BECK index

United States & John Adams 1797-1800

by Sanderson Beck

Adams Administration in 1797
Adams & the Quasi-War in 1798
Adams & the Election 1799-1800

This chapter has been published in the book American Revolution to 1800. For ordering information please click here.

Adams Administration in 1797

      John Adams was inaugurated as President of the United States on 4 March 1797, and in his address he briefly reviewed the struggle for independence, the confederation’s “temporary preservation of society” that failed to solve so many problems, and the better adapted Constitution that the “good sense” of the American people produced. The second US President praised the Washington administration and warned against sophistry, factional parties, and foreign influence. He promised he would treat American Indians with equity and humanity to help them improve their situations. He expressed his determination to remain at peace with all nations including with France where he had lived for nearly seven years as a diplomat. In this one very long sentence Adams described his experience and ideas of good government:

On this subject it might become me better to be silent
or to speak with diffidence;
but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope,
will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that
if a preference, upon principle, of a free republican government,
formed upon long and serious reflection,
after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth;
if an attachment to the Constitution of the United States,
and a conscientious determination to support it until
it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people,
expressed in the mode prescribed in it;
if a respectful attention to the constitutions
of the individual States and a constant caution
and delicacy toward the State governments;
if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest,
honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union,
without preference or regard to
a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position,
their various political opinions on unessential points
or their personal attachments;
if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations;
if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize
every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges,
universities, academies, and every institution
for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion
among all classes of the people, not only for their
benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages
and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means
of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies,
the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue,
the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence,
which is the angel of destruction to elective governments;
if a love of equal laws, of justice,
and humanity in the interior administration;
if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce,
and manufacturers for necessity, convenience, and defense;
if a spirit of equity and humanity
toward the aboriginal nations of America,
and a disposition to meliorate their condition
by inclining them to be more friendly to us,
and our citizens to be more friendly to them;
if an inflexible determination to maintain peace
and inviolable faith with all nations,
and that system of neutrality and impartiality among
the belligerent powers of Europe which has been adopted
by this Government and so solemnly sanctioned by
both Houses of Congress and applauded by the legislatures
of the States and the public opinion,
until it shall be otherwise ordained by Congress;
if a personal esteem for the French nation,
formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them,
and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been
so much for the honor and interest of both nations;
if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people
of America and the internal sentiment of their own power
and energies must be preserved,
an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause
and remove every colorable pretense of complaint;
if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation
a reparation for the injuries that have been committed
on the commerce of our fellow-citizens by whatever nation,
and if success can not be obtained,
to lay the facts before the Legislature,
that they may consider what further measures
the honor and interest of the Government
and its constituents demand;
if a resolution to do justice as far as may depend upon me,
at all times and to all nations, and maintain peace,
friendship, and benevolence with all the world;
if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit,
and resources of the American people, on which
I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived;
if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country
and of my own duties toward it,
founded on a knowledge of the moral principles
and intellectual improvements of the people
deeply engraven on my mind in early life,
and not obscured but exalted by experience and age;
and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add,
if a veneration for the religion of a people
who profess and call themselves Christians,
and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity
among the best recommendations for the public service,
can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes,
it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction
of the two Houses shall not be without effect.1

