The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview
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John Adams and
The Dogma of "Balance"

Few commentators on the American past have ever been altogether certain what to do with John Adams or just where to place him -- least of all with regard to his presidency. The whole of Adams's single term was absorbed, to a degree unequaled in any other American presidency, with a sing-le problem, a crisis in foreign relations. The crisis had arisen out of hostile actions by the French Republic, ostensibly in retaliation for America's having reached an accommodation by treaty with France's enemy England. American representatives seeking a peaceful resolution with the French government had been accorded insulting treatment, while increasing depredations were being made upon American commerce by French cruisers and privateers, all of which threatened to involve the two former allies in war. The manner in which Adams handled the crisis has been seen in strikingly opposite ways.

One view has Adams in the role of intrepid pacificator, putting country above party, defying Federalist warmongers by dispatching a new and eventually successful mission to France. He thus achieved both peace and an end to rebellious sentiment at home over rising taxes and the fear of an overbearing military establishment, all at the foregone risk of dividing his own party and ruining his own chances of re-election. It is a view widely held today, and one with which Adams himself would certainly have concurred. It was precisely the one he held, and in later life he was not at all backward about saying so. 1 Nevertheless, such a view does not command anything like general agreement. Indeed, writers in recent years, calling attention to Adams's erratic executive behavior -- his touchiness, vanity, impulsiveness, and failure to consult adequately with his cabinet and other leading advisors -- have contended that what Adams did accomplish he accomplished in spite of himself, and at unnecessary cost to both his own political fortunes and those of the Federalist party. He had the amplest opportunity to strike for control of the entire party in preparation for the election of 1800. He might still have pursued his policy of making peace with France, but in a far more


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