John Adams and France, and the Rise of Federalism


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D.Gettysburg College

John Adams was singularly fortunate in the appalled reaction of the French Republic to the Jay Treaty, in which the French inadvertently made President John Adams temporarily the most popular man in America. He became the hero of the hour, while France was considered the mortal enemy.

Image of John Adams at Congress. He is depicted in the center with his hand on his hip.
To consider what other measures he should take, John Adams called for a special session of Congress in March 1797. (Image: John Trumbull/Public domain)

Conflict with France

By 1796, the Reign of Terror in France had collapsed, and a five-person Directory now ruled the French Republic. The Directory regarded the Jay Treaty as a stab in the back of a fellow republic. They responded by declaring open season on American shipping, promising in a decree of July 2, 1796, that they would “treat neutral vessels, either as to confiscation, as to searches, or capture, in the same manner as they shall suffer the English to treat them.”

During the controversy over the British Orders in Council, Congress had authorized the construction of six large frigates for the United States Navy, only to suspend construction once the Jay Treaty was signed. 

Now, in March 1797, Congress lurched ahead and authorized the completion of the first three of the frigates—the United States, Constellation, and Constitution; and on March 25, Adams called for a special session of Congress to consider what other measures he should take. “My entrance into office is marked by a misunderstanding with France,” he wrote to his son, John Quincy Adams, “which I shall endeavor to reconcile, provided that no violation of faith, no stain upon honor, is exacted.”

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An Attempt to Make Peace

Painting of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord.
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord demanded $240,000 for himself to continue the negotiation. (Image: Charles Wrightsman Gift, in memory of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, 1994/Public domain)

In pursuit of reconciliation, Adams nominated a three-person commission. Together they were “to negotiate with the French Republic” for “a removal of prejudices, a correction of errors, a dissipation of umbrages, an accommodation of all differences, and a restoration of harmony and affection.” 

But from the beginning, nothing went well for this mission. The Directory, with studied rudeness, kept the commissioners cooling their heels for weeks before granting them an interview with the Directory’s sleazy foreign minister, the turncoat aristocrat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. 

But Talleyrand had been receiving reports from the French consul in New York that France need be in no hurry to sign an agreement of its own with the United States. “Mr. Adams,” the French consul had been told, “is vain, suspicious, and stubborn, but his presidency will only last five years; he is only president by three votes, and the system of the United States will change with him.” 

If the commissioners continued to press for an agreement, Talleyrand concluded that they ought to be willing to pay for it—an immediate “gratification” of $240,000 to Talleyrand himself and a subsidy of $10 million to the Directory, in the form of a loan.

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Anti-French Fury

The commissioners were dumbfounded by Talleyrand’s demand. The diplomatic back-and-forth dragged on into the spring of 1798 when finally Marshall and Pinckney gave up and broke off the negotiations; Gerry alone would remain in Paris to keep an American ear to the ground.

Portrait of John Adams.
John Adams had nominated a three-person commission to negotiate with the French Republic. (Image: John Trumbull/Public domain)

In Philadelphia, President Adams received his first dispatches from Pinckney, Marshall, and Gerry on March 4, 1798. The next day he sent a notice to Congress that they had been received and were being decoded from their diplomatic cipher. Despite mounting public demands for their publication, Adams wanted to be sure the commissioners were safely away from Paris before finally, on April 3, sending the dispatches to Congress. 

Three days later, the texts were released to the newspapers, who reacted in anti-French fury. 

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Federalism Flourished Apparently Because of Adams

Adams had become the hero of the hour, and France the mortal enemy. Robert Treat Paine even composed a song, celebrating “Adams and Liberty.”

No actual declaration of war was issued, but naval combat—a “Quasi-War”—broke out wherever French and American warships crossed paths. Nearly 80 French vessels were gobbled up by the American ships. In February 1799, the frigate Constellation, under the command of Commodore Thomas Truxton, fought and captured the French frigate Insurgente, and beat another, the Vengeance, into a helpless hulk.

“Such a shock on the republican mind,” admitted Jefferson, “as has never been seen since our independence.” Everywhere, Jeffersonian Republicans hid their heads, while federalism flourished as patriotism.

Common Questions about John Adams and France, and the Rise of Federalism

Q: How did the French respond to the Jay Treaty?

France thought of the Jay treaty as a betrayal by a fellow republic. So they decided to be hostile towards American vessels, either confiscating them, capturing them, or searching them.

Q: Why wasn’t France in a hurry to make peace with the U.S.?

The French government thought if they waited long enough for John Adams to leave office, they could deal with a different government in the U.S., which would be more to their liking.

Q: What happened in the immediate aftermath when negotiations between the U.S. and France broke down?

After newspapers went into an anti-French fury and John Adams was recognized as a hero, federalism flourished in the U.S. A quasi-war also broke out between the two countries, although neither party had issued a declaration of war.

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US Federalism: Definition and Background
An Unlikely Hero: John Adams Versus the French Directory
Thomas Jefferson and the History of US Foreign Policy