Federalists such as Noah Webster criticized the speech for being too favorable to France while Bache’s Aurora called Adams a “patriot” for his wisdom and moderation. Adams had supported Washington loyally when he was Vice President. As President he accepted the Federalists that Washington had chosen as heads of the departments.
      The new Vice President Thomas Jefferson had not seen Adams for three years; but he called on him a few days before the inauguration, and they discussed negotiations with Paris. Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail that the guilt for an unnecessary war is great. Washington had replaced Monroe in France with the Federalist General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Adams wanted to send Elbridge Gerry and James Madison to join him. Talking after a farewell dinner given by Washington, Jefferson told Adams that Madison had retired from Congress and declined to go to France. Adams informed his rival that objections had been raised to choosing Madison anyway. Jefferson felt the break and later wrote that Adams never consulted him on any government policy after that.
      On March 13 news arrived that the French had refused to accept Pinckney who was forced to leave Paris. Also the French were seizing American ships in the Caribbean as their Directory had proclaimed an undeclared war on American shipping on March 2. President Adams on the 25th summoned Congress for a special session on May 15. To counter the Republican Bache’s Aurora newspaper, William Cobbett was writing as “Peter Porcupine” in Porcupine’s Gazette. Headlines in that paper warned that war with France was “inevitable” and that the United States should form an alliance with Britain, an idea hated by the Jeffersonian Republicans. Part of Jefferson’s letter to Philip Mazzei in April 1796 criticizing George Washington was published in English on 2 May 1797 after having been translated from Italian and French. President Adams told the Congress on May 16 that he was determined to maintain Washington’s policy of neutrality, but he would not submit to indignities against American honor. He recommended they take effective measures of defense.
      On May 31 Adams appointed John Marshall, a Federalist from Virginia, and Francis Dana, Chief Justice  of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to join Pinckney in Paris. A few weeks later Dana declined because of bad health, and he was replaced by the moderate Republican Elbridge Gerry from the same state. That spring the French captured 300 American ships, and they even tortured a captain to make him say he had British cargo. Washington had urged Adams to appoint his talented son, John Quincy Adams, and he was made minister to Prussia. The Aurora criticized the choice and noted that Washington had never chosen relatives. Jefferson’s rooms at the Francis Hotel became headquarters for the Republican leaders and their opposition to the Federalists. On June 22 Massachusetts passed a state-wide health program to prevent epidemics by using quarantines.
      Spanish officers in Louisiana were interfering with the southern border of the United States in violation of the 1795 treaty. On July 3 Adams sent documents to Congress that included an intercepted letter from Senator William Blount to an Indian interpreter indicating that the British would support him in an expedition against Spaniards in Louisiana and the Floridas. Blount, who had been elected by the new state of Tennessee, was impeached on July 7, and the next day the Senate expelled him by a vote of 25-1 for treason; but the trial that began in December 1798 was dismissed two months later.
      Congress funded the frigates the Constitution, the United States, and the Constellation before adjourning on July 10. On the 19th Adams left for his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia again that summer, and two-thirds of the residents left the city.
      James Callender blamed Hamilton for attacks on Monroe’s efforts in Paris, and in early July he published in his pamphlet History of 1796 documents that exposed Hamilton’s adulterous affair with Mrs. Maria Reynolds they had in 1792. Callender in his Sketches of the History of America accused Hamilton of corrupt financial dealings in order to pay off her husband James Reynolds. On August 25 Hamilton in a pamphlet admitted the affair and paying more than $1,000 in blackmail, and he published his correspondence with Maria; but he denied the charges that he had secretly profiteered from government funds. Federalists like John Jay were hoping for an independent nation, and he wanted people “Americanized” so that they would not suffer from foreign intrigues. Albert Gallatin & Company helped pioneer profit-sharing by forming a partnership on September 20 that sold stock and enabled employees to own part of the business.
      President Adams addressed Congress on November 23 emphasizing the need for naval power to protect their commerce. In early 1798 France made General Napoleon Bonaparte commander of all their forces, and John Quincy Adams reported that Napoleon was attacking Egypt.
      Matthew Lyon had come to America from Ireland as an indentured servant in 1764, but he worked hard, bought land in Vermont, and founded the town of Fair Haven, building mills, an iron foundry, and a tavern. He served in Vermont’s assembly and in 1793 started the Farmer’s Library newspaper to oppose Hamilton’s financial policies. He was elected to Congress in 1797, and the Federalist William Cobbett in Porcupine’s Gazette reported that he had been convicted of cowardice during the Revolutionary War and was made to wear a wooden sword as a punishment.
      On 30 January 1798 in a heated debate over foreign policy when the Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut insulted the Republican Lyon by advising him to wear his wooden sword, Lyon spat in his face. On February 15 Griswold retaliated with a cane, and Lyon grabbed fire tongs. They fought on the floor until they were pulled apart. Adams informed Congress in February that the French privateer Vertitude had attacked a British ship anchored in Charleston harbor. The British were still seizing US ships and impressed hundreds of American sailors. Spain regretted the treaty they had made in 1795 and balked at fulfilling its terms.

      On 15 September 1797 Seneca chiefs in the Big Tree Treaty sold all their territory except for about 200,000 acres in eleven small reservations in western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania to the Holland Land Company. The Iroquois nations had been conquered and divided. Ohio had a legislature by December 1798. Congress passed a new land act on 10 May 1800 that allowed a settler to buy a farm of 320 acres for a one-quarter down payment of $160. On 10 January 1801 the military hero William Henry Harrison began governing the Indiana territory west of Ohio.
      In the 1790s many Americans moved west from New England into western New York, from the middle states to the Ohio territory, and from the southern states to Tennessee and Kentucky which had 220,000 people by 1800. They found fertile land for farming at much lower prices than in the east.
      The young lawyer Henry Clay urged the Kentucky legislature in 1797 to emancipate slaves gradually, and he represented slaves suing for their freedom. James McGready was a Presbyterian minister who on a Saturday night in June 1800 preached an emotional sermon with such effect that the next month at his Gasper River Church he held the first of a series of camp-meetings that each lasted several days. In August 1801 about 20,000 people gathered for the revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
      Methodist revival camp meetings led by Francis Asbury that lasted days became popular in Tennessee. In 1797 Congressman Andrew Jackson investigated massive land fraud in Nashville and Raleigh that implicated Governor Sevier, Jackson’s brother-in-law Stockley Donelson, and North Carolina’s Secretary of State James Glasgow. Bloody Fellow and 40 Cherokee chiefs met at Tellico in October 1798 and agreed for money to cede more land for a treaty that recognized the right of the Cherokee nation to “exist forever.”
      President John Adams assigned Silas Dinsmoor to live with the Cherokees and teach them how to raise stock and cultivate the land. Conspirators wanted to liberate the Floridas and Louisiana from Spanish rule, and Tennessee Senator Blount planned four military campaigns. In March 1798 Manuel de Godoy ordered Carondelet to give up the disputed territory, and the United States organized the Mississippi Territory between Georgia and the Mississippi River. In 1799 William Augustus Bowles led an expedition with 300 Indians and renegade whites that captured the fort at St. Marks in May 1800. In the Treaty of San Ildefonso signed on October 1 Spain ceded Louisiana to France.

