Ranking John Adams

by Jonathan Hobratsch

Today’s blog looks at John Adams’s presidency. Ultimately, I hope to go through every president. Each president’s individual score will go towards a presidential ranking list. [Click here to read George Washington ]

John Adams 2nd President (1797-1801)

Score: 70/110 total points (63.6% ideal)


Appointments: 8/10

Adams, a Federalist, inherited “non-partisan” Washington’s exclusively Federalist Party cabinet. Adams, who was something of an independent moderate, saw Alexander Hamilton’s existing influence on his cabinet members as a major drag on his presidency.  Hamilton demanded Adams to use him and his cronies as key advisers for their party’s policy just as Washington had, but Adams proved to be less malleable. To make matters worse, there were no clear rules for removing cabinet members, even if they seemed to be taking orders from someone other than the president. This led to instances involving these members of Adams’s cabinet defying Adams rather than working with him. Eventually, he found a way of removing two of them—by firing them. This set a precedent that several presidents have followed. Washington had never fired a cabinet member, preferring to pressure them into resigning as a strategy.

The cabinet officers Adams did appoint do not warrant much attention except for Benjamin Stoddert, who was made Secretary of the Navy when Adams created the new Department of the Navy. Stoddert proved to be superb in growing the navy from a military branch that was nearly non-existent to something that had the semblance of a viable fighting unit. Stoddert gets a lot of credit for aiding Adams during the Quasi-War, which is mentioned below.

Adams’s other notable cabinet pick is John Marshall, whom Adams initially made Secretary of War. Marshall was instrumental in working on the Convention of 1800, which brought peace between the United States and France. In part because of Marshall’s competence, Adams made Marshall the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, after former Chief Justice John Jay declined. Marshall is the longest serving Chief Justice in US History, and his influence on the Supreme Court is somewhat comparable to Washington’s influence on the presidency. He established judicial review and the authority of the Federal courts on federal, state, and local law. Marshall was the last significant Federalist, dying in 1835.

Adams’s other Supreme Court appointments include George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, and Alfred Moore. Washington served long without much notice, and Moore is considered an unworthy do-nothing judge.

The appointment of Marshall to the Supreme Court, Stoddert at Navy, and the new precedent of firing a cabinet officer are enough to allow for a decent grade. Adams also gets credit for fending off the influence of Hamilton, who is said to have been trying to direct executive policy from without.

Party Leadership: 3/10

Any leadership skill that Adams had in the days of 1776 had left him by 1797. More accurately, however, he was probably a leader not in tune with party politics. More so than the Jeffersonian Republicans, the Federalists were a very decentralized and disorganized party, which hadn’t adapted to keeping party unity with newspapers or with active engagement with voters. Federalists expected voters to recognize their innate leadership qualities and to vote for them. Adams may have expected the same treatment with his own party, especially considering what he had done in the past.

Adams had the opportunity of centralizing his party into an effective force, but he seemed to prefer to operate as his own man, leaving Hamilton as more of a defacto party leader, even if he did or did not recognize Hamilton as such. Adams differed sharply from Hamilton and Hamilton’s allies who were becoming increasingly militant as America and France surged towards war. Adams opposition to Hamilton saw a plot by Hamilton to undermine Adams’s reelection efforts.

I believe an argument can be made that Adams was actually less Federalist than “independent” George Washington was. Adams even stated his preference of Jefferson over Hamilton; although, this statement was probably based not on policy but on leadership temperament.

Economics and Finance: 7/10

Trade with France was suspended leading up to and during the Quasi-War, a formally undeclared naval war with our former ally France. Despite this, the country doesn’t seem to have entered into any sort of pronounced economic downturn, possibly because of trade with our former enemy Great Britain, which became a favored trading partner under Washington.

Adams instituted a Direct Tax on land to help pay for this military buildup against France, which led to a brief tax rebellion (discussed below). There were other taxes raises as well for the war effort, such as a tax on slaves, glass, etc. Wartime taxation is common throughout the history of western civilization, but so are the often violent reactions to taxation. As an invasion from France was realistic, the taxation is justified, being necessary and proper.

The national debt was decreasing nicely under Adams, which it would continue to do until the War of 1812 under Madison.

