Presidential Courage
Brave Leaders and How They Changed America
1789-1989 by Michael Beschloss
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Editor's notes: 1) Presidents elected on even decades like 1980, 2000, off year elections of 1992, 2014...
2) Pictures are from Wikipedia and the Internet can often be enlarged with a click.
3) Editorial comments are in red font. Updated 7/8/17

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J. Adams avoided a Quasi-War with France costing reelection

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T. Roosevelt
took on RR trusts for consumers and farmers

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John Adams        Read horizontally. 

5) RIVALRIES IRRITATED TO MADNESS Federalist John Adams defeated Republican Thomas Jefferson by three electoral votes. Living in Washington's shadow was not easy and Adam's complained that "Old Muttonhead" could not write a sentence without a few misspellings. Adams had inherited the danger of a war with France's newest revolutionary regime called the "Directory." See French Revolution 1 of 4 Videos. Because of the Jay Treaty, French privateers were ordered to seize and plunder U.S. ships.

Now Vice President Francophile Jefferson was made minister to France. Twelve new frigates were built to fortify the Eastern coast. The ultra-Federalist unsuccessfully demanded a fifteen thousand man army and said concerning the horrible French tyrants, the Republicans want to "lick" their "feet." Prominent Federalist Alexander Hamilton had backed Thomas Pickering in the 1796 election because he could be more easily controlled. Adams kept Washington Cabinet fearing firing them would turn the world upside down. Upon arriving in France, Jefferson advised the Directory to drag its feet on a treaty as Adams would be a one term President.   

The Politics

Editor's Note: Adams was a very caustic person. He was a centrist President at a time when partisan politics was just beginning He did not take control of the Federalist Party who he seldom agreed with. Alexander Hamilton who despised Adams took control.  Hamilton's Republicans also despised Adams for his desire for a strong central  government and a return to Monarchy. To compensate Adams spent most of his time in Massachusetts. In four years he spent twice the time at home in Braintree, Massachusetts as Washington PhiladelphiaPresidentsHouse.jpgspent at his nearby Virginia home during his eight year presidency. Like Washington, Adams was sickly and disliked his time as President.  He also had problems with depression and was cursed with an unstable personality. Think Richard Nixon. Personality descriptions from Hamilton's biography by R. Chernow

President's House, Philadelphia. The presidential mansion of George Washington before him, Adams occupied this Philadelphia mansion from 3/97 to 5/00. Click to enlarge.


See caption.The French Foreign Minister tried to bribe an American envoy for what today would be about six million dollars and the reply was "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." Outrage followed but Adams never shared the ultra-Federalist zeal to face down the French. He attempted to keep the bribe secret but the Federalist made the information public. It became known as the XYZ Affair.

A British political cartoon depicting the affair: America is represented by the woman being plundered by five Frenchmen. The figures grouped off to the right are other European countries. John Bull representing Great Britain, sits laughing on a hill.

Ultra-Federalist war hawks thought Adams weak. Eventually he gave in and let them exacerbate differences with France for  "electioneering purposes."  By backing the Federalist taxes and military spending, Adams felt he was helping America acquire "monstrous fortunes."

Quaker doctor George Logan and others told Adams that the French wanted to talk. When Logan told the secretary of State the same thing, he was thrown out by High Federalists who stopped similar interference with the Logan Act which to this day bans U.S. citizens without official sanction from bargaining with foreign governments.

