This article will focus on the legacy of John Adams during his Presidency, followed by a review of how those actions affect us today, the contrast between then and now, as well as what we can learn from the History that was The Second Presidency of the United States.
Despite the importance John Adams held during the early days of the revolution, he has been trivialized and ignored for his role as the Second President of the United States. I see the importance of John Adams as being on par with the importance of President Washington. John Adams was chiefly responsible for the success of a peace treaty with Great Britain and for peacefully resolving a conflict with France through diplomatic efforts; however, he is also known as the President who signed the Alien and Sedition acts, and governed over the Fries Rebellion caused by the Direct Tax of 1798.
During the first 20 years of our nation’s history we were a fragile country. We were a people scattered and separated by state borders, divided along ideological lines of Federalist and Anti-Federalist, the ignorant and informed, among other distinctions. It was during this period of time where our fledgling nation was the most vulnerable from attack or influence by another foreign power. A peace treaty with Britain ensured the new American nation would not have to defend against British attack any time in the near future. Concurrently, the Diplomatic efforts of President Adams administration with the French brought about a peaceful resolution to what could have been war. President Adams discussed his intention of maintaining diplomatic relations with France, while maintaining the national interests of the United States in a reply to the House of Representatives, several months after his inauguration (Adams, 1797).
Through diplomatic accomplishments with both nations, the United States was able to avoid war temporarily and ensure itself the necessary time to grow, solidify, and build its own protective forces. Had diplomatic efforts failed with either Great Britain or France, it is very likely a conflict would have ensued, which could have strained an already struggling nation into bankruptcy, or an irreparable division upon itself. Efforts of securing peace began with Washington, but were continued and expanded upon by Adams; during his first inaugural address he broached the topic of a system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe (Adams, 1797). What Adams was saying here is the United States should not be involved in the long-standing conflicts of European Nations, even if we have been on friendly terms with the French for their support of our revolution and our main focus should and must always be on pursuing a necessary, which ensures our future security and prosperity.
While President Adams may be important for his diplomatic skills in averting war with both Britain and France, he is also known for signing into law the Direct Tax of 1798, and for signing the Alien and Sedition Act into law. The Alien and Sedition Acts were an attempt by the Federalists to quash opposition and curtail free speech; Adams himself never spoke out directly in favor of the acts, although he did sign them into law. The sedition act expired before it had a chance to be constitutionally tested in the Supreme Court; it expired when Adams left office.
The Fries Rebellion is another important example of the Adams administration going to unprecedented lengths to exact control over free speech. Citizens protested an attempt by the federal government to levy property taxes on citizens. President Adams declared the protests an insurrection and used military force to put an end to the protests. This is important, due to the fact it set a precedent for future presidents to use the military against its own citizenry; however, President Adams did grant a pardon to all those who participated in the protests (Adams, 1800).
Much like President Washington before him, John Adams carved out authority for the executive branch, where no authority was given by the constitution. He did help divert a war with Britain until a later time when we were ready, and he also brought about peace with France during a time when the French were embroiled in conflicts with Great Britain. It is very possible without his administration’s hand in the peaceful resolution of conflict with France, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 may never have happened.
These are interesting facts, when we look at Modern Day politics, because there are many parallels between the two. The Alien and Sedition acts in particular are a far overreach of the Government, into the private behavior of citizens. Similarities exist between The Alien and Sedition acts, The Patriot Act, and the very recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, to name a few. Opponents of such acts, consider them to be unconstitutional, and akin to the thought police, where a person can be arrested for having views the government doesn't agree with, and held indefinitely without trial. While this may be hyperbole, the fact remains it is a very real possibility, and with the right mixture of aggressive ideology and elected power could be used as a tool one day to suppress political dissent.
