When Washington retired there were still fundamental aspects of the Constitution waiting to be brought to life, in particular the role of the judiciary. That began under the second President, John Adams. Cantankerous, unloved, and quarrelsome, Adams was not the best choice to succeed the eirenic and universally respected general. But he was very senior. He had been through it all. He had served as vice-president. He was also from New England, awaiting its ‘turn.’ In Philadelphia a kind of caucus of federalist politicians, mostly Congressmen, decided it had to be Adams. They added Pinckney’s brother to the slate, partly because he was from South Carolina, and therefore balanced the slate, partly because his treaty was popular. Hamilton, neither eligible nor willing to run himself, did not like Adams and believed he would be difficult to manage. He preferred Pinckney and engaged in a furtive plot to have Southern votes switched and get him in ahead of Adams. But it misfired, and as a result the New Englanders dropped Pinckney. Adams won, by seventy- one electoral votes; but Jefferson, who ‘stood’ for the Republicans—he refused to allow the word ‘ran’ as undignified, preferring the English term—got almost as many, sixty-eight, and therefore became vice-president. Adams, quite liking Jefferson despite their differences, but not wishing to have him aboard, labeled Hamilton, whom he held responsible, ‘a Creole bastard’ — Adams’ wife Abigail, more decorously, called him ‘Cassius — trying to assassinate Caesar.” Adams, despite his low opinion of Old Muttonhead, tried hard to maintain the continuity of his government, keeping on Washington’s old crony Timothy Pickering as secretary of state (though eventually obliged to sack him) and promoting Hamilton’s able deputy, Oliver Wolcott, to the Treasury. Adams even went so far as to keep up Washingtonian pomp, dressing for his inauguration in an absurd pearl-coloured suit adorned with a sword and a huge hat with cockade. But he was a fat little man, who ‘looked half Washington’s height.’ For the first but by no means the last time in presidential history, his best physical and social asset was his splendid spouse.

Adams’ presidency was dominated by one issue — peace or war? Could America stay out of the global conflict? On this point he was at one with Washington: at almost any cost, America should stay neutral. Adams underlined this section in the Farewell Address, and caused the whole to be read out every February in Congress, a tradition maintained until the mid 1970s when, in the sudden collapse of presidential authority after Watergate, it lapsed. It was Adams’ great merit as president that he kept America out of the war, despite many difficulties and with (as he saw it) a disloyal Cabinet and vice-president. Jefferson worked hard to have the government come to the aid of France and republicanism. Hamilton, outside the government but with his creatures inside it, hoped to exploit the war by destroying what remained of the Spanish and French empires in North America. He called for an enormous standing army of 10,000 and got the aged Washington to lend a certain amount of support to the idea. Adams accused Hamilton of intriguing to be made head of it and proclaim a dictatorship of what he termed ‘a regal government.’ This was exaggeration. But it was true that he had visions of personally marching a large professional force through the Louisiana Territory and into Mexico, turning all these ‘liberated lands’ over to American settlement.’ Adams thought this was all nonsense. He believed that all North America would fall into the United States’ hands, like ripe plums, in the fullness of time, but it would be outrageous, and unrepublican, and anyway expensive, to conquer the continent now. Like England, he believed in ‘wooden walls,’ a strong navy (to protect New England trade), freedom of the seas, and ‘holding the balance.’ So he tried to keep the army small and build ships — in New England yards of course.’