Adams & the Quasi-War in 1798

      Dispatches from Europe arrived on March 4 with the news that the French had closed all their ports to neutral ships and that they might capture any ship carrying goods from England. The three American envoys to Paris had been given only one brief meeting with the French foreign minister Talleyrand who employed the secret agents Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval whom the Americans referred to in the dispatches as “X, Y, and Z.” They said Talleyrand wanted the Americans to pay him $250,000 and loan France $10,000,000 because of the insults in the Adams speech last May. Pinckney, Marshall, and Gerry refused to pay anything. Sweden wanted to renew its treaty with the United States, and Adams nominated his son John Quincy to negotiate as a commissioner. The Senate so far had refused to confirm his nomination as minister to Prussia. On March 10 Hamilton, using the pen name “Titus Manlius,” published the first of seven articles called “The Stand” in the Commercial Advertiser in which he advocated that the United States greatly expand its army to counter the French threat.
      On March 19 Adams informed Congress that the diplomatic mission had failed but gave no details. He revoked Washington’s order that forbade arming American merchant ships, and Jefferson suggested challenging the constitutionality of ordering that without the approval of Congress. Vice President Jefferson also urged Congress to adjourn so that they could consult their constituents. On March 27 Republicans in Congress proposed a resolution that it was inexpedient to go to war against France, a protest of arming merchant vessels, and measures to protect coastal areas. Republicans suspected that Adams was withholding information favoring the French, and they insisted he show Congress the documents. On April 2 the Republican leader in the House, Albert Gallatin, proposed that the President turn over the dispatches. This passed 65-27 because the Federalists had learned they were damaging to France. The envoys had left France, and Adams released the information the next day. The House went into a secret session while the Senate printed copies for Congress which were leaked to the public.
      The Aurora castigated Adams, and Fenno in the Gazette of the United States fought back against Bache. Congress appropriated funds for harbor fortifications and cannons, and in May they authorized nearly $1 million for nine US warships to capture French privateers. The Congress passed a stamp tax to pay for more warships. Gallatin complained that this was military despotism. After rejecting an army of 24,000 the Congress established an army of 10,000 men and a Navy Department with 12 ships.
      In 1798 two books from Europe on conspiracies by the secret societies of the Freemasons and Illuminati were published in the United States—one by the Scottish scientist John Robison and the other by the French Jesuit Abbé Barruel. In May the Congregational minister Jedidiah Morse gave two sermons in Boston on the Illuminati theory, and on July 4 Yale’s President Timothy Dwight gave a speech in which he warned American youth against becoming disciples of Voltaire, dragoons of Marat, or concubines of the Illuminati. Federalists also targeted Irish immigrants since the Society of United Irishmen had been founded in August 1797.
      President Adams proclaimed 9 May 1798 a day of “public humiliation, fasting and prayer throughout the United States.” Republicans ridiculed the idea, and Jefferson complained that it was a waste of money. Federalists who supported Britain attacked Republican newspaper editors. Street gangs wore cockades of black for England or tricolor for France. The cavalry had to be called in to break up a fight, but only one person was arrested. Bache’s house had windows broken, and rumors spread that the French were going to burn the city. Adams finally agreed to have a guard posted at the President’s house. He appointed Rufus King to negotiate a treaty with Russia and sent the Federalist William Smith of Maryland to talk to Turks about an alliance. Jefferson considered these provocations to the French, and on May 5 he executed the will of the Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko who bequeathed his lands in Ohio to help free Negro slaves. On May 28 Congress authorized a larger army and the use of force against the French at sea, and on June 13 they enacted an embargo against French ships.
      On April 12 Adams had learned that Pinckney and Marshall had left Paris, but Gerry remained behind. Marshall returned to Philadelphia on June 17 and assured the President that the French did not want a war with the United States. He explained that Gerry had stayed because Talleyrand had threatened war if he left. On June 26 US Judge Richard Peters issued a warrant for the arrest of Bache on a charge of libel for publishing that the correspondence of Gerry had been altered by President Adams.
      Amid the tumult and fear of war the Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. An estimated 25,000 French had emigrated to the United States, and Philadelphia had several French newspapers. On June 18 Congress passed the Naturalization Act which extended the time required for citizenship from five to fourteen years and required aliens to register with a government agent within 48 hours of their arrival in the United States. Three days later Adams sent a message to Congress that he would not appoint another minister to France until they assured him that he would be respected.
      On June 25 the Alien Friends Act authorized the President to expel any foreigner considered dangerous. Federalists in Congress held a war caucus on July 2, and on the 4th of July holiday many people wore black cockades to support them. On the 6th Congress passed the Alien Enemies Act which authorized deporting anyone from a nation currently at war against the United States. Many foreigners left the country before enforcement of these acts began. Secretary of State Pickering advised massive deportations, but Adams never deported anyone. On July 7 Congress abrogated the treaties of 1778 and 1788 with France, and two days later they authorized naval operations on all oceans.
