thumbnail of America Past; D12; Foreign Policy and John Adams
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[high-pitched tone] [low bleeping gives way to louder electronic bleeps] [dramatic synth note and fluttering sound] [tin whistles playing a folk song give way to dramatic, marching war drums]
[dramatic strings and drum roll] We we're talking about Washington's administration, that things were going pretty well. Thanks chiefly to Alexander Hamilton, the financial situation was greatly improved. The national debt had been funded. The state's debts have been paid. There was a new source of income with the excise tax. The government had established the fact that it intended to use its power to tax, when it went to the effort to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. There was a bank established, a United States Bank.
The Indian problem in the northwest, at least temporarily, seemed to be under control. And, thanks to Washington's proclamation of neutrality, we had avoided the war between England and France. But issuing the proclamation neutrality was much easier than staying out of that war on a permanent basis. See, the problem was this: we thought that England and France would consider us as a neutral friend. Actually, both of them tended to look upon us as a neutral enemy, one who might very well be selling goods to the enemy. Therefore, if an American ship was headed toward France, the very considerable British Navy was apt to move in on it and seize it. And one going to England was always in danger of being seized by the French. That becomes a problem that will eventually lead to the War of 1812, at least as far as England is concerned. We had another problem with uh, England.
They're seizing the ships and they're seizing the men along with the ship. [gunfire and triumphant music] We also were upset in the West. The English controlled Canada. And along the Canadian border and in the Great Lakes region, she still had her forts there, from the Revolutionary War. And many American frontiersmen had the idea that the English were stirring up the Indians, even paying for American Scots. So many Americans wanted things ironed out with the British. They wanted that Indian problem settled, they wanted the matter of seizing ships settled. Washington decides to send an ambassador to England to work on those problems. [music stops] He chose the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay. And Jay was supposed to do basically two things, there were some minor things thrown in too. 1: to get the English to agree to leave our ships alone and to pay for the ones they'd already seized. And 2: to remove their force from the Northwest Territory. Ideally he would get some trade concessions at the same time.
If England would not agree to that, he was supposed to at least threaten to make alliances with other countries, with the implication that we might actually go to war with England. Now before he got there Alexander Hamilton got involved by telling an Englishman not to worry about it, that the United States would not go to war with Britain, no matter what. Two thirds of our trade was with Britain and Northeastern merchants didn't want any war with Great Britain. And Hamilton lets them know that, that we're not out to go to war with them. So Jay shows up, trying to negotiate with these people, trying to threaten them. That either you come across with some concessions or else, and they know that he's not going to be able to do that. Well, what does he get? Well, not much of a treaty as you can imagine. The English do promise to take their forts out of the northwest but they'd already promised that before. They'd promised it to John Jay himself.
He'd been one of the negotiators at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. So here, we'll promise that again. They say nothing in the treaty, absolutely nothing, about the seizing of ships or paying for old ones. That truly did give England the right to ship into American ports without paying taxes. So England comes out with something, the Americans get essentially nothing. Jay comes back to the United States with this agreement and people are infuriated. There's an uproar. He sold us out! One enemy suggested that the American eagle should no longer be the symbol of the United States, that it should be changed to the jaybird. Jay himself said that he could travel from New York to Philadelphia and his way would be lighted at night by bonfires, which were burning him in effigy. Nevertheless, Washington decided that it was probably the best treaty that could be gotten at the time, submitted it to the Senate for approval and it was eventually approved. Probably delayed war with England for another 15 years.
