34 John Adams

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

John Adams was the second President of the United States. The major defining issue of Adams term was whether the United States would go to war with France.

In 1797 Adams sent a diplomatic commission to France. The commission was approached through back channels demanding bribes and loans before negotiations could commence. Though such demands weren’t uncommon in Europe at the time, Adams took offense. Adams released the dispactches with the names of French officials changed to X, Y & Z, leading to the name of “the XYZ affair”. The release of the documents led to congress annulling the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France, and also led to the naval “Quasi-War” with France. The XYZ Affair pushed the United States to the brink of war with France. Preparations for war moved along briskly. Washington was called out of retirement to lead a new army, and the US Navy was established. Adams is generally credited with keeping the US out of war at the expense of being reelected. The problem with this assessment is that Adams pushed the US to the brink to begin with. It was only after seeing the folly of his ways that Adams changed direction and salvaged peace. Had he acted properly to begin with, heroics wouldn’t have been needed, so he deserves little credit for making right what he put wrong to begin with.

Another outgrowth of the XYZ affair was the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws increased the residency requirement from 5 to 14 years, authorized the President to imprison or deport any aliens considered “dangerous” to the United States and restricted speech “critical” of the government. The critical speech law didn’t cover speech against the vice president, Thomas Jefferson as he was a political rival of Adams. The acts served to eventually destroy the Federalist part, and were among the worst violations of the constitution, and a strong threat to the bill of rights.

Adams retained Washington’s entire cabinet, until after Washington died in 1799. This was a major mistake, as many cabinet members weren’t loyal to him, and even worked against him behind his back. Adams spent about half his presidency in Quincy Mass, and would leave major policy decisions to his cabinet. His absence and inability to remove cabinet members were definitely signs of an incapability to operate as an effective executive.


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