John Adams in 1797
Between Two Worlds
Eight years after George Washington’s Inauguration, the nation’s second president, John Adams, eschewed the first President’s choice of a large carriage pulled by six white horses, preferring his own “simple but elegant enough” conveyance pulled by two “young but clever” horses. The following day, in a letter to his wife Abigail, he described his Inaugural ceremony writing that the “presence of the General, whose countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day” contributed to the “solemn scene.” Adams also related the personal aside that Washington made to him. The nation’s first President, tired after a long and difficult eight years, anxious to return home, joked to Adams that he, Washington, was now “fairly out” and Adams was “fairly in!” He asked, “see which one of us will be happiest?” After eight long years of hard work and increasingly sharp political criticism, Washington was more than ready to leave office; John Adams, who had been bitterly disappointed at not being the first president, was now eager to assume it.
By winning the competition for the nation’s second Presidency, Adams assumed the post he believed was befitting his long service and sacrifice for the country. Adams had served as Washington’s Vice-President for the previous eight years unhappily and uncomfortably. In that position he had accomplished little, having been sidelined in the way that would become common for the majority of subsequent American Vice-Presidents. Early in his tenure as Vice-President, Adams had attempted to assert himself in his official duties as President of the Senate. However, Adams’ “frequent and pedantic lectures” had led to resentments and amplified criticisms that he held “monarchist” sentiments. Warned off this assertive behavior by a friend, Adams claimed that he had “no desire ever to open my mouth again upon any question,” and withdrew from active participation to become “more [of] an impartial moderator.”¹
In taking office on March 4th, 1797, Adams began America’s first one-term presidency. He began his tenure by delivering a not very memorable, short, dry speech. It is notable to modern ears mainly for one of its sentences which contained over seven-hundred words and was punctuated by seventeen semicolons. The next day, in a letter to his wife Abigail, he noted that everyone but Washington had cried at the ceremony. It is safe to assume that the assembled were not moved by Adams’ speech. Most likely the displays of emotion were due to the reverence the assembled felt for their hero Washington, as well as a pride for the democratic accomplishments of their new country. The smooth transfer of power was the country’s first; an event that domestic and foreign critics of America’s decision to institute a republic had long argued would never come to pass.
Adams was well aware that he came to office in the shadow of the mighty Washington. In his letter to Abigail, he likened Washington’s departure to the “sight of the sun setting full orbit” and his own, less impressive arrival as “another rising, though less splendid.” Adams knew well that he lacked both the first president’s physical and emotional presence as well as Washington’s ability to transform sheer political popularity and charisma into political power. Adams’ detractors had long referred to the shorter, less impressive man as “His Rotundity,” an insult that connected his less than imposing presence to the widely held opinion that Adams lacked charisma and poise; something especially evident when compared to the giant, Washington. Yet despite any physical, social or political deficiencies, Adams had won a hard earned respect from his peers. While criticized behind his back as self-important, socially awkward and prickly, he was also recognized for his virtue, demonstrated by years of self-sacrifice and work for the public good, as well as for his many noteworthy intellectual contributions as an architect of the Constitution and the new system of government.²
Whereas Washington could rely on his fame and personal charisma to provide a base of political power and authority, Adams sought it elsewhere. Eight years earlier Washington had begun his own Inaugural Address with, when considering the formality of the occasion, a surprisingly personal admission unsuitability for the job he faced and hesitation in accepting the position. Washington’s hesitancy was an honest expression of his feelings about his own health and personal happiness, and the effect the office would have on them. Washington’s choice to begin from such a personal place, in addition to being authentic, can also be understood as a conscious attempt to assure his audience that he did not desire the office, but that despite his infirmities and age, he would assume the post for the most virtuous of reasons — for the good of the Republic as opposed to any sense of self-importance or for selfish reasons. Whatever Washington’s reasons for formulating his speech the way he did, by inserting his personal situation in it so explicitly, he linked his person, and his attendant popularity, to the office in a way that Adams would and could not do. Adams, unable to draw on the kind of fame and good-will that Washington commanded, chose a different strategy for his speech. He framed it in a historical and institutional context, as opposed to the personal lens that Washington began his speech with. Adams’ was closely associated with the institutions of the new government he had assisted in architecting, and he relied on his close association with them to establish his authority as President.
