Of the inauguration of John Adams, Rufus King wrote: “Mr. Adams is president, Mr. Jefferson is Vice president. Our Jacobins say they are well pleased, and that the lion and the lamb are to lie down together. Mr. Adams’s personal friends talk a little in the same way. ‘Mr. Jefferson is not half so ill a man as we have been accustomed to think him. There is to be a united and a vigorous administration.’ Skeptics like me quietly look forward to the event, willing to hope; but not prepared to believe. If Mr. Adams has vanity ‘tis plain a plot has been laid to take hold of it. We trust his real good sense and integrity will be a sufficient shield.”
Once the Pinckney maneuver had failed, any hope that Hamilton might have had of acting as prime minister to so seasoned a political player as Adams appeared to be at an end. But Hamilton the intriguant, as Adams called him, was still a power in the land because Adams, out of deference to the departed General, had kept on Washington’s cabinet, whose shadow chief was Hamilton. The three great offices of state were held by the cunning mediocrities Pickering, Wolcott, and James McHenry (War), each more or less attached to Hamilton. Not only did this disloyal and incompetent cabinet get the new president off to a bad start but the fact that after so many years away from his home in Quincy, he was determined to spend as much time there as he could and so, between working with his predecessors second team at a considerable remove in far-off Massachusetts, Adams had, in a sense, removed himself from the actual day-to-day governance of a republic whose affairs were beginning to grow very complex indeed. He did not fully awaken to his situation until, 1800, when he was moved into the wilderness of the new capital at Washington.
Adams was not entirely unaware of his situation as early as his investiture. On March 17, 1797, he wrote, “It would have given me great pleasure to have had some of my family present at my inauguration, which was the most affecting and overpowering scene I ever acted in. I was very unwell, had no sleep the night before, and really did not know but I should have fainted in presence of all the world. I was in great doubt whether to say anything or not besides repeating the oath. And now the world is as silent as the grave. All the Federalists seem to be afraid to approve anybody but Washington.” An interesting premonition. “The Jacobin papers damn with faint praise, and undermine with misrepresentation and insinuation. If the Federalists go to playing pranks, I will resign the office, and let Jefferson lead them to peace, wealth, and power if he will.” A warning to Hamilton’s cabal.
From the situation where I now am, I see a scene of ambition beyond all my former suspicions or imaginations; an emulation which will turn our government topsy-turvy. Jealousies and rivalries have been my theme, and checks and balances their antidotes till I am ashamed to repeat the words; but they never stared me in the face in such horrid forms as at present. I see how the thing is going. At the next elections England will set up Jay or Hamilton, and France, Jefferson and all the corruption of Poland will be introduced, unless the American should rise and say, we will have neither John Bull nor Louis Baboon.
France and Spain were at war with each other while the Anglo-French perennial war was heating up. Vis-à-vis the U.S., the French were suffering from what they affected was chagrin d’amour. Once again Americans were reminded, had it not been for the French and their fleet, neither Yorktown nor the Revolution would have been won As a result, the two nations had been,
in effect, married by the treaty of 1783 Later, when it became inconvenient for the U.S. to honor this treaty, it was argued by Washington’s government that as it had been between King Louis XVT and the United States, once his monarchy had given way to a medley of exotic governing Directories, Consulates, Republics, the treaty was no longer in force. But despite this quibbling, the original marriage contract more or less endured a decade of separations, accusations of adultery, and hasty post- nuptial agreements. Even so, with Adams inaugurated, war with France was at hand.
Jay’s treaty was a betrayal in the eyes of the French. The fact that England was a sort of common-law wife to the United States was not entirely objectionable, but a legal union of two such
infamous divorcees was intolerable. Washington had sent Charles C. Pinckney as minister to France. The government of the moment refused to receive him. Worse, that government declared any American seaman found aboard a British ship was to 1 treated as a pirate. The British party in the United States was now howling for French blood—led by Hamilton, who had, for his victory over the moonshiners, somehow become a major general. Dressed as such, he tried to rally the nation for war.
Adams’s intention was to keep the peace, if possible, while preparing for a war that his country was in no position to fight. The French foreign minister, Talleyrand, had spent some in exile in the United States (1793-94) and knew quite well some of the American players. In general, he dismissed the Greatest Generation of Americans as “a nation of Debaters”; yet he was not in the least ironic when he urged Europeans to read The Federalist, which he thought the finest political document of the age. In later life, when asked to name the three greatest men of his time, he chose Napoleon (for so long his emperor), Pitt the Younger, and Alexander Hamilton. When Aaron Burr, in exile, called on the great minister in Paris, he was turned away with the information that His Excellency, Talleyrand, had a painting of Hamilton in his drawing room.
Happily, Talleyrand was not yet a Napoleonic duke (nor Napoleon an emperor) when he was foreign minister in 1797 to the Directory, as the government du jour was known. He reflected his government’s fluctuating policies ever dependent on General Bonaparte’s victories in the field and subversions at home. Tallyrand decided to receive the American minister for his usual fee. Talleyrand was notorious for taking bribes. But then he was endlessly practical. He liked to lecture the young foreign office clerks on the necessity of masturbating before coming to work, thus ensuring unclouded minds at least throughout the morning.
Adams called a special session of Congress April 14, 1797. In response to various signals from Paris, Pinckney would now be received by the Directory; in addition, Adams immediately dispatched two new ministers or commissioners to negotiate with Tallyrand: Elbridge Gerry and, fatefully, John Marshall of Virginia, destined to be a principal inventor of the nation.