Read about the major events of John Adams's presidency.

Overview

  • John Adams, a Federalist, was the second president of the United States. He served from 1797-1801.
  • John Adams's presidency was marked by conflicts between the two newly-formed political parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
  • The conflicts between the two political parties centered on foreign policy and the balance of power between the federal government and the states' governments.

Adams's presidency

The second person to take up the mantle of the presidency was John Adams, who had served as Vice President under George Washington. Adams was the nation’s first official Federalist president (although Washington had been aligned with the ideas of the Federalists, as president he had frowned on political parties and attempted to remain above partisan squabbling).
Portrait of John Adams.
Portrait of John Adams, painted by John Trumbull, c. 1793. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
During Adams's one-term presidency, the first two American political parties emerged and relations with France began to sour.

Rise of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans

During the Constitutional Convention, factions emerged almost immediately. These factions ended up forming the first two political parties in American history: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
On one side, there were the Federalists. Generally, Federalists lived along eastern seaboard and were wealthy merchants or well-educated people who lived in the city. They supported a stronger central government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution: the idea that what the Constitution didn't explicitly forbid, it allowed. The Federalists also supported fixing the relationship between the United States and Britain for trade reasons.
On the other side were the Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans frequently hailed from western regions and were more likely to be farmers than merchants. The Democratic-Republicans favored a weaker central government in favor of stronger state governments. They believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution: the idea that the federal government couldn't do anything the Constitution didn't explicitly permit. They also preferred a foreign alliance with France, as the French had supported the United States in the Revolutionary War.
Check your understanding: Can you fill in the missing information in the chart below?
BeliefsFederalistsDemocratic-Republicans
The federal government should be:StrongWeak
State governments should be:Weak
The United States should ally with:France
The Constitution should be interpreted:Loosely
BeliefsFederalistsDemocratic-Republicans
The federal government should be:StrongWeak
State governments should be:WeakStrong
The United States should ally with:BritainFrance
The Constitution should be interpreted:LooselyStrictly

The XYZ Affair

In 1794, George Washington sent John Jay, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to negotiate a treaty with the British that removed British forts from the Northwest Territory of the United States. He also hoped to negotiate free trade between the United States and the portion of the West Indies which was occupied by the British. In exchange, the United States agreed to settle colonial debts that were owed to British merchants.
Known as Jay's Treaty, the pro-British agreement angered the government of France, which had supported the United States in the American Revolution. In response, the French navy began attacking American merchant ships. In 1797, President Adams sent diplomats to create a treaty between the United States and France.
Political cartoon satirizing the XYZ Affair, showing a group of French men attempting to steal money from an allegorical figure of America. In the background, figures representing other nations look on and laugh.
Political cartoon satirizing the XYZ Affair, showing a group of French men attempting to steal money from an allegorical figure of America. In the background, figures representing other nations look on and laugh. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Upon arrival, three French diplomats, nicknamed “X”, “Y”, and “Z”, proceeded to ask for bribes in order to start negotiations. The story eventually made its way to the American public, inciting many Americans to write letters to Adams, pushing for an armed conflict with the French.
Over the next two years, the United States carried on an undeclared naval war with France.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

Fear of opposition to the war within the United States prompted many Federalists to call for a way to punish dissidents, chiefly those in the Anti-Federalist Party. This took the form of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
“Alien” refers to someone who is not from the country, and the Alien Act was created to allow the federal government to deport non-citizens who were a threat to national security. Sedition means to write or speak in a way as to get people to rebel against the authority of a government. The Sedition Act, however, was created as a way to punish American citizens who criticized the American government during the war with the intent to harm the government’s position.
Under the Sedition Act, the government charged and prosecuted several printers who spoke against the United States and the war. Even Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican Congress member, was jailed for criticizing President Adams in a Republican newspaper.
Test your knowledge
What amendment to the Constitution did the Sedition Act potentially violate? Why?
Choose 1 answer:
Choose 1 answer:

The Kentucky and Virginia resolutions

The Federalist Party supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, but the Democratic-Republican Party criticized them. They argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts gave too much power to the federal government.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, leading Democratic-Republicans, each wrote a resolution that were later adopted by Kentucky and Virginia, respectively. These resolutions pushed for a strict interpretation of the Constitution when it came to powers granted to the federal government. They also claimed that states had the power to ignore and disregard federal laws if they considered them outside of the bounds of their powers as described in the Constitution.
Debate about the balance between federal and state power would continue until the Civil War, remerging in issues like the Nullification crisis.

Adams's midnight appointments

Arguably, Adams’ most influential act as president happened as he was leaving office. In his last moments as president, the night before his successor (Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican) took office, Adams attempted to appoint as many Federalists as possible into empty positions as justices of the peace. These "midnight judges" were a ploy to stack the courts against the incoming Democratic-Republican party.
Although Adams signed the judicial appointments, he failed to make sure they were delivered on time. When Jefferson took office, he refused to arrange for the delivery of the remaining appointments. One of the disappointed would-be judges, William Marbury, sued for his appointment. The Supreme Court case that followed, Marbury v. Madison, established the principle of judicial review: that the Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws if it judges that those laws violate the Constitution.

What do you think?

Why did the Adams administration pass the Alien and Sedition Acts?
What was the most important issue dividing the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans?
Article written by Leah Cabrera-Marquez. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Bibliography
Marco Basile et al., “A New Nation,” Tara Strauch, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016.
Alan Taylor, "The New Nation, 1783-1803," The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2017.
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