Adams knew, as Washington knew before him, that the American democracy was unsteady and unfinished. As such, each of these President’s Inaugural Addresses contained promises to abide by, and bolster, the institutions and traditions that held up the new state. In these first years of the new governmental system, fears of an overthrow of democracy were rife. One of the much discussed advantages that Washington had as a candidate to be the nation’s first President was his lack of heirs. Childless, Washington’s ability to establish a new monarchical dynasty was foreclosed. Yet as there were no term limits for the presidency, fears that he might leverage his immense popularity to become president-for-life were widespread. Adams leaned on the Constitution and American institutions in his speech as had Washington, yet instead of beginning his narrative in biography, instead Adams relied on a historical frame to announce his arrival.
Adams explained that he was taking office at a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He explained that the period prior to his assuming office was one in which the domestic political situation had demanded attention. However, having resolved those issues, the country’s future would be pressured by competitive and hostile foreign powers. Adams emphasized the important role that the Constitution had played in establishing the firm domestic base that he claimed had been established. He described the Constitution as a necessary replacement for the older Articles of the Confederation. He explained that the Articles, written in 1777, had been conceived at a time of national crisis; that they were a necessary yet imperfect stopgap, implemented during an emergency to meet an immediate need. They had “commanded a degree of order sufficient at least for the temporary preservation of society” but their imperfection and inability to address the complex needs of the dynamic young republic had resulted in “melancholy consequences” after the war ended. According to Adams, the problems still needing attention included:
universal languor, jealousies and rivalries of States, decline of navigation and commerce, discouragement of necessary manufactures, universal fall in the value of lands and their produce, contempt of public and private faith, loss of consideration and credit with foreign nations, and at length in discontents, animosities, combinations partial conventions, and insurrection, threatening some great national calamity.
Yet, in the face of these daunting issues Adams explained, “the people of America were not abandoned by their usual good sense” and undertook the design and adoption of a new Constitution. Unspoken, but well understood at the time, was Adams’ important role as a principal architect of the new Constitutional system. By elevating and lauding the document he had helped create Adams was implicitly staking a claim for his political legitimacy. Unlike Washington who relied on his personal, close relationship with the American people to legitimize his authority, Adams appealed to its institutions.³
However, Adams legitimacy was not just something he claimed in a speech, it was something he was genuinely credited for. His generation acknowledged him as a patriot long-committed to the American cause, and instrumental in winning its independence. Adams built his reputation on a long history of activism, intellectual product, and virtuous service in the pursuit of justice. Years before the Revolution, as activist for the colony’s political rights as a British territory, Adams made a major contribution to the political cohesiveness of the Thirteen Colonies. As a young Harvard graduate Adams had returned to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts, just South of Boston, to practice law. Called to service by his town early in his career Adams authored what would become known as the Braintree Instructions. The Instructions were in the form of a letter responding to the British Stamp Act of 1765. The British had announced the Act as a way to pay for debts incurred during the recently concluded Seven Years War. The Stamp Act was widely unpopular, and became a rallying point for growing separatist sentiments. The colonists were resentful that the tax was levied by a far-away Parliament; one peopled by legislators who thought themselves the betters of their American cousins. Adams had written the Instructions to Braintree’s representative to the British government. The Instructions directed the official to oppose the implementation of the Stamp Act. It argued that the colonists should not be “subjected to any tax imposed by the British Parliament because we are not represented in that assembly.” Copies of the letter were widely distributed. Other towns used it as a model for their own instructions. Ultimately the representatives of another forty odd municipalities throughout Massachusetts were given similar directives. The Instructions are regarded as one of the most important, early written political statements of the Revolutionary period.
Adams’ continued his intellectual contributions to independence’s cause when, in 1776, Adams was asked for his opinion on the form of government that each of the colonies should adopt upon separation from England. In response he offered his short treatise, Thoughts on Government. In it Adams argued for the incipient States to put into practice bicameral houses of representatives headed by a chief executive officer. This model was widely implemented by the colonists, and later, when the new Constitution was drawn up, his recommendations influenced the form the new national government would take. However, Adams was not simply a theoretician and intellectual, he was an institutionalist and practitioner who, in addition to working on the intellectual and legal foundations of Revolution and a new government, was closely associated with the idea that the observance of just laws were the bedrock of a just society.
The letter that Adams’ authored in Braintree was not the only time his biography would intersect with the Stamp Act. Adams had earned the respect of his fellow colonists in 1769 when he argued against the conviction of four American sailors accused of the murder of a British official. The four had resisted a press gang. In the resulting struggle, a Briton died. The practices of the press gangs, who boarded ships at sea and prowled the streets of the colonies abducting men and forcing them into service in the Navy, was, like the Stamp Act, a source of discontent. Adams’ successful defense of the four American sailors was popular amongst those protesting English rule. However, Adams’ subsequent high-profile legal-political case, another example of Adams working in furtherance of blind justice, was far less popular. It resulted in the acquittal of English soldiers accused of murdering colonists.