      On July 2 the House approved the first direct tax on land, and Adams appointed George Washington to command the army. On the 9th news arrived that the Delaware commanded by Stephen Decatur had captured a French privateer. On that day the Evaluation Act became law and was called the “Direct House Tax” which was levied on land, houses (based on the size of windows), and slaves at 50 cents per head. The tax was progressive with the tax rate of 1% on a valuable house five times that on a small one. This tax was expected to raise $2,000,000, and Jefferson complained about Virginia’s share. The federal government’s budget had risen to nearly $8 million. In the fall the Federalists angered many by imposing a stamp tax and a salt tax that especially burdened the poor.
      The Sedition Act was passed on July 14 and outlawed “false, scandalous, and malicious” writing against the government or any attempt to excite hatred of Americans. Punishment was up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Only France was named as an enemy country in the law. The law only went into effect during a declared war or imminent danger of invasion, and the Act itself was only to last until 3 March 1801. Republicans considered this a violation of the first amendment to the Constitution, and all those arrested and convicted were Republicans. In disgust Jefferson went home to Monticello. Some blamed Abigail Adams for influencing her husband to approve these laws. In the early 1790s most newspapers had supported the Federalists; but later in the decade the number of newspapers doubled with many more Republican editors after 1797.
      In what was called the “Quasi-War” or the “Half-War” Congress abrogated the French treaty of 1778 and initiated the Marine Corps. Congress adjourned on July 16, and Adams left the city on the 25th. Already people were dying in the worst epidemic of yellow fever since 1793. Philadelphia lost 3,000 lives including the editors Fenno and Bache.
      In France on July 15 Talleyrand told Gerry he wanted peace, and on the 27th he asked the Directory to work for reconciliation with the United States. Four days later they put limits on French privateers in the West Indies. Talleyrand then recalled all judges in the West Indies suspected of illegally confiscating American ships. On August 16 the Directory ended its embargo of American ships.
      During the summer of 1798 New York state authorized a loan of $200,000 from the New York Bank for arms and harbor defenses. Hamilton complained when Virginia raised taxes 25% and purchased 5,000 stands of arms. He had persuaded Washington to make him his second in command, and on September 30 the former president wrote to Secretary of War McHenry suggesting that officers with Republican views be deprived of their commissions. On the same day Adams reluctantly acquiesced to letting Washington have his way which is what McHenry and Pickering also wanted. The standing army had been increased from 3,500 to 12,000 men with a reserve of 20,000 more men.
      Gerry returned from France, and on October 4 he told Adams that the French and Talleyrand wanted peace. The Philadelphia Quaker George Logan had gone to Paris on his own and left Paris on August 29 with a message of peace. The revolutionary Francisco de Miranda of Venezuela wanted to liberate Spanish America, and Hamilton favored his proposal to cooperate with the English on an expedition; but on October 3 Adams rejected the scheme as foolish. Logan returned to Philadelphia persuaded that France wanted peace. Washington was in the capital and dismissed him curtly on November 13, but President Adams listened to him courteously on the 26th, the day after he returned to Philadelphia.
      Congressman Lyon began publishing The Scourge Of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth on October 1 and severely criticized President Adams. He was charged with sedition and challenged the constitutionality of the act, but Judge William Patterson disagreed and sentence him to four months in prison and a fine of $1,000. He became a Republican martyr and while in jail was re-elected, and money was raised to pay his fine. Ten of the fifteen charged with sedition were convicted, but no Federalist was charged for maligning Republicans. In the 1798 elections Federalists increased their majority in the House of Representatives from 57-49 to 60-46, winning 5 of 6 seats in South Carolina and 5 of 10 in North Carolina.
      Federalists were still demanding a declaration of war against France while Republicans pleaded for peace. Washington and Hamilton came to Philadelphia to work on organizing the military. On December 8 President Adams gave his second annual message to Congress in which he recommended a strong defense to keep the country safe. He said that Spain had begun evacuating its border posts, and a commission had fixed the boundary between the United States and Canada at the Scoodiac River and was working on the claims regarding captured American ships. He asked the French to assure them that any American mission to Paris would be properly received. Both the Republicans and the High Federalists criticized the speech which showed that he was preparing military defense but was not asking for a declaration of war. Adams met with Gerry, War Secretary McHenry, and the Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert, and they decided to assign four squadrons with twenty ships to the Caribbean. In 1798 the budget for the Navy was $1.4 million. Adams had dinner with Joseph Bunel who represented Toussaint L’Ouverture and the slave revolution in Haiti, and the President asked Congress to recognize them.
      After spending six months at Monticello, Jefferson returned to Philadelphia on Christmas Day. He wrote resolutions which declared the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional and void and gave his proposal to Wilson Cary Nicholas to present to the North Carolina legislature. Nicholas gave them in September to John Breckinridge of Kentucky instead. The eighth resolution called for states to nullify any federal law that was unconstitutional; but this resolution was moderated to a request for repeal by Breckinridge before they were passed and signed on November 16 by Kentucky’s Governor James Garrard who ordered a thousand copies to be printed and sent to the governors and members of Congress. On December 6 citizens from Dinwiddie County published in the Richmond Examiner similar arguments in opposition to standing armies, great naval armament, alliances, increasing the national debt, the Alien Act, and the Sedition Act. Madison wrote the more moderate Virginia Resolutions which were introduced by John Taylor of Caroline and enacted on December 24. Madison was elected to the Virginia legislature again in 1799. Liberty poles became popular in Pennsylvania. Yet no other state voted for these resolutions, and the legislatures in the nine northern states voted to reject them.