There was a curious spin-off from that treaty, and that's the way the Spanish looked at it. When they heard that the United States had made an agreement with England, they assumed we were signing some sort of an alliance with them. The French believed that too. And the Spanish, a picture came in their mind of England and the United States, allied together, gobbling up Spanish territory out in the western part of the United States. So Spain lets it be known that she would be willing to make an agreement. Well, that's good. We have some complaints with Spain, we'd like to talk to you. And Washington sent Thomas Pinckney to Spain to do that. We had two problems. 1: the Indians out of Florida, which was part of Spanish territory, were coming up into Georgia, raiding and escaping back into Spanish territory. We would like the Spanish to do something about that. But most important, Spain controlled New Orleans. And whoever controlled New Orleans, controlled the Mississippi. And if you lived in the West, you
wanted to ship your goods down the Mississippi and out through New Orleans. We want the Spanish to agree to let us do that. To let us deposit goods at New Orleans free of charge and ship them out. And they did. They agreed to control the Indians, which they couldn't do, but they tried. And they agreed to giving us free navigation down the Mississippi. That was very significant. Westerners were a long way from the East Coast. There was always the danger that the West might just break off and start a separate country or ally with Spain. Washington was very anxious to do something for the West and he did it by getting New Orleans opened. Chiefly, because the Spanish misinterpreted Jay's treaty. Well, as Washington's administration came to an end, he made the decision at the end of that second term, that he would not run for a third. It's one of the precedents that he established, a president would serve two terms. Every president after him, until Franklin Roosevelt,
followed that precedent. That means that in 1796 there's going to be an election. And that, as a result of that, we will have a new president. That new president was John Adams. This is his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. John and Abigail answered an ad for a genteel dwelling house shortly before he was elected vice president. Abigail considered it too small, said it was more fitting to be a wren's house. She began adding on to it. John preferred that she add fences and compost piles, rather than rooms, to the house. [car noise and bird sounds] But the Adams family has lived here for 140 years. John, John Quincy, Henry, Charles Francis and Brook. They lived here until 1928. [dignified music] In 1801, John Adams left the White House and returned to his home in Quincy.
He returned to this study. It reflects his personality, it reflects his life. This room is not furnished with replicas, these things belong to the Adams family. They kept this house for 140 years and they kept the furniture. Chests of drawers, high boys, that Adams bought in Europe and in America, are still here. His glasses are still on the desk. This is his room. To come into it, is to sense the presence of John Adams. But before 1801, Adams had his presidency to serve out. In 1796, we had an election year and that was the year that Adams will be elected. It's also the year that you get the first split between two political parties. The creation of political parties really occurred in the election of 1796. You see, Hamilton's various programs? Well, they had stirred up some opposition. There was resentment to what he was doing.
But a lot of that did not surface until Washington was ready to retire. Respect for him, his opposition to political parties in general, tend to keep that down. But now that we know that Washington is leaving, then out come the dogs at each other. And those are represented by two groups, the Federalist Party and the Democratic Republican Party; the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. Now just to confuse your life a little bit, The Democratic Republicans call themselves Republicans. But today that party is called Democrats. So when I say Republican I mean presently democrat, old time Dem-, forget it, it's called Republican at that time or Democratic Republican. In that year, the Federalist Party ran, and elected, John Adams. He is the first, last and only Federalist ever to be elected president. And he defeated the
Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, not by a whole bunch, 71 to 68 in the Electoral College. But Adams was elected. Maybe we ought to take a minute now, or two, and just look at the difference between those parties. Who would be a federalist, who would be a Republican? Today people argue "what's the difference between the parties?" and sometimes you're confused, really what 'is. Well there are certain differences then, there were certain groups that felt more at home in one camp than the other. Like the Federalists. The Federalists found their strength basically along the East Coast and particularly in the Northeast. They tended, with certain exceptions, to be the wealthier classes; Merchants, large landowners, who supported this group. They favored a strong national government, a government that would have enough power to protect them against what Hamilton had called "the mob". There weren't many Federalists on the frontier, they were a little suspicious of those guys.