A year after Adams defended American sailors accused of causing the death of a British official, he turned his legal talents to defend a British officer and seven soldiers against charges that they had murdered three patriots demonstrating against British rule in Boston. The event, known as the Boston Massacre, occurred when an aggressive crowd protesting the Stamp Act, attacked and beat a detachment of English soldiers. In the resultant tumult, some of the soldiers had fired their muskets, killing three Colonists. Interestingly, the crowd was likely whipped up by Samuel Adams, John’s cousin and radical activist. Also notable was that among the dead was a dock-worker named Crispus Attucks. Attucks was a half-Black, half-Native American, escaped slave who is generally considered to be the first American casualty of the Revolution. The demonstration and the killing of the colonists was immortalized in a pamphlet that Samuel Adams published soon after and was widely distributed, titled “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.” During the ensuing trial Adams addressed his decision to defend the accused murderers in the face of popular criticism. In his opening statement in their defense he exclaimed that
I am for the prisoners at the bar, and shall apologize for it only in the words of the Marquis Beccaria: ‘If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport, shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind.’
He closed his presentation arguing that justice should be equally and fairly administered because “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Adams’ defense of the English soldiers was almost as successful as his previous one of the American sailors. The British officer and five of the seven soldiers accused of murder were aquitted. The remaining two soldiers had their charges reduced, and in the face of far more serious consequences, had their thumbs branded. The political risk that Adams’ took by following the dictates of his faith in institutions and justice was rewarded with the colonists continued trust in his leadership. Six years later in 1776, Adams was elected to represent Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention.⁴
In his Inaugural Address the institutions Adams had so long defended played a central role in his speech. His narrative was one in which the Constitution he was so personally associated with was the vehicle for putting domestic turmoil to rest. Adams pledged to uphold a long list of other civil institutions in addition to the Constitution. However, he warned that despite overcoming its domestic difficulties and the establishment of strong institutions, the country was facing new threats abroad. However, while his worries about an increase in foreign pressures was born out in the ensuing years, his assertions that the country’s domestic situation was stable proved to be more aspirational than predictive. Far from settled, the country’s politics were in fact volatile and suffused with contradictory sentiments. The political system that the Founder’s constructed was rapidly morphing. The unity and sense of purpose of the Revolutionary generation was fraying. The threads and sinews of discontent and disunion, which would come together sixty years later in civil war, were beginning to show.
The politics of the Early Republic revolved around social affiliations and economic interests, rather than parties and ideologies. As the historian Gordon Wood explained, “politics in the 1790s retained much of its eighteenth-century character. It was still very much a personal and elitist business — resting on friendship, private alliances, personal conversations, letter-writing, and intrigue.” This was true at all levels of government. At the highest level of national politics, the bonds forged by the revolutionary titans were loosening. The idealistic motivations that had cohered during the Revolutionary period, that Adams and his colleagues had calculated as part of a tapestry of necessary formal and informal institutions necessary for a successful democracy, were disappearing. Wood described the social and political situation as becoming worse in the last years of the eighteenth century. He explained that
people who had known one another their whole lives now crossed streets to avoid confrontations. Personal differences easily spilled into violence, and fighting erupted in the state legislatures and even in the federal Congress. By 1798 public passions and partisanship and indeed public hysteria had increased to the point where armed conflict among the states and the American people seemed likely. By the end of the decade, in the opinion of the British foreign secretary, the “whole system of American Government” seemed to be “tottering to its foundations.”
The pressures powering this devolution were many. The society was experiencing profound social, economic and political change. The population was growing more rapidly at the end of the eighteenth century and a spirit of economic competition and incipient industrialization strained long-established social bonds and altered the relationship of the individual to their work.⁵
Much of the political success that Adams’ generation achieved had been won by fostering a sense of unity and purpose. That sense relied on a world-view that was rapidly fading. One of the key assumptions for the Founder’s new system of governance was the belief that only a better sort of man was capable of governance. Aristotle’s argument that only virtuous men should be allowed to rule was powerful in this Neoclassical society. The American innovation to these ancient ideas was not to replace the central role of virtue, but to redefine what constituted virtue. Traditionally, the view was that only the landed wealthy had the time, perspective, education and commitment to rule. This fundamental political belief remained in the American context but was influenced by the Enlightenment and democratic ideals. In the new country it was not wealth, land and birth that would signal eligibility for governance, but a supposed universally available, Enlightenment influenced, education and a respect for individual accomplishment based on ability. It was no longer wealth and birth that would filter out the unworthy and elevate their better to office, but education and individual achievement. The Founders instituted a new kind of egalitarian-elitism which justified their filtering mechanisms as democratic, as opposed to the aristocratic-monarchic systems based on class that typified the older European systems. Yet despite their rationalizations, any national consensus around this new measure of elite status that the Founders’ generation shared, and benefited from in their lock on political power, was elusive. The splitting of any sense of an enlightened, elite, Revolutionary class was well underway as soon as it was conceived. Within just a few years of the beginning of the Revolution, Washington, James Madison, and others, frequently commented and complained to one another that the Revolutionary spirit they believed in was rapidly dissipating.
