The French Republic’s reaction to the Jay Treaty helped John Adams. While the American newspapers reacted in anti-French fury, Adams became the hero of the hour. However, his political career went through two catastrophic blunders toward the end that bobbled away all the political advantages he had gained.
Four Separate Bills
The first blunder was when John Adams passed a series of acts, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed to eliminate the possibility that the French would use French sympathizers in America to undermine the administration. These acts were four separate bills.
The first of the Alien and Sedition Acts—the Naturalization Act—virtually tripled the length of time an immigrant had to reside in the United States to obtain citizenship.
The second and third—the Act Concerning Aliens and the Act Respecting Alien Enemies—permitted the arrest and deportation of any immigrant suspected of “treasonable or secret” leanings.
The fourth, the Sedition Act, imposed fines and imprisonment for “writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the president of the United States” with “intent to defame the said government or to bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
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The Acts Backfire
But the enforcement of these laws backfired. Its principal victims turned out to be not French secret agents but Americans who did nothing more than disagree a little too vocally with the Federalists.
Matthew Lyon was arrested under the terms of the Sedition Act when a letter he published in the Vermont Journal complained of “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulations, and selfish avarice on the part of the Executive.” Jefferson’s favorite editor, the Irish-born William Duane, was indicted for “seditious libel” in Philadelphia.
Climax of Threats
Jefferson and Madison denounced “the Alien bill” and capitalized on this blunder by drafting two sets of anti-Administration resolutions for the legislatures of Virginia and the new state of Kentucky to adopt in defiance of the Acts.
Let these Acts stand, warned the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and it might be necessary for the individual states of the Union to declare “these acts void and of no force.” And Madison hinted even more darkly that the ultimate remedy might have to be the secession of states from the federal Union.
Learn more about the War of 1812 and James Madison at the helm of government.
The Directory on Shaky Political Ground
Adams might have been able to withstand the wave of hatred that followed the Alien and Sedition Acts if the Quasi-War with France had finally climaxed. Almost everyone expected that it would become a full-scale war with France and would carry everything with it on the way to patriotism. But in August 1798, the Royal Navy destroyed the core of the French republican navy at the battle of Aboukir Bay. It thus removed much of the Directory’s actual means for disturbing American shipping.
The Directory itself was on shaky political ground. In November 1799, its most successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, would overturn it in a coup d’etat and install himself as the de facto ruler of France.
Desperate to shore up their political position at home, the Directory now struggled to convince Americans that they are “at present sincerely desirous of restoring harmony between this country and the United States, on terms honorable and advantageous to both parties.”
Learn more about Secretary of War James McHenry.
Opportunity for Diplomatic Success
This allowed Adams to reproduce the kind of diplomatic success Washington had achieved in the Jay Treaty for his administration. He appointed William Vans Murray “to be minister plenipotentiary of the United States to the French republic to discuss and conclude all controversies between the two republics by a new treaty.”
Adams’s secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, saw that “every real patriot who has steadily and supported” Adams “was thunderstruck.” Weary of the abuse and misunderstanding, the thin-skinned Adams began to spend increasing amounts of time away from Philadelphia, at home in Massachusetts.
By the time William Vans Murray and his negotiating team finally had a treaty ready for signing, Napoleon Bonaparte was in charge, and the French refused to offer compensation for losses suffered by American merchant ships. Murray signed it anyway, on September 30, 1800. But it did nothing to promote Adams’s political standing.
Loneliest Point of John Adams’s Political Career
On the contrary, as one Boston merchant remarked to Timothy Pickering, “The Jacobin influence is rising and has been ever since the mission to France was determined on. If a treaty is made with France, their ascendancy will be sure.” Adams’s Secretary of War, James McHenry, resigned; five days later, Adams demanded that Pickering resign as well, and when Pickering refused, Adams dismissed him with a curt note.
Adams still had enough control over the Federalist caucuses to control their endorsement for reelection, but not in the country at large. In his second bid for the presidency, Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 electoral votes; Adams won only 65.
It was a moment of acute loneliness for Adams. He had squandered both the goodwill of his friends and the hostility of his critics. He could not bear to witness Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, and left the city he had briefly occupied just before daybreak.
Common Questions about the Downward Slope of John Adams’s Political Career
The Sedition Act imposed fines and imprisonment for “writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the president of the United States” with “intent to defame the said government or to bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
Although they were meant to act against any potential French agents in the country, the Acts had a detrimental effect on John Adams‘s political career. Many Americans were arrested who did nothing more than disagree a little too vocally with the Federalists.
In August 1798, the Royal Navy destroyed the core of the French republican navy at the battle of Aboukir Bay. It thus removed much of the Directory’s actual means for disturbing American shipping.