When Washington left office, the first contested presidential election occurred. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, friends who had successfully collaborated during the Revolution, were now pitted against one another in the election of 1796.
No set campaign structure existed at the time, and there was in fact some worry whether the country’s fragile government could withstand an open debate between the candidates. Although the distinction between the Federalists and the Republicans was growing increasingly more evident, the public judged candidates more by their revolutionary credentials than by their political beliefs. By 1796, only a few men had such credentials to be serious contenders. Adams and Jefferson were the two most obvious choices.
Ellis describes Adams as a “short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander,” and Jefferson as a “tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian” (163). They complimented one another not only through physicality but also through personality. Adams was combative, often allowing his emotions to dictate his reactions. Jefferson always remained an enigma, always coolly detached. “They were the odd couple of the American Revolution,” which is precisely why they worked so well together (163). Their friendship and collaboration began at the Continental Congress and strengthened at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, but was firmly cemented when they, as ministers to England, were snubbed by King George III during a formal ceremony. The shared slight bonded them more than anything had before.
Their friendship defied their political affiliations. They loved and trusted one another “for reasons that required no explanation” (164). As the two foremost members of the “band of brothers,” it seemed impossible that their friendship should ever be marred by the silliness of politics. Yet by the election of 1796, after Adams dutifully if not reluctantly served two terms as Vice President while Jefferson was in “retirement” at Monticello, the two found themselves suddenly competing against one another in America's first Presidential campaign.
“If Revolutionary credentials were the major criteria, Adams was virtually unbeatable,” Ellis writes (164). American independence had become Adams’s life's work. He was one of the Founding Fathers who would have “languished in obscurity” if he had been born in England or Europe. Like Hamilton and Franklin, Adams came from humble origins. He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1735. His father was a farmer and a shoemaker who sent his son to Harvard University to train as a minister. In the decade after his graduation, however, Adams worked as a schoolteacher and then as an apprentice lawyer, all the while aware that he had not yet discovered his life’s purpose. In 1764, he married Abigail Smith, who would become his lifelong partner and collaborator. In 1765, he entered the public fray by leading the opposition to the oppressive Stamp Act. From then on, “American independence became his ministerial calling, a mission he pursued with all the compressed energy of a latter-day Puritan pastor whose congregation was the American people” (165).
By the time of the first Continental Congress, Adams and his cousin, Samuel Adams were the foremost opponents to British authority in New England. Adams gained fame as the “Atlas for independence” because he openly refused to reconcile with England, and because of his guidebook Thoughts on Government (165). He lobbied for George Washington to lead the Continental Army, and for Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Adams served as Chair on the Board of War and Ordinance during the most uncertain period of the war.
In 1777, Adams accompanied Benjamin Franklin to Paris, where they hoped to negotiate an alliance against the British. Adams thought the older man was libertine and egotistical. After returning briefly to draft the Massachusetts state constitution, he resumed his work in Europe, remaining there until 1788. It was during this time that he forged his friendship with Jefferson. During his time in London, Adams wrote Defense of the Constitution of the United States, which emphasized a strong executive branch of the government, bipartisanship in the legislative branch, and the principle of checks and balances. He eventually returned to America, and was elected Vice President under George Washington in 1789.
Adams described the limited responsibilities of the Vice Presidency as “too great a restraint upon such a Son of Liberty” (166). According to the Constitution, the Vice President assumed two key duties: he would remain available if the President should leave his post or die; and he was to preside over the Senate, serving as the deciding vote in the case of a tie. Adams initially participated in Senate debates, but Congress soon decided that the Vice President should remain a silent observer. Ellis describes Adams’ resentment toward Congress as such: "The great volcano of American political debate was required to confine himself to purely private eruptions" (166). In his letters to Abigail from this period, Adams complains of the impotency and redundancy of his post. Further, he had been ostracized from Washington's inner circle, since the President feared his place as head of the Senate constituted a conflict of interest with the workings of the executive branch.