Adams & the Election 1799-1800

      Citizens were sending petitions to President Adams complaining about a law creating a standing army, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the stamp tax, the direct tax on property, and more revenue officers. On 15 January 1799 Adams directed Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to draft a treaty for negotiation with France. Jefferson in a letter to Elbridge Gerry on January 26 expressed his purposes as preserving the powers of the states, keeping the general government frugal by saving revenues to pay off the public debt, relying on militia for defense, avoiding the quarrels in Europe, protecting freedom of religion and the press, and opposing violations of the Constitution.
      Hamilton was still urging Congress to declare war on France, and on February 2 he wrote in a letter to Theodore Sedgwick that he favored “attacking and arraigning” the enemies of the government. He considered the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions evidence that a conspiracy wanted to overthrow the government. Three days later Jefferson wrote to Madison that he must use his pen and purse to persuade people of the changes needed. Jefferson on February 14 warned Edmund Pendleton against insurrection because any use of force to block the progress of public opinion would rally people around the government. Rather they should use the “constitutional means of election and petition.” He believed that the spirit of 1776 was not dead and that the American people are “substantially republican.”
      On 30 January 1799 Adams signed the Logan Act into law. This was a reaction to the private diplomatic effort for peace by George Logan and made such efforts a felony. Although the Logan Act was revised as late as 1994, no one has ever been prosecuted for that nor has its constitutionality been tested.
      Joel Barlow, who knew German, French, and Italian, in 1792 had written Advice to the Privileged Orders, which emphasized social justice and was banned in England but made him a citizen of France. In this work he recommended a United States of Europe in a federal system as the best hope for peace. He was consul at Algiers 1795-97 and was able to ransom sick American hostages by borrowing $200,000 from the Jewish banker Joseph Bacri. In Paris he was a friend of Logan and of Robert Fulton who was working on a submarine and a steamship. George Washington received a letter from Barlow on January 31 informing him that France wanted to restore harmony with the United States and urging him to prevent an imminent war. On 20 December 1798 Barlow had published an open letter to American citizens “On Certain Political Measures,” arguing against the national debt and standing armies and navies. He wanted France to define the rights of neutrals, and his suggestion was incorporated in the treaty the United States made the next year with France. If blockades and privateering could be banned, then commerce between nations would be free.
      The next day Washington forwarded Barlow’s letter to President Adams with a note saying he would be glad if Adams could arrange an honorable peace. On that day the Aurora published statistics compiled by the Insurance Company of North America showing that in the preceding six months losses to American shipping caused by the British were $280,000, which was $20,000 more than what French privateers had done. On February 9 Adams signed a law authorizing trade with Toussaint’s revolution in Haiti. On the same day the US Constellation captured the French frigate L’Insurgente which had seized many American ships, but the news did not reach Philadelphia until the second week in March.
      On February 15 Adams learned that France had retracted more of its hostile maritime decrees. Three days later the President nominated the diplomat William Vans Murray, who as at The Hague, to be the American minister to France to negotiate a new treaty. Vice President Jefferson read the message of President Adams to the Senate which shocked the Federalists and pleasantly surprised the Republicans. Objections were made, and on February 25 Adams proposed a commission with Murray, Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, and Patrick Henry who declined because of health and was replaced by Governor Davie of North Carolina. On that day Congress acquired forests for timber to build ships, and they adjourned on March 4.
      On March 10 at a cabinet meeting Adams decided to propose that France indemnify American citizens for all the damages in the undeclared naval war, that all American ships taken be returned or paid for, and that the United States should no longer guarantee to protect French territory in the western hemisphere as it had in the 1778 treaty. Two days later Adams left Philadelphia to go home to Quincy, and he did his work there by mail until the end of September.