One of the most notable social fissures appeared across cultural and economic boundaries. In 1785, just two years after the end of the Revolution, a Federalist leader in Massachusetts commented on the differences between Northerners and Southerners. He wrote that “in their habits, manners and commercial interests the Southern and Northern States are not only very dissimilar, but in many instances directly opposed.” Yet the fractures that appeared were not solely those of a North-South split. There were other breaks between those who had anointed themselves as the Republic’s better men, like Adams, and an increasingly vocal and empowered democratic public. Multiple battle lines were formed. They were demarcated not only by domestic social and economic differences, but also reflected in political attitudes towards the widening war in Europe, ignited by the French Revolution. Support or opposition to the French Revolution became another source and expression of domestic conflict. A new political movement in America was rising that equated the French aristocracy with what they believed was a new American aristocracy. The early Republican party “rejected the aristocratic queue, knee britches and silver-buckled shoes of the Federalists and began adopting the cropped hairstyle and sans-culotte dress of the French revolutionaries.” “They adopted the French Revolutionary address of ‘Citizen’ and resolved no longer to address their correspondents as ‘Sir’ or use the phrase ‘Your humble servant’ to close their letters.” Americans were sorting themselves into one faction or another another for a variety of reasons. Aristocratic Southerner slave-holders found themselves arguing against elitism and finding alliances with a rising Northern middle class as they both pushed against an exclusionary North Eastern social elite. This fractured reality was far from the settled domestic scene that Adams described the day he assumed office. In late eighteenth century America, the mentalité which animated Revolutionary thought and provided the justification for the break with Britain had domestic competition. A more unitary Revolutionary generation was devolving into the factions and party politics that Washington and Adams both warned against.
In his Inaugural Address, Adams attempted to paper-over the domestic social, economic and political divisions that he and his contemporaries were well cognizant of. In his Farewell Address, written just months before Adams delivered his speech, Washington had warned against the corrosive effect of party politics and the folly of involving America in the machinations of the European powers. Months later, Adams would reiterate Washington’s points. Adams warned that the country should never “lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous” should interfere with the nation’s democracy. By “partial” Adams meant allegiance to political factions, and with “extraneous” he referred to foreign influence. In his speech he combined these two threats into one. He warned that political parties were particularly susceptible to foreign influence which could lead to domestic destabilization and the loss of democracy.
As it would turn out, despite Adams’ efforts to bolster the system and institutions that he had played such a central role in creating, he and his fellow Federalists were fighting a retrograde battle which they would soon lose. The effects of party politics, sectionalism and self-interest were steadily growing, and the values and assumptions that Adams thought would provide a foundation for democracy were diminishing and becoming politically irrelevant. Adams’ presidency would turn out to be complicated and challenging. Not only was he unable to stave off the effects of party politics, but the domestic political divisions that he hoped would subside, mixed with the foreign intrigue he worried over. This combination resulted in an increasingly xenophobic domestic politics that proved toxic for his administration and contributed to his loss of the Presidency four years later in 1800. The institutions that Adams had worked to establish throughout his public life turned out to be far less stable than he claimed they were in his Address.
History is not a repeating cycle. We cannot identify patterns and moments in the past and, by making connections with our present, predict the future. However, as Adams’ speech demonstrates, the interpretation of history is often used to make claims that further a particular political agenda or point of view. However, simultaneously, examining the period is not simply an indulgence in nostalgia nor an anachronistic entertainment. While the moment of Adams’ Inauguration on March 4th, 1797 does not contain any easy answers applicable to our own confused moment, understanding what happened then may provide useful perspective for our own deliberations. There are interesting, perhaps even important, parallels between Adams moment and our own. While this history can’t provide answers for us, it can help us formulate questions, and hopefully develop perspectives that apply to our own difficult political moment.