One incident during the first session of Congress dogged Adams throughout his career. When Congress opened the question of how to address the President, Adams argued they should call Washington either “His Majesty” or “His Highness.” Adams was subsequently mocked for this suggestion of monarchy, and this comment is likely what inspired Congress to silence him during proceedings. Though a small matter, this comment touched on the fear of monarchy that would later haunt Washington's second term. Cynics claims Adams planned to succeed Washington, declare himself king, and name his son John Quincy Adams as his heir. Adams's attempts to mitigate the damage were futile. He published a series of essays which argued that all governments were led by a “monarchical principal,” but the essays served as the first breach in his friendship with Jefferson, who intensely and somewhat publicly attacked this defense of strong centralized government.
Adams was infuriated by Jefferson’s public comments, and their correspondence grew more strained.
Both wanted to maintain the friendship, however, and so they reached a peace. The style of their confrontation followed what Ellis considers a similar pattern: “The Adams style was to confront, shout, rant, and then to embrace. The Jefferson style was to evade, maintain pretenses, then convince himself all was well” (170).
Soon enough, however, the old friends were again separated by the ideologies of their respective political parties. Adams considered Jefferson's well-known French sympathies to be dangerous, and was relieved when Jefferson stepped down as Secretary of State in 1793. Meanwhile, Jefferson had found a new, more politically simpatico, ally in Madison, who kept him abreast of domestic dealings while he served in France. Madison maintained an active fear of Federalism and strong centralized control (which he saw manifested in Jay's Treaty and the Whiskey Rebellion), and moreover was willing to assume a subservient position to Jefferson in their friendship. For all these reasons, Jefferson's loyalties were shifted more towards his brother from Virginia, and away from his brother of '76.
As Washington's retirement approached, Madison was tactically campaigning for Jefferson. When the Federalists realized this, they attempted to level a propaganda campaign against the nascent Republicans, but Madison quashed it. Ellis suggests that while most of the political elite knew that Jefferson was going to run for President against Adams in 1796, Jefferson himself remained the last to know.
Adams had an equally formidable ally in his wife Abigail. Abigail knew her husband’s emotional and political potential, but she was also aware of his weaknesses. Throughout their marriage, and later during his Presidency, Abigail remained Adams’s greatest, and at times sole, collaborator. Their correspondence is playful, and yet reveals how truly dependent Adams was upon his wife’s opinion.
He was ecstatic when she agreed to move from their Massachusetts farm if he won the Presidency. Adams wanted the Presidency; he considered it his right after faithfully serving in the Vice Presidency for two terms. Adams knew he would inherit a heavy load upon Washington’s departure, but he thought he could not live without it. Abigail, however, better understood the awkwardness he would face. She believed that Jefferson would become his Vice President, and that they would have to resume their old collaboration. In the end, her fears proved half-right. Adams took the Presidency by an electoral vote of 71-68, and though Jefferson did become his Vice President, the two men were unable to sustain any friendship or mutual collaboration.
Adams began his term by attempting to bridge the gap between not only himself and Jefferson, but also between himself and the Republican party overall. He also hoped to send either Jefferson or Madison to France, to continue ensuring America's neutrality in the war between France and England. While Jefferson understood that rationale and wrote a letter to Adams expressing as much, Madison convinced him not to send the letter, as it was not politically wise. Jefferson then decided not to accept the post, though he waited a few weeks before telling Adams. Politics had already become the motivating factor in his behavior.
In the meantime, Adams made one of the biggest mistakes of his Presidency by keeping most of Washington's cabinet members as his own. They all had more loyalty to Hamilton than to the new president, and would continue to work against Adams's plans.
Before the official exchange of power, Adams and Jefferson met, on March 6, 1797. They dined with Washington and then parted, never to consult one another on governmental issues again. Jefferson left for Monticello soon thereafter, where he set up a Republican governance in Virginia. Adams’s pro-Hamilton cabinet soon opposed his every decision, and the newly elected president found comfort and consultation only from his wife.