Adams and his friends believed he was superbly, perhaps uniquely, qualified intellectually to be president. His crony Benjamin Rush wrote in his autobiography that Adams possessed ‘more learning, probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed to the Declaration of Independence.’ American children who grew up in the early i9th century were told that, except for Franklin, Adams was without an intellectual superior among the Founding Fathers. This may well have been true, and Adams’ writings and letters are a wonderful brantub of sharp aperçus, profound observations, and fascinating conjectures.’ His experience was unique. He had been a corn- missioner to France, 1777-9, then negotiator in Holland, 1780-2, had negotiated, with Jefferson and Jay, the Treaty of Paris, 1782-3, had been America’s first envoy to Britain, 1785-8, and as vice-president had assisted Washington, as far as his short temper would allow, in all things. If ever a man had been trained for the First Magistracy it was Adams. But he was ill suited to the office. Though he earnestly strove to maintain himself above party and faction, he was a man of passionate opinions and even more emotional likes and dislikes, mainly personal. He thought Hamilton ‘the incarnation of evil.’ He did not believe Jefferson was evil but he considered him a slave to ‘ideology.’ This was Adams’ hate-word. It seems to have been coined by a French philosophe, Destutt de Tracy, whom Jefferson admired greatly. At his vice-president’s promptings, Adams read the man and had a good laugh. What was this delightful new piece of French rubbish? What did ‘ideology’ stand for? ‘Does it mean Idiotism? The Science of Non Compos Mentisism? The Art of Lunacy? The Theory of Deliri-ism?’ He put his finger instantly on the way that — thanks to Jefferson and his ilk — ideology was creeping into American life by attributing all sorts of mythical powers and perceptions to a nonexistent entity, ‘The People.’ When politicians started talking about ‘The People,’ he said, he suspected their honesty. He had a contempt for abstract ideas which he derived from the English political tradition but to which he added a sarcastic skepticism which was entirely American, or rather Bostonian.

Adams believed that democracy — another hate-word — was positively dangerous, and equality a fantasy which could never be realized. He had no time for actual aristocracies — hated them indeed — but he thought the aristocratic principle, the rise of the best on merit, was indestructible and necessary. As he put it, ‘Aristocracy, like waterfowl, dives for ages and rises again with brighter plumage.’ He noted that in certain families, young men were encouraged to take an interest in public service, generation after generation, and that such people naturally formed part of an elite. Unlike European aristocracies, they sought not land, titles, and wealth, but the pursuit of republican duty, service to God and man. He was thinking of such old New England families as the Winthrops and the Cottons — and his own. And of course the Adamses became the first of the great American political families, leaders in a long procession which would include the Lodges, Tafts, and Roosevelts. He brought up his son, John Quincy Adams, to serve the state just as old Pitt had brought up his son William, the Younger Pitt, to sit eventually on the Treasury Bench in the Commons. All this was very touching, and the historian warms to this vain, chippy, wild- eyed, paranoid, and fiercely patriotic seer. But, whatever they think, presidents of the United States should not publicly proclaim their detestation of democracy and equality. That leaves only fraternity, and Adams was not a brotherly man either. He was much too good a hater for that.

The truth is Adams, like his enemy Hamilton, was not made to lead America, though for quite different reasons. Adams was very perceptive about the future. He had no doubts at all that America would become a great nation, possibly the greatest in the world, with a population ‘of more than two hundred million.’ But he did not want to see it. He hated progress, change, the consequences of science and technology, inventions, innovation, bustle. It was not that he despised science. Quite the contrary. Like most of the Founding Fathers, he admired and studied it. He believed in what he called the ‘science of government’ and he ingeniously worked into his constitutionalism a variety of scientific metaphors, particularly the principle on which the balance rested. Believing wholeheartedly in educating the young republic, he thought students should be taught science, both theoretical and applied: ‘It is not indeed the fine arts our country requires,’ he noted, ‘but the useful, the mechanical arts. But he loathed the physical, visual evidence of life in a progressive country. ‘From the year 1761,’ he wrote to Rush, ‘now more than fifty years, I have constantly lived in an Enemy’s Country. And that without having one personal enemy in the world, that I know of.”