Adams continued Hamilton’s economic policies, which were popular in his home state of Massachusetts.

Business and Labor: 3/5

As with the Washington administration, intervening in the areas of business and labor was not a concern to the Adams administration, since there was no real precedent for intervention. The Quasi-War likely caused some disruption to businesses. However, the largely agricultural, self-sufficient society was probably untouched by potential economic consequences. The industrial Northeast was aided by the tariffs that Washington-Hamilton had employed. The shipping industry was protected by the tribute that America paid to the Barbary Pirates since the navy was too weak to combat the pirates. Overall, for Adams, nothing significantly positive or negative occurred in this area.

Social Welfare: 4/5

Washington had set the precedent for a social program with a pension plan for disabled veterans. John Adams continued on this course with the introduction of the first socialized healthcare with the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen Act. This created a marine hospital. It also mandated sailors purchase health insurance. This was good business considering how important sailors were in Adams’s time. Adams, who had traveled the Atlantic as a diplomat, and who had lived in coastal Massachusetts, probably knew of the kind of injuries and illnesses that were common among seafarers.

Civil Rights and Liberties: 3/10

I would like to think that Adams would regret his deficiencies in this area.

Adams signed the Alien & Sedition Acts, which were designed to suppress any French influence within the country while the Quasi-War was ongoing. It was a sort of 18th century Patriot Act. The collection of acts made the following controversial actions legal: 1) It extended the waiting period for American citizenship from 5 years to 14 years. 2) It allowed Adams to imprison or deport any foreigner that could be harmful to the peace and security of the United States, regardless if they are a resident of the United States or a resident of a country with whom we were at war. 3) It restricted free speech that could be considered critical of the government. In Adams’s defense, the Alien & Sedition Acts were rarely enforced, but the possibility of greater enforcement was always there.

The reaction to these Acts was tremendous. Jefferson and Madison, who considered the Acts as a Federalist scheme to weaken their own party, as immigrants tended to vote for Jeffersonian Republicans, secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which encouraged states to nullify federal law and secede if necessary. Since Jefferson was Adams’s vice president, his involvement would have been impeachable if he had done so openly. This reaction set the seeds for the later Nullification Crises during Jackson’s presidency and likely for the American Civil War as well.

Adams never owned a slave, believed that slavery was evil, but he did nothing to hasten its decline, as he believed incorrectly that slavery was rapidly declining in the country. He believed in gradual emancipation.  As someone as eminently intelligent and enlightened as Adams was, it is hard to give him a pass for not speaking out more against slavery. His silence was probably in part because many Southerners were still Federalists at this time—his VP nominee for the 1800 election was a South Carolinian.

Domestic Unrest and Criminal Justice 9/10

As stated earlier, to pay for a military force to defend against bellicose France, Adams was compelled to sign a land tax, the first direct tax in our nation’s history. This tax caused a rebellion among German-American farmers in Pennsylvania, similar to the group that took part in the Washington-era Whisky Rebellion. Local militia companies easily suppressed the Fries Rebellion, as it is called, and the Federalists were able to convince the courts to try the leaders for treason. Adams, however, thinking his party was overreacting (a common belief of his), pardoned them and granted amnesty to anyone involved in the rebellion.

The Quasi-War and Aliens and Sedition Acts, also plays a role in this area as well, as it caused a certain level of unrest, at least in the minds of Americans. Some non-citizen residents were also under threat.

However, Adams stopped a rebellion before it could spread and ignored the radical, more bloodthirsty faction of his party, and pardoned those that disagreed with his own tax policy.

Immigration and Citizenship 1/5

As stated, the Aliens and Sedition Act extended the period for gaining citizenship from 5 years to 14 years. Additionally, it allowed a president to deport or imprison anyone that isn’t a US citizen, provided the non-citizen was a national security risk or from a hostile nation. This included non-citizens that had resided in the US for years. While Adams probably had good intentions for such a bill and he would only apply it in extreme cases, Jefferson’s party, which was the party of immigrants, saw this as a Federalist attempt to deport a portion of their future voter base.  Adams’s acceptance of these bills set the precedents for similar laws and actions against immigrants by Wilson, FDR, Trump, and others. As this predates the era of mass immigration to the US, this area will not affect Adams too much.

Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements 2/5

Adams was bogged down by the Quasi-War, and his focus on foreign affairs meant that he largely ignored this area during his presidency. However, he did not work against infrastructure or domestic improvements.

Overall, this area was largely ignored by the early presidents.

Energy, Resources, and Environment 0/0

Adams predates the era in which these were real issues at all. As such, this will not count for or against him.

Misc. Domestic 3/5

John Adams’s presidency saw very few domestic accomplishments due to the preoccupation with France. However, the Library of Congress was established during his presidency, which seems fitting for a voracious reader of books.

Foreign Diplomacy 7/10

In the course of Washington’s administration, and throughout Adams’s administration, the French and the British worked to influence elections towards the party most favoring them. This is an all too common behavior among any great power, whether it is 18th and 19th century Britain and France or 20th and 21st century US and Russia. Adams, well aware of meddling, predicted that the 1800 election would see the British supporting John Jay or Alexander Hamilton and the French supporting Thomas Jefferson. Such intrigue was something Adams hoped to deal away with.

He, like most Federalists, condemned the mob rule of the French Revolution that so inspired the supporters of Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Adams’s French policy would nearly end his friendship with his friend and political rival.

Britain and France were at war and Adams meant to take the middle ground between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans by following Washington and declaring neutrality. However, many Federalists were enraged when it was discovered that the French were capturing American merchant ships because they felt they considered America in league with the British.

Peace, Defense, and Warfare 9/10

Adams chose to negotiate with France, rather than to start a war; however, French Foreign Minister Talleyrand demanded a bribe, which offended the administration, and no peace was made. Adams tried to keep news of the bribe secret but eventually had to reveal the information, but he replaced key names with W, X, Y, and Z. This XYZ Affair shocked the country, causing Federalists to call for war and converting even many Jeffersonian Republicans from their previous Francophilic ways.

The Federalist-controlled Congress, now dealing with the Quasi-War passed several retaliatory and protective measures, as was discussed earlier. Adams built up the navy and created a provisional army, placing former president George Washington in command with Alexander Hamilton as Washington’s desired second-in-command.

While the Federalists prepared for war and the Republicans protested the government, Adams secretly and unilaterally, reached a peace agreement with France. In addition to peace, the Concordat of 1800 officially terminated the old and long broken alliance between the two countries, returned captured ships, established most favored trading nation to both countries, guaranteed safe trade, among several other small agreements.

With Washington’s death near the end of 1799 (Washington was very much an 18th-century man), Adams disbanded the army, much to commanding general Alexander Hamilton’s protestations. Adams considered his peace with Napoleonic France to be the crowning achievement of his presidency. Having averted war, Adams would go on to have a presidency free of any major wars, just as Washington had done.

Also like Washington, Adams signed treaties with the Barbary Pirates, which included the payment of tribute, to secure the release of prisoners and to keep the pirates from attacking their vessels. The navy hadn’t the strength to fight the pirates, so the payment for peace was preferred.

Adams receives high grade here since he averted pressure to go to war.

Scandal and Corruption 4/5

Adams’s administration was mostly free of scandal, but the “Midnight Judges” episode mars what could have been a higher score for Adams in this area. Several lifelong circuit judgeships were open after the new Judiciary Act made them available to be filled. Having lost his bid at reelection, Adams had only days to fill the spots. He knew that president-elect Jefferson was unlikely to appoint Federalists to these positions, so Adams worked tirelessly to fill every spot.

Adams was operating legally and carrying out his constitutional duty. However, Jeffersonian Republicans spun this as a Federalist ploy to cement Federalist control of the judicial branch with Adams as an active participator in the scheme. When Jefferson took office, he rescinded the Judiciary Act and removed the judges from office, in what is akin to a somewhat large scale Merrick Garlanding of circuit judges.

Intangibles 7/10

Adams should be given some credit for losing an election. The nation was still fragile and Adams became the first president to see his party transfer power to an opposing party. Ever a man of peace, Adams did nothing to prevent the transfer of power, giving all future one-term presidents an example of the acceptance of electoral defeat. Let us hope Adam’s example continues throughout the 21st century.


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