“Looking back over the full sweep of American history, one would be hard-pressed to discover a presidency more dominated by a single foreign policy problem and simultaneously more divided domestically over how to solve it,” Ellis writes (185). He explores the truism that “history shapes the president rather than vice versa,” noting that Adams had inherited an undeclared war between the U.S. and France which would only exacerbate growing political difficulties at home. Like Washington, Adams wanted the U.S. to stay out of foreign affairs, but largely under the sway of his pro-war cabinet, Adams built up the navy to increase America's defenses. His hopes of sending delegates to broker neutrality failed because of the instability of the French government.
Domestic struggles intensified as the inner war between Federalists and Republicans heated up in the press. In the 1790s, no etiquette or political consciousness yet existed within the parties. Both sides spoke freely and indignantly to the press, and the press gladly published rumor as fact, since there was no legal repercussion for false statements. As he was officially neither a Federalist nor a Republican, Adams was caught in the middle of this mud-slinging. He found the political rivalry distasteful, and described it as, “Men who have been intimate all of their lives, cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch hats” (186). Jefferson was also disgusted by these vitriolic exchanges, which is ironic considering he rejected Adams’s offer of friendship.
The remaining Founding Fathers were now separated across an unfathomable political divide. Once united under the common goal of independence, they were now enemies. Ellis’s insight into this specific conundrum focuses on hindsight. The Revolutionary generation knew they were making history, but they did not realize how history also had a hand in their fate. Adams’s presidency never could have achieved much, considering the political feud and the ill-equipped nature of the nascent federal government. In other words, they had less agency in shaping the world than they realized.
Adams's disappointing tenure was also exacerbated was his inexperience. For instance, he appointed Elbridge Gerry, a noted political flip-flopper, as Minster to France. Adams then appointed his own son, John Quincy Adams, as Minster to Prussia. This latter appointment was viewed as nepotism, and it fueled rumors that Adams was a secret monarchist. Both appointments showed a political naïveté .
However, Adams's foreign policy decisions proved prudent in the "XYZ Affair." When French delegates demanded a large bribe from American envoys in order to broker a meeting with the French diplomat Talleyrand, Adams withheld that information from the press. He knew that the outrage would cause a public cry for a war that he wished to avoid. Both Gerry and John Quincy preached patience in their letters to Adams. Though many people were angered when they finally learned about the XYZ Affair, many national newspapers revealed that the public was actually turning against Jefferson and his pro-French party.
As the stalemate between the U.S. and France continued, Adams made his second largest mistake by signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts targeted foreign born residents who published scandalous or malicious material against the government, and also censored U.S. citizens, in hopes of curtailing the Federalist and Republican propaganda machines. Ellis theorizes that Adams would not have signed these blatantly unconstitutional acts without Abigail’s influence. The outrage and blowback was enormous and vicious against Adams.
Adams did, however, make the most prudent decision of his presidency by sending another peace delegate to France, who successfully ended the stalemate. War was averted, and American isolation was ensured for the next century. This decision was made without Abigail's advice.
However, the choice to send this second delegate proved political suicide. Adams's cabinet was run by Hamilton, who was planning to amass a large U.S. Army, in the secret hopes of adding the countries of South America to the U.S. territories. Adams’s peace negations effectively squashed Hamilton’s plans. Under Hamilton's leadership, the Federalist party officially cut ties with the President.
The Republican party also saw reason to criticize Adams's diplomacy. They questioned his motivation in sending the second delegate, and were extremely vocal in their opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson and Madison published the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which claimed that states had a right to nullify the Constitution over injustices like the Alien and Sedition Acts. Then, after the split between Hamilton and Adams, Jefferson and Madison fed the press anti-Federalist gossip. Jefferson commissioned the notorious scandalmonger, John Callender, to compose articles which ridiculed Adams both personally and politically.
Jefferson’s association with Callender soon turned sour when Callender was arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts for these articles. Callender, who believed Jefferson had under-paid him, published the story of Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson denied any association with Callender. Ellis notes that DNA testing has since proven the truth of Jefferson's affair, though the news did not keep him from taking the Presidency from Adams in 1800.
