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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History
Summary

The Adams Presidency: 1797–1800

Summary The Adams Presidency: 1797–1800

Events

  • 1796

    John Adams is elected second president

  • 1797

    XYZ Affair occurs

  • 1798

    Congress passes Alien and Sedition Acts

    United States wages undeclared naval war with FranceVirginia Resolutions written
  • 1799

    Kentucky Resolutions written

    • Key People

    • John Adams

      Second U.S. president; approved controversial Alien and Sedition Acts

    • Thomas Jefferson

      Vice president under Adams; major Democratic-Republican figure; coauthor of Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

    • James Madison

      Coauthor of Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

    Solidification of Political Parties

    By the end of Washington’s second term, the ideological and personal differences between Hamilton and Jefferson had spread to politicians nationwide. The Hamiltonians coalesced into the Federalists—loose constructionists who favored a strong national government over the states, a solid economy based on manufacturing, and improved relations with Britain.

    The Jeffersonians coalesced into the Democratic-Republicans—strict constructionists who feared a centralized government, supported the development and expansion of agriculture, and were generally pro-France.

    The Election of 1796

    Because rivalry between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had intensified, the election of 1796was quite heated, unlike either of the previous presidential elections. Debates in Congress were passionate and sometimes even bloody, as was the case when one Federalist attacked a Democratic-Republican with a cane, only to be struck back with a fireplace poker.

    Washington’s vice president, John Adams, became the Federalist candidate, while Thomas Jefferson ran for the Democratic-Republicans. Adams received more Electoral College votes than Jefferson and thus became president. However, under the original Constitution, the candidate with the second-highest number of electoral votes—in this case, Jefferson—became vice president. Consequently, Adams was left saddled with a vice president from the opposing party. The presence of a Democratic-Republican so high up in the Adams administration made it difficult at times for the president to promote his Federalist agenda.

    Undeclared Warfare with France

    The first test of Adams’s mettle came from France in 1796, when Paris ended all diplomatic relations with the United States in response to Jay’s Treaty of the previous year. Having expected the United States to uphold the Franco-American alliance of 1778, France had been stunned when Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation, then further stunned when Jay’s Treaty had normalized relations with Britain. The French navy began to seize hundreds of American ships and millions of dollars worth of cargo without cause or compensation.

    The XYZ Affair

    Adams, wanting to avoid open war with France, sent ambassadors to Paris in 1797 to negotiate peace and normalize relations. When the emissaries arrived, however, French officials demanded a $250,000 bribe before they would even speak with the Americans, let alone guarantee a truce. These officials, whom Adams dubbed X, Y, and Z, outraged Congress and the American public. The XYZ Affair prompted many to cry, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”

    Popular pages: The Constitution (1781–1815)