      In reaction to the Direct House Tax the German-American community of Bucks County in southeastern Pennsylvania had been roused by John Fries in the fall of 1798. By 15 January 1799 assessors told Judge Henry they could no longer do their duty. At a meeting on February 8 Fries and George Mitchell drew up a petition in opposition to the tax that was signed by about 50 people. After assessing about 50 houses, the assessors dined at Jacob Fries’ tavern. John Fries came in and warned them not to assess another house. He and his comrades captured assessor Foulke and told him they had 700 men opposed to the law. Foulke and the other assessor decided to stop assessing and went home on March 6.
      In Northampton County the US Marshal Col. Nichols arrested 18 protesters in Millarstown and took them to the Sun Tavern in Bethlehem on March 6. Two groups with 140 men led by Fries marched there and freed them by threatening force. On March 12 President Adams issued a proclamation accusing the tax rebels of treason. On the 20th he and the War Department asked Pennsylvania’s Governor Thomas Mifflin to send the militia to quell the insurrection, but he turned the matter over to the legislature which delayed action. Adams then ordered 500 regulars from the new Army to capture the rebels. After a meeting on March 25 at Mitchell’s tavern Fries and other rebels in Milford ended their opposition to the tax, calming the disturbance in Bucks County. On March 28 Rev. Helmuth sent a letter to the Germans in Northampton reminding them that taxes are necessary and urging them to end the rebellion. Fries was arrested on April 6.
      Sixty prisoners were taken to Philadelphia where about half of them were indicted and tried. Fifteen men were charged with treason, and others faced only misdemeanors. Fries and a few others were indicted as traitors before Supreme Court Justice James Iredell in Philadelphia on April 11, and their trial before a jury began on May 1. Fries was sentenced to death but appealed and was tried a second time before the Circuit Court starting on October 11. The fanatical US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase tried three others for treason on the last three days of April 1800 and was upset when one was acquitted. On May 15 Chase sentenced Fries and the other two men to be hanged. President Adams did not believe they were guilty of treason, and on May 21 he granted the three a pardon and a general amnesty to all the tax resistors. Two of the 35 men sent to jail died there. The militia Adams sent cost $80,000, but no one was even wounded in the entire Fries rebellion.
      The 1798 elections were not completed until the spring of 1799 and gave the Federalists 60 seats in the House of Representatives to 46 for the Republicans; but many of the new Federalists were moderates, and the Republicans gained majorities in New York and Pennsylvania in the House. In the US Senate the Federalists gained one seat giving them a 23-9 advantage. The New York legislature passed a law gradually emancipating slaves. After 22 years as Pennsylvania’s chief justice during which he pioneered judicial review by striking down statutes as unconstitutional, Thomas McKean was elected Governor as a Republican in 1799. He began by firing 24 state employees.
      On June 23 President Adams ended the American embargo on trade with Saint Domingue, and Treasury Secretary Wolcott notified customs collectors that American ships could now bring arms and supplies to Toussaint in Haiti, but not to Benoit Joseph Rigaud. The commission to France was delayed by many months, and on September 18 Ellsworth wrote to Adams asking for an additional postponement. An American agent in Kingston, Jamaica reported that the British had impressed more than 250 Americans to serve on their ships in the West Indies. Because of yellow fever in Philadelphia the government was meeting in the small town of Trenton, New Jersey. Adams went there on October 15 and gave the commissioners instructions. General Hamilton tried to persuade the President to suspend the mission; but the next day Adams ordered them to leave by November 1, and they sailed from Newport, Rhode Island on the 3rd. The three envoys did not meet in Paris until 2 March 1800.
      On 14 November 1799 the Kentucky legislature passed more resolutions affirming their right to resist violations of the Constitution, and on the 26th Jefferson wrote to Madison that their main goals were the following:

1) peace even with Great Britain;
2) a sincere cultivation of the Union;
3) the disbanding of the army
on principles of economy and safety;
4) protestations against violations
of the true principles of our constitution.2

In response Madison wrote the Virginia Report of 1800 in which he argued that states had a duty to interpose to “arrest the dangerous exercise of powers not granted.” In the fourth resolution he argued against interpreting the Constitution too broadly to enlarge the powers of the federal government. He suggested that the liberty of conscience and freedom of the press cannot be cancelled or restrained by any authority in the United States.
      Congress convened on November 22, and Adams gave his annual address on December 3. In this optimistic message he hoped for peace and the return of prosperity after the disease the cities had suffered. He noted that revenues in 1799 were a new record, and he urged improvement of the judiciary. National expenses had risen to $7.6 million in 1798 and $9.3 million in 1799. He prayed to the “Supreme Ruler of the universe” that the new capitol would be blessed as a place of virtue, wisdom, and magnanimity. George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14 after a short illness caused by a streptococcus infection. His will ordered that all his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. On the national day of mourning on the 26th General “Light-Horse Harry” Lee eulogized the founding father as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
      Napoleon’s government in December repealed the French law against neutral shipping, and the Consulate tried to control the abuses of the prize courts. After being away for ten months, Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia on December 28. In February 1800 news arrived that General Napoleon Bonaparte had become the ruler of France as first consul on 9 November 1799, ending the era of the French Revolution. Vice President Jefferson became president of the Philosophical Society and worked on science. He wrote the useful Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Senate. On April 24 the Library of Congress was initiated with an appropriation of $5,900 for books.
      Scottish James Callender wrote for the Richmond Examiner, and in late 1799 he criticized President Adams severely in his pamphlet The Prospect before Us. He had left Philadelphia and moved to Richmond, Virginia. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who had condemned the English scientist and lawyer Thomas Cooper, sentencing him on May 1 to a $400 fine and six months in prison, went to Richmond and indicted Callender for sedition that May. Chase treated him contemptuously and would not let him challenge the constitutionality of the Sedition Act before the jury chosen by federal marshals. He sentenced Callender to pay a fine of $200 and spend nine months in jail. Jefferson contributed $50 to his fine and pardoned him and the others when he became President.
      Republicans won the elections in New York on 1 May 1800. Two days later the Federalist caucus chose Adams and C. C. Pinckney as their candidates for President and Vice President. On May 5 Adams accused McHenry of working secretly with Hamilton against his policies. McHenry refused to resign and was fired. Secretary of State Pickering also refused to resign, and on May 12 the President dismissed him. That day Adams appointed Senator Samuel Dexter of Massachusetts to be Secretary of War and Representative John Marshall as Secretary of State. On May 10 Congress passed the Land Act of 1800 to attract more settlers by offering them credit for public land purchases. On May 11 a Republican caucus nominated Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President.
      Both parties agreed to disband the army during the summer. Hundreds of private ships had been authorized to seize French vessels that were armed, and the United States Navy had twenty ships patrolling the West Indies. In Bas v. Tingy (1800) the US Supreme Court ruled that a congressional declaration of war was not necessary to determine whether France was an “enemy” of the United States because Congress had authorized hostilities on the high seas in certain situations. The Philadelphia Aurora reacted by urging the impeachment of every judge who violated the rights of Congress.
      On June 3 Adams visited the new District of Columbia and the large but unfinished President’s House that later would be called the “White House.” The town of Washington was only a village then with no schools or churches. The Capitol was half-finished, and only a two-story Treasury Department building had been completed. The people living in Washington and Georgetown could still vote in Maryland, and Adams made campaign stops in that state and Pennsylvania on his way home to Quincy. He left John Marshall in charge of the government and administered by mail. During his presidency Adams spent about twice as many days away from the capital in four years as Washington had in eight.
      Since spring Alexander Hamilton had been criticizing Adams and urging people to vote for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Hamilton’s minions Pickering and McHenry gave him confidential files on Adams, and he wrote 54 pages on the “public conduct and character of John Adams” in which he berated him in severe terms. Yet he concluded with his support for Adams as well as Pinckney in the election. He circulated this among Federalists, but Aaron Burr got a copy from the printer and sent copies of the pamphlet to Republican editors. William Duane of the Aurora distributed it widely. The moderate Federalist Noah Webster blamed Hamilton for destroying their party, and Hamilton was unable to persuade New Englanders to withhold votes from Adams; instead one from Rhode Island voted for Jay instead of Pinckney. Jefferson remained at Monticello, and he and Adams primarily campaigned indirectly through others. On September 23 Jefferson wrote in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”3