Some of the issues that Adams contended with are strikingly familiar today. Adams was concerned about the deleterious effect that political parties and foreign influence might have on democracy, and specifically on elections. In our own time, a large part of the electorate, on both sides of the political spectrum, are concerned about some of the same issues that Adams faced. Concerns about the role of political parties, partisanship, foreign influence and the sanctity of elections are shared widely by supporters of each of the two parties today. Another of the central concerns of Adams’ time, fear on the one hand that a self-appointed, and self-satisfied elite would dominate the country’s political life, and on the other hand that an ill-educated, irrational and illiberal mass would elevate a populist dictator, are alive and well today. This is not to say that the specific circumstances are the same, but it does suggest that without dealing directly with the influence of political partisanship and the perceptions of, and real threats, that foreign influence might have on our political system, we will continue to suffer from this inattention. Adams called out these problems and specifically linked them to what he saw as an inherent weakness in democracy. He worried that
if an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, the government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good.
Adams highlighted the weakest feature of democracy: that important decisions can be made by the side that achieves fifty percent of the votes plus only one more. When the difference between the majority and minority is so slim, the space in-between becomes a breeding ground for doubt, distrust, fear, and anger. This fragility seems well worth acknowledging and contemplating as we attempt to climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.
Adams wrote extensively about his life and the life of our country. A prolific letter writer and diarist, Adams provided more of a glimpse into his emotional life than many of his contemporaries who similarly left a large body of letters and writings. While his Inaugural speech was absent personal observations, his letters and diary were not. In examining this early period of American politics, what emerges is not a triumphant narrative of struggle leading to victory that Adams implied in his story of the victory of the Constitution over the disunity the country faced. Adams’ Address is a good example of one of the endless attempts that politicians make to bend historical narrative to serve political purpose. In his later years, Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush and commented that the history of political cohesion often claimed for the early years of the Revolution was a myth. Looking backwards from 1812 he commented that
it is now said… that we were unanimous in 1774. Nothing can be further from the truth. We were more divided in ’74 than we are now…. Jumble and chaos as this nation appears at this moment, I never knew it better united — it is always so, the history of this world is nothing else but a narration of such divisions.
Adams’ interpretation of history, that it is always about disquiet, uncertainty and conflict, where everything is in play and nothing is sure, is strikingly modern. It also begs pause from those who might try to make America great again. Such aspirations deserve careful examination and demand a clear description of any perfect past that deserves restoration.7
Adams suggests that our world is one where we will always find ourselves involved in struggle. For Adams, the reality of conflict is that it is “always so.” At another point in his writing we get a sense of how Adams dealt with this constant struggle. In it we might find him gesturing towards a path that might allow us to successfully traverse our own uncertain future. In 1774 Adams ruminated on his country’s unsure and potentially disastrous future, he wrote in his diary:
this afternoon I have taken a long walk, through the Neck as they call it, a fine tract of land in a general field — corn, rye, grass interspersed in great perfection this fine season.
I wander alone and ponder — I muse, I mope, I ruminate — I am often in reveries and [melancholy] — the objects before me are too grand and multifarious for my comprehension. We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, in education, in travel, in fortune — in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety. — God grant us wisdom, and fortitude!
Adams, then at the cusp of a world shaking political moment, describes himself as confused, lonely and anxious. Yet despite his uncertainty and fear he latched onto a vision of a brighter future and worked to make it so.⁸
1. Description of Inauguration in “Founders Online: John Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 March 1797.”; Adams in the Senate from “John Adams, 1st Vice President (1789–1797).”
2. “Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to John Randolph, 25 August 1775.”
3. Adams, “John Adams, Inaugural Address.”
4. “Founders Online: Adams’ Argument for the Defense: 3–4 December 1770.”
5. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, 159. and Wood, 209.
6. Stephen Higginson, a Boston merchant and Federalist, as quoted in Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, 165.; Wood, 183.; Wood, 163.
7. “Founders Online: From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 12 June 1812.”
8. Adams, “John Adams Diary June 25th. 1774.”
Adams, John. “John Adams Diary June 25th. 1774.” Adams Papers, June 25, 1774. Founders Online.
— — — . “John Adams, Inaugural Address.” The American Presidency Project, March 4, 1797.
“Adams’ Argument for the Defense: 3–4 December 1770.” Accessed January 15, 2021.
“From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 12 June 1812.” Accessed January 14, 2021.
“From Thomas Jefferson to John Randolph, 25 August 1775.” Accessed January 14, 2021.
“From John Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 March 1797.” Accessed January 16, 2021.
“John Adams, 1st Vice President (1789–1797),” November 19, 2020.
Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. Oxford University Press, 2009.