John Adams / John Adams - Key Events

John Adams - Key Events


John Adams is inaugurated as the second President of the United States in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson will serve as Vice President. 

Special session

Adams calls the first special session of Congress to debate the mounting crisis in French-American relations. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the American envoy in France, had left France after being insulted by the French foreign minister. 

Negotiating with France

Adams appoints a three man commission, composed of Charles C. Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall, to negotiate a settlement with France.

Making a militia

President Adams is authorized by Congress to raise a militia of 80,000 men for defensive purposes in case of war with France. 

XYZ Affair

The three man American peace commission is received coolly and then asked to pay a bribe in order to speak with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice Talleyrand. This episode becomes known as the “XYZ Affair.” 

John Adams - The XYZ Affair

On October 18, 1797, three Americans who were sent to France by President John Adams to represent a U.S. peace commission, were received coolly and then asked to pay a bribe in order to speak with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice Talleyrand. This episode became known as the “XYZ Affair,” after the French agents who met with the American delegation. The incident affected U.S. relations with France and damaged the Democratic-Republican Party because of its traditional pro-French stance.

When France broke diplomatic ties with the United States in 1796, incoming President John Adams organized a delegation to negotiate with the French government. Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry arrived in Paris in October 1797 with instructions to normalize diplomatic relations and ensure French privateers would no longer harass American shipping.

The American delegation encountered open hostility, and the French minister of foreign relations, Charles Maurice Talleyrand, refused to meet with them. On various occasions, four agents, later called W, X, Y, and Z by President Adams, contacted the Americans. They demanded an apology for insulting remarks made by Adams and wanted loans to the French government along with some $25,000 in bribes for French officials in return for talks with Talleyrand. Further, they implied war would result if the Americans did not meet the demands. Pinckney and Marshall refused to negotiate under such circumstances. Gerry, who sympathized with the French, urged patience. He remained in Paris until the fall of 1798, although Marshall and Pinckney left in the early months of the year.

When President Adams received news of the failed mission in March 1798, he called for restraint. Initially giving Congress only a partial account of events, he favored continued attempts to negotiate, but also urged Congress to strengthen the country's defenses. Many, such as Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, called for an immediate declaration of war, and war fever grew steadily throughout 1798. Federalists denounced opposition to strong government action as unpatriotic and labeled Gerry treasonous for remaining in France. After President Adams turned over to Congress all of the delegation's correspondence on the failed negotiations, Democratic-Republicans, traditionally supporters of France, found themselves on shaky ground. Unsuccessfully trying to separate patriotism from support for a particular administration, they were seen as public enemies.

The issues with France remained unresolved. Congress activated the tiny, new navy in 1798, and fought an undeclared naval war with France for two years. Of longer-term significance, Federalists used the anti-Democratic-Republican fervor to try to solidify their leadership. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798 by the Federalist Congress, essentially outlawed French immigrants and criticism of the government. This step backward in Democratic-Republican's attempts to establish the idea of loyal opposition caused opposition leaders to turn to state governments as bulwarks against unrestrained federal power.

The Eleventh Amendment

The Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is declared in full force by President Adams. It stipulates that federal courts shall not have the jurisdiction over litigation between individuals from one state against individuals from another state. 

XYZ Affair exposed

President Adams exposes the XYZ affair, providing Congress with letters from the peace commission indicating French efforts to bribe and intimidate U.S. officials seeking to speak with French diplomat, Charles Maurice Talleyrand. The reaction was one of outrage and intimidation. 

Mississippi Territory

Congress establishes the government for the new Mississippi Territory. The Spanish had ceded the territory to the United States in the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo. President Adams appoints native Winthrop Sergeant as governor and selects the town of Natchez to serve as its first capital. 

Appointing Benjamin Stoddert

Adams appoints Benjamin Stoddert to serve as the first secretary of the Navy for the newly formed Department of the Navy. Congress had established the department four days earlier in preparation for war with France.

Preparing for war

Congress empowers Adams to enlist 10,000 men for service in case of a declaration of war or invasion of the country's domain. It also authorizes Adams to instruct commanders of ships-of-war to seize armed French vessels praying upon or attacking American merchantmen about the coast. 