This tremendously unAmerican dislike of progress was compounded by the purgatory Adams suffered from being dislocated. He was devoted to New England, especially ‘the neighborhood of Boston’ and his own town, Quincy. Being in Europe, as envoy, was an adventure and in some ways a delight for a man who has a taste for the Old World, but being forced to live outside New England in restless, self-transforming America was punishment. One feels for these early presidents, with their strong local roots, being sentenced to long exile in temporary accommodation before the White House was built and made cozy. Washington hated New York. Philadelphia was marginally better but was then the biggest New World city north of Mexico, dirty, noisy, and anathema to a country gentleman. Before his presidency was over, Adams was compelled to leave Philadelphia to set up his government shop in the new, barely begun capital of Washington, where the vast, endless streets, which mostly contained no buildings of any kind, were unpaved, muddy cesspools in winter, waiting for summer to transform them into mosquito-infested swamps. Washington in fact is built on a swamp and, then and now, specialized in gigantic cockroaches, which terrified Abigail. She was often ill, and demanded to be sent back to Quincy, and Adams used the excuse of tending her to hurry there himself and try to conduct government from his own house.’ He found the business of creating a new capital commensurate with America’s future profoundly depressing, laying it down that the country would not be ‘ready for greatness’ in ‘less than a century.’ One has a vivid glimpse of Adams, towards the end of his presidency, sitting in the unfinished ‘executive mansion,’ still largely unfurnished and requiring ‘thirteen fires’ constantly replenished just to keep out the cold and damp, surrounded by packing-cases and festooned with clothes-lines that Abigail used for drying the wash.’

However, before leaving the presidency, which, as we shall see, he did most reluctantly despite all its discomforts, Adams made a selection of vital significance, perhaps the most important single appointment in the whole history of the presidency. John Marshall (1755—1835) was a Virginian frontiersman, born in a log cabin on the frontier. Like many early Americans he combined a modest background with honorable lineage, being of old stock, related to the Lees, the Randolphs, and the Jeffersons. His father was prominent in state politics. Marshall fought in the Revolution, but as a result of the crisis he had little formal education apart from a brief spell at William and Mary College. But he set up as a lawyer in Richmond — the Americans were never inhibited by the trade union restrictions of the English Inns of Court system from nailing their name-plates to the wall — and soon showed, by his brilliant advocacy in court, that he was made for forensic life. He and Adams got on well together. They were both confirmed and cerebral federalists, believing in strong government, hierarchy based on merit and no nonsense about states’ rights. They did not like nonsense in social life either, beyond the formality needed to keep the executive and the judiciary respected. Marshall, like Adams, was an elitist — but he did not look the part. He was tall, loose-limbed, and raw-boned, badly dressed, none too clean, a great gossip and gregarian. Wit he had too, and charm — in some ways he was a prototype for Lincoln.

Adams, in his desperate struggles to keep America out of the war, and especially to avoid sliding into a war with France by sheer accident and bad luck — the French remained provocative and difficult — sent John Marshall, together with Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry, to Paris on an embassy. They got short shrift from Charles-Maurice Talleyrand, the atheist ex-bishop and aristocrat who was now the hired gun of the Revolutionaries in foreign affairs. He objected strongly to Jay’s treaty as pro-British and forced the commissioners to deal with plebeian underlings, whom they referred to contemptuously as X, Y, and Z. The French understrappers demanded a ‘loan’ of 12 million francs as a condition of opening serious talks, accompanied by a further, personal ‘gift’ of $250,000 to Talleyrand himself. Pinckney is said to have replied No, not a sixpence — millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.’ (The last bit was esprit d’escalier and actually coined by Robert Harper, a brilliant dinner-orator and neologist who also named Liberia and its capital Monrovia.) As a result, undeclared war broke out and Adams’ new navy — he had thirty-three warships by the end of the century — came in handy in engagements with French commerce-raiders in the West Indies and Mediterranean. Adams had been unhappy about his Secretary of State’s handling of the XYZ Affair — he thought Pickering was being manipulated by Hamilton — and in 1800 he sacked him and replaced him by Marshall. Finally, on the eve of his own departure, he decided the best way he could perpetuate his spirit was by making Marshall chief justice. This worked very well, Marshall holding the office for thirty-four years, surviving four of Adams’ successors and living to cross swords with the redoubtable Andrew Jackson, a man for whom Adams had a peculiar hatred.’

2 Responses to “PAUL JOHNSON ON JOHN ADAMS AND THE EUROPEAN WAR”



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Adams in Patriotic Mode

“What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” John Adams

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