The peace treaty with France came too late to win back the public's approval, and Adams went into the election of 1800 with a reputation as a failure. Jefferson further mitigated his own weaknesses by reversing his pro-France stance after Napoleon declared himself dictator. Adams came in third in electoral votes, behind Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who were tied for the Presidency. In large part, the Federalists lost because Adams's bi-partisanship had divided the Federalist Party. Hamilton's reputation was in shatters because of a ludicrous anti-Adams pamphlet he had published, and the Federalist party would never quite recover.
Jefferson was eventually named President by the House of Representatives. Washington's and Adams’s bipartisan collaborative style of politics was over. The Jefferson-Madison style of one-party control would dictate the course of politics for generations.
After Jefferson's victory, Abigail invited him to visit, hoping to reforge the friendship between him and her husband. Jefferson declined, and Adams did not attend Jefferson's inauguration. Adams and Jefferson would not speak or correspond with one another for twelve years.
Ellis spends a great deal of time in Founding Brothers describing the bond between Adams and Jefferson. Their friendship, with its marked decline and then reconciliation, serves as a great symbol for the broader relationships between all of the Founding Fathers. In the same way that the spirit of revolution proved less powerful to them than party politics did, so would ideological differences split Americans into different camps.
The theme of friendship is essential towards understanding their relationship. Their friendship was formed from the spirit of ‘76, the revolutionary fervor they found when serving overseas in the period of the war. Despite being the “odd couple of the Revolution,” with different approaches to life and politics, they shared a patriotism and idealism that was more important than their differences. They encouraged each other in their writings - most importantly when Adams encouraged Jefferson towards the Declaration of Independence - and were proud to consider the Union as their life's work.
However, once they returned to serve in Washington's first cabinet, personal and political differences began to manifest. Partly, these were due to Adams's jealousy. He felt ignored as Vice President, while Jefferson became more popular amongst the public. Meanwhile, Jefferson, who was not as involved in drafting the Constitution as he had been in the earlier period, was perturbed by the ramifications of a central federal government. As he found a new collaborator in Madison, he seems to have lost any sense of loyalty towards his former friend John Adams. By the time of Jefferson's first "retirement," the two men were wary of one another. Adams considered Jefferson dangerous because of his pro-French sympathies, and Jefferson had developed a dismay over Federalist principles that would soon lead him to personally slander Adams. Differences in ideology had become more important than that spirit of '76.
In this chapter, Ellis begins to consider the way that while these strong personalities were crucial towards determining the course of the Union, they were still useless before the larger forces of fate or history. Adams had found his "minstrel calling" when he opposed the Stamp Act, but once the Union was forged, his unique personality could only accomplish so much. By utilizing hindsight, Ellis notes that many of Adams's choices saved the U.S. from not only the 'Quasi-War' with France, but perhaps from destruction by ensuring it remained isolated in its early days. However, the circumstances of the time meant that no matter how hard Adams worked for his country, he was doomed to be considered a failure. Not only did he follow the nigh-sanctified George Washington, but he also inherited a situation of foreign trouble and domestic unrest that was impossible to navigate perfectly. In other words, while this book is largely about how these men made their time, Ellis also explores how the times make the man.
In many ways, the Adams family seems to be Ellis's favorite of the period. He spends much time on discussing the collaboration between John and Abigail, and the latter is the only woman to whom he devotes much attention. Their union was unique because it was based on both love and intense respect. She proved a crucial element of his success, and also of his difficulties, if Ellis's conjecture that she encouraged him to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts is accepted as truth. Abigail was also central because John Adams was not a man who could easily collaborate. Because of his difficult personality, he tended to push people away. He isolated himself as Vice President, and then from his own cabinet when President. In this way, his personality reinforced his difficulties.
Ultimately, this chapter has a slight elegiac tone, as Ellis explores how the powerful relationships of '76 devolved into more pragmatic collaborations that would shape American history. Jefferson's collaboration with Madison lacked the fire of his friendship with Adams, since it was based on ideology as much as on personality. Together, Jefferson and Madison won the Presidency and created a precedent of party separation which eschewed collaboration between different ideologies. This remains the norm both throughout U.S. history and even today.