Alien and Sedition Acts

The first of four acts known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts is adopted. The Alien and Sedition acts aimed to curb criticism of administration policies and prevent internal subversion. The first act, stipulating requirements for naturalized citizenship, demanded residence in the United States for period of fourteen years and a declaration of intention for five years. 

Congress Approves the First Alien and Sedition Act

On June 18, 1798, Congress approved the first of four acts that collectively became known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These four acts became the most bitterly contested domestic issue during the presidency of John Adams.

The Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four different pieces of legislation. The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement from five to fourteen years before citizenship could be granted; the Alien Act authorized the President to deport any alien he deemed dangerous to the security of the United States; and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the President to deport aliens of an enemy country or restrict their freedoms in times of war. The Sedition Act targeted Americans themselves by forbidding opposition to laws of the federal government and making it illegal to publish criticism of the government. Because opposition had not yet gained legitimacy in American politics, the Federalist-controlled presidency and Congress used the Sedition Act to try to limit the influence of the Democratic-Republicans.

Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798 as tension between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans peaked. Federalists, led by President John Adams, sought a strong, orderly central government, and feared the chaos of the French Revolution. Democratic-Republicans accused Federalists of instituting a tyranny similar to the one they had struggled against in the American Revolution. Lauding the efforts of French revolutionaries, they believed that a minimal central government best served the people's interests.

As hostilities loomed between France and the United States, the three anti-alien laws targeted French and pro-French immigrants whom Federalists thought brought dangerous political ideas to America; moreover, Federalists believed, those recent arrivals would likely support the Democratic-Republican Party. Concerned citizens around the country petitioned President Adams to oppose the restrictive measures. Adams responded with a series of public addresses admonishing the people against factional divisions and foreign interference in American government. His administration vigorously enforced the legislation: under the Sedition Act, the most controversial of the four, several Democratic-Republican newspaper publishers were arrested, and ten were convicted for seditious libel before the acts expired in 1801. After the Democratic-Republicans took office in 1801, Federalists found themselves the victims of their own policies when the new administration of President Thomas Jefferson prosecuted several Federalist editors in state courts.

More than tools of partisan politicking, however, the Alien and Sedition Acts brought to the fore the issues of free speech and the balance of power between the state and federal governments. It also forced Americans to grapple with the fact that instead of classical republican harmony or unitary support for presidential leadership, dissent would thereafter characterize American politics.

Passing the Alien Act

Congress passes the Alien Act, granting President Adams the power to deport any alien he deemed potentially dangerous to the country's safety. 

Alien Enemies Act

Congress passes the third of the Alien and Sedition acts, the Alien Enemies Act. The act provides for the apprehension and deportation of male aliens who were subjects or citizens of a hostile country. 

Washington appointed commander in chief

Adams appoints George Washington to serve as commander in chief of the United States Army. All French treaties between the United States and France are declared null and void by vote in Congress, most notably the 1778 Treaty of Alliance.

Sedition Act

Congress adopts the Sedition Act, the fourth and last of the Alien and Sedition acts. The bill subjects any American citizen to a fine and/or imprisonment for obstructing the implementation of federal law, or for publishing malicious or false writings against Congress, the President, or the government. 

Franklin's grandson arrested

Philadelphia newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, is arrested under Sedition Act for “libeling” President Adams.

Kentucky Resolutions

The Kentucky State Legislature adopts the Kentucky Resolutions, reserving states' right to override federal powers not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, angry at the Adams administration for the Alien and Sedition acts, authors the resolution.  

Victory against France

The United States Navy scores its first clear victory against France when the frigate Constellation captures the French ship L'Insurgente near the island of St. Kitts. 

New envoys

President Adams selects Van Murray, Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, and North Carolina Governor Davie to serve as U.S. envoys to France upon assurance from the French that they will be received with the respect owed to their nation.  

Treaty of Amity

U.S. diplomats conclude a Treaty of Amity between the United States and Prussia in Berlin. 

Convicting Thomas Cooper

Thomas Cooper, a resident of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, is tried and convicted of libel against President Adams and his administration under the newly adopted Sedition Act.  

