

In the end I have to give him a B- as president.  Unlike Washington who served as a symbol for American unity, Adams had to function as a shock absorber, trying to keep the government from following extreme, not-ultimately-in-its-best-interests paths.  Anybody who forces others to exercise restraint is never going to be popular.  Also, Adams’s political thinking is his greatest legacy–a lot of patriots had political views that were a bit simplistic and naive, we cannot have an organized country that allows anybody to do whatever they want (libertarians will refute this, but I stand–social disorganization hurts everybody.)    His biggest failing was that stupid Alien and Sedition Act–if he didn’t pass that, I would have been able to add points.

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