Adams was a Federalist, a person who believes we should have a strong, centralized Federal Government. This runs in direct opposition to many conservative ideological arguments which claim the Founding Fathers preferred power to rest mostly with the states, and the Federal Government would have limited authority. Adams and Washington both were proponents of Federalism. Another point, which has direct parallels with our society today, are the differences between Federalists and Anti-Federalists of the Adams era, and politics today, between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Democrats today believe in the power of a strong federal government, with consolidated authority to ensure equal justice under the law, address the social and economic needs of our diverse society, and provide for our National defense. Republicans do not believe in a large role for the Federal Government, preferring the States to handle most issues, including equal rights and civil rights issues, as well as the economic and social needs of their respective citizens; However, Republicans do support a strong National defense platform, including but not limited to preemptive strikes, and unilateral diplomacy.
I think with the revelation Adams was a Federalist, who for all intents and purposes would be considered a Democrat in today's society, we can safely say the conservative world-view of the Founding Fathers, as staunch conservatives isn't entirely accurate. There was a similar type of political divide 240 years ago as exists today, between the Founding Fathers. The arguments used by Anti-Federalists of a strong Federal Government being a disguised Monarchic power, in hindsight over the last 240 years have proven to be incorrect. With a Strong Federal Government, we were able to win 2 world wars, grow and expand our influence in the world to become a Super power, and break the bonds of segregation and bring about the Civil Rights movement at a time when individual states prevented equality. We were able to craft the new deal, after a catastrophic financial system collapse, and weather two more financial collapses to be left still standing. Yes we have problems with people on assistance who could contribute to society; However, we also have people hurting due to economic circumstances, disability, mental health or medical issues, as well as the retired and elderly population who live off of very little income. The social programs our Federal Government provides, help states who otherwise would let these people fend for themselves on the streets.
I think without a strong Federal Government, we would still be battling segregation in many parts of the south, and the relationships between many states would be poor. We are not a country of independent nations, but one nation, or many states. The truth is, we rely on each other and require an even playing field; The Federal Government is meant to provide that. We also need protection from states who choose to suppress their citizens, or states who overreach into the lives of their citizens. If Adams were here I could see him agreeing with this point. States if left to their own devices would become individual fiefdoms, where freedoms no longer exist. Look to the following states for examples; Arkansas allows a man to legally beat his wife, but not more than once a month. Oklahoma made it illegal to have sex before marriage. Alabama legalized incestuous marriages; Furthermore, recently they also attempted to change the value of Pi to 3, Florida has a law making it illegal to kiss your wife's breasts. In Georgia, all sex toys are banned. Mississippi removed fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum in that state. Each state has similar silly laws. Regardless of whether or not these types of laws are enforced, when left to their own devices we can clearly see what happens at the State level, without oversight and protection by the Federal Government.
Now it's true the Federal Government has been around during the time those stupid laws were created, and that's true; However, many of these particular states have been obstinate in the way they interact with the Federal Government. They were the same states responsible for the United States entering into a Civil War, the same states who made it necessary to have a Civil Rights movement, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That isn't to say all Southern States are the problem, California could easily fall under the opposite ideological spectrum of silliness with their laws.
The trouble with a strong, centralized Federal Government, is ensuring the elected representatives of that government do not become detached from their constituents, and do not abuse the power they have to become a tyranny of the majority. When it comes down to it, I think this fear of government power held by conservatives is really a fear of infringement into their private lives; However, the reverse is true when conservatives are in power. They routinely enact legislation to infringe in the private lives of citizens. Adams and the Founding fathers recognized the dangers of governmental infringement on civil liberties, which is why they gave us a Bill of Rights.
Adams, J. (1797). First Inaugural Address of John Adams . The Avalon project. Retrieved (2010, February 14) from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/adams.asp
Adams, J. (1797). John Adams - Reply to the House of Representatives. The Avalon project. Retrieved (2010, February 15) from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/ja97-07.asp
Adams, J. (1800). President Adams' Proclamation of May 21, 1800 Regarding the Insurrection in Pennsylvania in 1799. The Avalon project. Retrieved (2010, February 15) from http://www.jamesmannartfarm.com/friesreb6.html