Let's keep government in the hands of the better educated people, or as one person said "Let the people who own the country run it." Now this nat- strong national government is going to be that way because they believe in a loose construction, that is, they believe in implied powers, that the national government should have power to do anything that isn't actually forbidden by the Constitution. That'd been Hamilton's philosophy, that was a federalist philosophy. They tended to favor Great Britain in foreign affairs. Great Britain was the merchants' best customer. You want policies that are favorable to this trade with the British. They did not trust the common man particularly. Certainly all Federalists would not have agreed that the common man was vicious, but they certainly didn't look to him for the bulk of their support. The best known Federalists were John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Now the Republicans, or the Democratic
Republicans, their strength lay in the West and in the south. And it lay among the small farmers and the towns, the labors. What we might call the common man. They favored a weak national government. They believed that the national government should not do anything unless the constitution actually gave them the power. We've talked about that before. It's called a strict construction. If you're going to give government power, let's give it to the state government, that's close at hand, we can control it easier than a national government that's a long ways away. In foreign affairs, they were sympathetic to France. Britain was the old enemy from the revolution. The French were fighting a revolution or had fought a revolution like ours. Their sympathies lay in that direction. They put great faith in the common man not, that they really wanted to elect him to office, but they had faith that he would vote for the right upper class man for office, namely themselves. And the best known Republicans were Thomas
Jefferson and his fellow Virginian, James Madison. And in 1796, the Federalist's ran John Adams. Hamilton had too many enemies, there was no chance of electing him. So in '96, you had John Adams entering the White House. Actually, he was elected in 1796 and assumed the presidency the next spring, in 1797. Let me look just briefly at his life. [Dignified horn music] He was descended from an old New England family, that had been here since the 17th century, and they lived in Quincy, Massachusetts. His father was a farmer and shoemaker. In his early years, Adams had thought about teaching school. Gave it a try, didn't like it, didn't like the children, what he called "the little runtlings". Neither the first and last teacher to react that way. He became a lawyer, defended many colonists in the British courts. He was involved in the cases coming out of the Boston Massacre. He was a delegate to both
The First and Second Continental Congress. He was a member of the select group to write the Declaration of Independence. You see him in the middle of your picture. He was ambassador to Haarlem. He was part of the negotiating team that wrote the Treaty of Paris that ended the revolution, the very successful Treaty of Paris. He was ambassador to Great Britain. And of course, he was vice president under George Washington. The vice presidency was a position he described as being the most insignificant ever conceived by the mind of man. Adams died on July 4th 1826, died right in that chair. July 4th, 1826. The 50th anniversary, to the day, of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. A document that he had helped write. And on the same day as his own political enemy, old personal friend, Thomas Jefferson died. It's said that Adams his last words were: "Jefferson still lives."
Actually, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. His wife, Abigail Adams, is certainly one of the best known and most interesting of first ladies. Intelligent, though no formal education, she was self-educated. Charming, well-informed on the issues of the time. Interesting letters between her and her husband, letters that don't really sound like they'd've been written by somebody in the 18th century. Their son will later become President John Quincy Adams, the only father son team ever to occupy the White House. What was he like? Well, it seems that he had a private personality in a public, within the family he was warm, he was loving, he was witty. Publicly he came across as a little colder. In our modern campaign methods with television debates, he probably would have come off as being a little too standoffish. A little too much like a chip off o' Plymouth Rock, a flinty New Englander. He was willing to be unpopular, see that in his administration later.
Short, little, a little on the fat side; his opponents often referred to him as 'his rotundity'. Some considered him arrogant, conceited. He said himself that he was puffy, vain, and conceited. He certainly had the gift of self-criticism. He could look at himself, he could stand off and see what he was like, but he was honest. He wasn't always sure everybody else was, he was sometimes a little suspicious of their motives, but never any question about Adam's honesty, his intentions, his purpose. And that can't be said for every president. Well, the Adams's are the first family to move into the White House. There's a very famous letter from Abigail to her daughter, in which she describes their new home. [Dignified horn music] "The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about 30 servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single
apartment finished. We have not the least fenced yard and other convenience without. And the great unfinished audience room, I make a drying room of, to hang up the clothes in. If, in the 12 years in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government, it had been improved as it would have been in New England; very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it." [music stops] Once Adams went into office, he was confronted with the same problem in foreign affairs that had confronted Washington's administration. This war that's going on between the English and the French. We were trying to trade with England, but France would interfere with our trade. We tried to trade with France, the English interfered. But the French, under Adam's, were a bigger problem. They're not just stopping a ship or two, it's not that, they