Treaty with Tunis

Congress finally passes a treaty with Tunis, negotiated originally in 1797. 

The Constellation and La Vengeance

The United States frigate Constellation defeats the French ship La Vengeance on the high seas. 

Federal Bankruptcy Act

Congress passes and Adams signs into law the Federal Bankruptcy Act, providing merchants and traders protection from debtors.  

Establishing the Library of Congress

A resolution is passed and eventually signed by President Adams calling for the establishment of a Library of Congress. 

Dividing the Northwest Territory

Congress passes an act dividing the Northwest Territory into two parts, with the border between them running north from the junction of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. The western part of the territory will be known as the Indiana Territory while the eastern half will retain the name Northwest Territory. 

Washington becomes capitol

The new city of Washington in the District of Columbia becomes the official capital of the United States, succeeding Philadelphia. It would not be until November that Congress convened in the new capital and Adams moved into the new Executive Mansion. 

John Adams - Washington Becomes U.S. Capital

On June 11, 1800, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ceased to be the capital of the United States, as the new city of Washington in the District of Columbia became the country's official capital. The federal government moved its offices to Washington, D.C., in June. In November, President John Adams first slept in the unfinished Executive Mansion (now known as the White House) and Congress met for the first time in the U.S. Capitol building.

In 1790, Congress passed “An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States,” commonly known as the Residence Act. The act made Philadelphia the temporary capital for ten years and authorized the President to select a site for the nation's permanent capital along the Potomac River. As President, George Washington energetically promoted the development of his namesake city so it would be ready to receive the federal government in 1800, according to the terms of the Residence Act.

In 1791, President Washington asked the French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant to design the city. L'Enfant's plans included great public squares, extensive parks and gardens, a system of avenues radiating from the city's center, and public buildings located majestically along the Potomac. His dismissal from the project in 1792, combined with a lack of funding for construction, rendered the city woefully underdeveloped when the federal government arrived in 1800. (It was not until the twentieth century, in fact, that L'Enfant's designs for the city were gradually implemented.) At the dawn of the nineteenth century, only one wing of the U.S. Capitol building was complete, and the federal city consisted of less than 400 houses with a population of about 3,000. Roads were scarce, entertainment virtually nonexistent, and housing limited. Fewer than 300 federal personnel moved into the city. Congressmen frequently rented rooms in boarding houses two to a bed.

In November, President John Adams moved into the still incomplete White House, of which only the box-like center had been built. Life in the White House seemed only a slight improvement over congressmen's circumstances. John and Abigail Adams lacked an expense account to furnish the house and a staff to maintain it. Yet, they were expected to host social functions and official receptions. However, President Adams did not have to struggle under the burden for long. Just a few months after moving into the White House, he turned it over to Thomas Jefferson, who defeated him in the election of 1800.

Despite the initial hardships and inadequacies of the federal government's new home, a general optimism about the city prevailed. Unlike the Adamses, who were from Massachusetts, Jefferson knew the Potomac region well and had long supported its location for the nation's capital. His election, the “Revolution of 1800,” along with the rapid progression of construction in Washington, breathed life into the fledgling capital city. Jefferson's election renewed enthusiasm for the federal government and provided impetus for the further development of Washington, D.C.

Treaty of Mortfontaine

The “quasi”-naval war with France effectively ends with the signing of the Treaty of Mortfontaine in Paris. France agrees to lift its embargos on American ships, cancel all letters of marque, and respect neutral ships and property. The United States agrees to return captured warships but not captured privateers. 

Treaty of San Idlefonso

Spain cedes the Louisiana territory to France with the signing of the secret Treaty of San Idlefonso. Leaders express alarm because the French could be a potentially dangerous enemy in the region. 

Adams loses reelection

The fourth presidential election is held. Adams, the Federalist Party candidate, loses his bid for reelection. A tie in electoral votes between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr throws the election into the House of Representatives, with Jefferson emerging the winner. 

Jefferson becomes President

Thomas Jefferson is inaugurated as the third President of the United States, becoming the first President to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. John Adams's term as President officially ends.