By 1798 talk of war was rampant and John Adams became a war leader. He enjoyed it. Always jealous of Washington's battlefield reputation, Adams could not resist the opportunity to portray a dashing military figure including a sword hanging from his waist. He had proclaimed a "warlike" spirit and congress passed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts giving Adams the power of deportation. A congressman was arrested and fined $1,000for anti-government writing,

A new property tax was passed to pay for a twenty thousand man army. Eventually Adams announced a new peace mission and the Federalists were none too pleased. This caused Adams to fall into a deep depression. Newer U.S. citizens would vote Republican so Federalist extended the waiting period for citizenship to fourteen years. Think 4/16 Supreme Court rules against Texas Gerrymandering attempt.
7) ROCKS AND QUICKSAND ON ALL SIDES Hamilton asked Washington to denounce the peace mission but the Hero of Mount Vernon was too tired to join the Federalist family feud. A month before his death in late 1799 Washington wrote that it was "anxious and painful"  for him to see his cherished country moving "by hasty strides to some awful crisis. See Meacham's Thomas Jefferson. PART VII reviewing Jefferson as opposition to Federalists Hamilton and Adams. By the 1800 even the most self-absorbed Hamilton understood that the country's politics was becoming a struggle "between the rich and the poor."  In May the Republicans won in South Carolina and with it the votes needed to defeat Adams for reelection. The Three Fifths Compromise giving states more electoral votes based on their slave population resulted in Jefferson becoming the first of four early 18th southern presidents.  Adams tried to regroup by finally firing some of his pro-Hamilton Federalist cabinet. He also abolished the Provisional Army which he considered a "wildest extravagance" of that "knight-errant" though he approved and financed a Navy. Adam's response to political attacks from Jefferson stated that the real problem wash that Hamilton suffered from "a super-abundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off!" Such bitter insinuations were common on both sides as no political decorum had yet developed. In over 200 years we have managed to create some political civility. The successful peace negotiations in France came too late for John Adams to be reelected and because of a tie; Thomas Jefferson beat not Adams but fellow New York Republican Aaron Burr in a House of Reprehensive vote.  Voting procedures would be changed by the 12th Amendment. See Election of 1800from Wiki, Presidential Politics Election of 1800 and 12 US Undergoes the First Peaceful 1800 Transfer of a Democratic System from Turning Points In American History. The Philadelphia Aurora printed that God had thrown Adams out like "polluted water." To his death, Adams never understood why his making peace with France never carried the esteem brought by Washington's peace with Britain. He felt America must realize that "great is the guilt of an unjust war." 
John Adam's was the first President to try and muzzle the press with his Alien and Seditions Act. Many to follow would try to quiet the negative comments of free speech. This happened despite the 1735 Freedom of the Press Zenger Trial.

"Adams lost reelection because the county was ready for a change. Federalist policies that bothered voters included The Jay Treaty, The Alien and Sedition Acts, the truculent policies toward France, the vast army being formed under Hamilton and taxes levied to support it." Hamilton was too pessimistic about America. Think Jimmy Carter's 1979 Malaise Speech. The Republicans took over because of the strong central pull of America's politics and there desire to reign in anything perceived as extreme. From Hamilton's biography by R. Chernow


Hamilton fighting his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr (the depiction is inaccurate: only the two "seconds" actually witnessed the duel) Wiki Click to enlarge. See Famous Duels from American History

The duel with Alexander Hamilton occurred because both men were grasping at straws to continue their political careers as the Federalists had lost control of government. Hamilton criticized Burr in hopes of ending his political career. Hamilton especially didn't like Burr's attempt to succeed from the union with a Northeast confederacy. Succession talk would continue to pop up often over slavery or whenever a region was unhappy. Abe Lincoln ended such thoughts but at a terrible price.


1 From the 2007 first edition 2. Table, column and row titles, and name abbreviations are by W. Antoniotti
3. Editor's addition  4. Editor's Note: Washington's fears of political though logical were avoided as US Undergoes the First Peaceful 1800Transfer of a Democratic System from Turning Points in American History Notes from A Great Course audio by E. O'Donnell

4. Help in keeping track of presidential elections, they happen on even numbered decades as Lincoln was elected in 1860, Kennedy, 1960. For more on Washington see Don't Know Much About History Chapter 3 on Growth of a Nation from the Creation of the Constitution to Manifest Destiny and Meacham's Thomas Jefferson. PART VII reviewing Jefferson as opposition to the Federalists of Hamilton and Adams.

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