seized over 300 of them. Well, what do you do? As president, people are looking to you. You have to do something. You can't just talk about it, you can't just debate it, you have to act. Well, Adams sent an ambassador to France to try to discuss the problem. But the French not only refused to receive him, his name was Charles Pinckney, they threaten to put him in jail if he didn't leave. Now, how would you interpret that? Well, as a diplomatic slap in the face. Equal countries don't deal with each other on that level. France is essentially saying "Who are you? You're a weak new country. You can't do anything about it. We're going to treat you as we jolly well please." But Adams was not to be inflamed by this. He sent two m'other men over to join Pinckney and try again. One of them being John Marshall, who later became best known as the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Well, the three of 'em get their faces collectively slapped. They went to the French foreign minister Talleyrand, go to his office, to discuss this. Talleyrand said, essentially, "We'll discuss it, but first you give us a bribe. We want $250,000 and then we'll talk about it." $250,000? That's roughly $10,000,000 in today's money. The three men that actually asked for the bribe, their names were not released. They were referred to officially simply as Mr. X, Mr. Y and Mr. Z. So this whole business was called "The X Y Z Affair". It's an affair where the French demanded to be bribed before they would discuss this matter of the seizure of ships. The Americans were insulted. The country was outraged. One of the American ambassadors shouted back "No, no not a sixpence!" It was later reported that he said "Millions for
defense but not one cent for tribute." That may not be so but it sounds stirring; it may be posthumous ghostwriting. But Congress wants to do something. They vote money to raise an army of 10,000 men. Alexander Hamilton was second in command. He would be the actual leader if we went to war. He was just itching to lead it somewhere, he saw a chance for some glory in this. The British are delighted, the United States is willing to enter a war against their old enemy France to help the British? Wonderful! They'd give us money for ships, they'd fly their flag at half mast when George Washington dies, a few years before they had considered him the arch traitor. Congress voted money to build 24 new ships, and two of are still around. One of them is anchored in Baltimore, the U.S. frigate Constellation. The other, in Boston, the sister ship the USS Constitution
the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy, and better known as Old Ironsides. Well, everybody wants to go to war, the Federalist Party wants to go to war. They're British lovers remember. They're more than willing to help Britain against France. There's only one person against it. I mean, one important person, and that was John Adams. He opposed the war. And he was the president. He not only did not ask for a declaration of war, he said if Congress passed one anyway he would refuse to sign it. He was willing to face the clamor of the nation to do what he believed was right. That was a part of Adams's personality, he was willing to be unpopular. And people in public office sometimes have to be willing to be that way. Eventually, he sent another ambassador to France. France, by this time, had a new leader, namely Napoleon Bonaparte. And the whole thing was settled. There was no formal treaty because there had been no formal war. It was just,
"Due to lack of interest, the war has been cancelled. Let's call it off". But many people never forgave Adams. His own party was upset with him for turning against their wishes. Many people thought he had sold out the National Honor. But Adams always considered it to be his major accomplishment as president, and suggested that his epitaph should read: Here lies John Adams who took upon Himself responsibility for peace with France in the year 1800. Some of the opposition at home was getting out of hand in some people's minds and there will be a series of laws passed under Adams to try to curtail criticism. The series of laws using referred to collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These are laws that the Federalist Party wanted, in order to cut down on criticism and opposition from the Republicans. Adams did not personally approve of them. He ends up getting blamed in some cases for them, though he felt they were, at best, ill advised.
The Alien Act would say that a president could deport any alien, an alien is somebody is not a citizen, if he considered their presence to be detrimental. It's giving the president a good deal of power. Adams opposed that. He never used the power. But his administration was criticized for the fact that this law was passed. Two boatloads of aliens did leave in anticipation that they might be considered undesirable. The Sedition Act made it illegal to make any false, scandalous or malicious statements about the government. False, scandalous or malicious. You couldn't even run for office today if you couldn't do those things. This was aimed primarily at newspaper editors, it affected them, basically. About 70 of them were eventually put on trial. Only about 12 were ever convicted. Adams opposed this law. He felt it was simply making martyrs of these people, that there was a danger that it infringed upon the right of freedom of press and speech; probably more than a danger.
And he did not support the law. One newspaper editor was fined $100 for citing that Adams would be more at home in an insane asylum than in the White House. Well is that malicious? It's certainly the poorest sort of complement, but whether that's actually libelous or malicious, you would have to decide. There was also a law that made it more difficult to become a citizen. Foreigners are coming in and in five years they were becoming citizens, and they were voting, and they were all voting wrong, they were all voting Republican. So they passed a law that made it take 14 years to become a citizen. Most of these laws, or all of these laws eventually, expired. You might ask yourself: Is it ever justifiable to have a law that censors freedom of press, freedom of speech, in times of a national emergency? Certainly raise that general question. Well, Adams was not reelected in the year 1800, Thomas Jefferson will come into office. Adams returned to this room. But of course the
America Past
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Foreign Policy and John Adams
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Rocky Mountain PBS (Denver, Colorado)
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D12 Foreign Policy and John Adams
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Identifier: 001.75.2011.1622 (Stations Archived Memories (SAM))
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Chicago: “America Past; D12; Foreign Policy and John Adams,” Rocky Mountain PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 1, 2021,
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APA: America Past; D12; Foreign Policy and John Adams. Boston, MA: Rocky Mountain PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from