      The 1800 census showed a population of 5,308,483 in the United States with an increase in slaves to 893,602; the number of free Africans had grown to 108,435. During the summer a slave called Prosser’s Gabriel led about 150 slaves in an uprising with home-made weapons in Richmond, Virginia. When a rainstorm washed out the bridge and made roads impassable on August 30, Gabriel postponed the plan. Two slaves alerted their owner Mosby Sheppard who informed Governor Monroe. Gabriel had called for the death of whites except for Quakers, Methodists, and the French because most of them opposed slavery. He was caught and interrogated but refused to talk. After a trial by five judges without a jury he and 25 other slaves were hanged in October.
      Most of the voting for the presidential electors was held on October 14. Electors voted for two men but did not distinguish which was for President and which for Vice President. In most states the legislature chose the electors. Even in states where adult white males were allowed to vote only about one-sixth of them owned enough property to be eligible. Aaron Burr in New York used the tactic of listing up to twenty names on joint-tenancy deeds to make them eligible. Although Federalists won a majority in the New York Senate, the Republicans with one more vote in the combined legislature gave all twelve electoral votes to the two Republicans. All the Republican electors voted in solidarity for both Jefferson and Burr who each received 73 electoral votes to 65 for Adams and 64 for Pinckney. Burr had campaigned hard in New York City, and that state made the difference. Adams, Jefferson, and Burr were actually tied in late November with 65 votes each. South Carolina was the last state to vote and in December gave all eight of its electoral votes to the Republicans because Pinckney refused to make a deal.
      On December 29 Aaron Burr wrote to Republican Representative Samuel Smith of Maryland that if the House elected him President, he would serve. Although the New York Federalist David Ogden was soliciting support for Burr, Smith persuaded Burr not to challenge the popular Jefferson. Hamilton warned Federalists that if they supported Burr for president, they would disgrace themselves and their party.
      Adams returned to Washington on November 1. News that the Morfontaine Convention of Peace, Commerce, and Navigation with France had been signed on September 30 reached the United States on November 7. Adams suspected that the French delayed signing the treaty so that Jefferson would win the election. Governor Davie brought a copy on December 11, and Adams submitted it to the Senate five days later. The Convention called for restoring all public ships and available private property. They agreed that their ships were to be given most favored nation treatment in the other’s ports. The Senate rejected it on 23 January 1801, but ten days later they ratified it with the condition that French indemnities must be paid.
      The US Supreme Court Chief Justice Ellsworth had resigned, and John Jay declined to serve again. Adams nominated John Marshall on January 31, and the Senate quickly confirmed him as chief justice.
      On February 11 Congress met in joint session, and Vice President Jefferson announced the results of the voting in the electoral college. Because of a tie vote between him and Burr the election went to the House of Representatives with each state having one vote. Although Hamilton preferred Jefferson to Burr, six Federalist states voted for Burr. Two states were divided, and so Jefferson had only eight of sixteen states and needed nine. Radical Federalists were hoping that the election would be thrown into the Senate where a Federalist could be elected. The House voted 36 times before the Federalist James Bayard of Delaware and the Maryland delegation changed their votes to Jefferson on February 17. They believed that Jefferson had promised not to change the Hamiltonian financial system, not to reduce the navy, and not to dismiss Federalist officials; but Jefferson himself said he had refused to tie his hands. The Federalists had lost forty seats in the House, giving the Republicans a 68-38 advantage, but Federalists still held the Senate 17-15.
      On February 13 the Federalist Senate passed the judiciary bill that doubled the circuit courts to six and added 23 new judges. They reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five at the next vacancy to prevent an early appointment by the Republicans. Adams nominated mostly Federalists, and they were confirmed by February 24. Because he chose two Federalist senators, the Republicans gained control of the Senate. Adams left the horses and carriages in the stable for the next president and departed on a stage for Baltimore at four in the morning on March 4, eight hours before Jefferson took the oath of office. John Adams eventually died on 4 July 1826 on the same day as his friend and former rival Jefferson. The second US President had only one accomplishment inscribed on his tombstone, and that was that he “took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.”


1. Presidents Every Question Answered by Carter Smith, p. 296-297.
2. The American Revolution of 1800 by Daniel Sisson, p. 333.
3. Writings by Thomas Jefferson, p. 1082.

This chapter has been published in the book American Revolution to 1800. For ordering information please click here.

United States Democracy & Slavery 1801-1844

English & Dutch Colonies to 1642
English & Dutch Colonies 1643-64
New England 1664-1744
New York to Pennsylvania 1664-1744
Maryland, Virginia, Carolinas & Georgia 1664-1744
Franklin’s Practical Ethics
English-French Conflict in America 1744-54
English, French & Indian War 1754-63
American Resistance to British Taxes 1763-75
American War of Independence 1775-83
Confederation & a Constitution 1784-89
United States & Washington 1789-97
United States & John Adams 1797-1800
Summary & Evaluation

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