Breaking News from 1800


In 1800, in the midst of a contentious presidential election, Alexander Hamilton decided that the future of the Federalist Party was too important to be left in the hands of John Adams.  In order to promote his own candidate for Federalist electoral votes, Hamilton issued an anti-Adams broadside cataloging the shortcomings of Adams as president.  Chernow assesses the screed as one of the worst of Hamilton’s political miscalculations.

That it was partly also driven by personal grievances, though, doesn’t change the truth of some of the charges, or that they echoed much of the popular sentiment around Adams’s performance in the job.  Many of the weaknesses of the Adams presidency may sound familiar to observers in 2017, even though the book was written in 2004.

Beyond the unenviable task of succeeding Washington, Adams had several handicaps to overcome.  Despite long years in politics, he had never exercised executive power at the state or federal level.  And he detested political parties at a time when America was being torn asunder by factions.  As president, Adams was the nominal head of the Federalists, but yet he dreamed of being a nonpartisan president….During his presidency, Adams was often stranded between the Federalists and the Republicans and accepted by neither.  It was to prove a rare case in American history of the president hesitating to function as the de facto party leader.  — p. 523

He had retained his cabinet from the second Washington Administration.  But even as he found himself frequently publicly at war with them, he refused to fire them until late in his term.  It was certainly true that Hamilton exercised some influence over the individual cabinet members, in some part because he bothered to engage them rather than dictate to them from afar during his frequent absences in Quincy.

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet.  Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.  His cabinet members found him aloof and capricious and prone to bark out orders instead of asking opinions. — p.524

Adams, having held over for too long subordinates with no personal loyalty to him, or ideological loyalty to his program, whatever than might have been, found himself stuck with no good defense of his leadership, and so found himself putting out several mutually inconsistent but self-serving versions, simultaneous arguing that people were working to undermine him, and that he was actually in control and playing a higher-level game the whole time:

John Adams told two stories of his presidency that never quite jibed.  In one, he claimed to be an innocent bystander, long oblivious of Hamilton’s influence over his cabinet members.  He had no idea until the end, he said, that they were receiving guidance from his foe; when he belatedly discovered the plot, he moved swiftly to purge the culprits.  In another version, Adams claimed that he had known all along that Hamilton controlled the cabinet, because he had already controlled it under Washington… — p. 524

And Hamilton’s pamphlet drew heavily on anonymous, inside sources – the cabinet members themselves – who were concerned about Adams’s temperament and suitability for the job.

[Treasury Secretary Oliver] Woolcott considered the president a powder keg.  Of Adams, he told Fisher Ames, “We know the temper of his mind to be revolutionary, violent and vinditive…. [H]is passions and selfishness would continually gain strength.”  …At moments, however, Woolcott grew ambivalent about the idea of Hamilton exposing Adams, arguing that, “the people [already] believe that their president is crazy.”

Thus, in his massive indictment of Adams, Hamilton drew on abundant information provided by McHenry, Pickering, and Woolcott about presidential behavior behind closed doors….Stories about Adams’s high-strung behavior, if legion in High Federalist circles, were little known outside of them.  Hamilton also wanted to stress the mistreatment of cabinet members, lest readers dismiss his critique of Adams as mere personal pique…

Yes, the Republic survived both the mutual enmity of protean political parties, and the chaotic behavior of the often-absentee Adams.  But that was at the beginning of our Constitutional framework, when we were still working out how the presidency and parties would work.  (And even then, one could argue that parties didn’t survive this first attempt.  The Federalists pretty much collapsed after the 1800 election, leaving no effective opposition to Jefferson’s Republicans.  Madison was widely blamed for a terribly destructive and unpopular War of 1812, but the mediocrity that was James Monroe won two terms virtually unopposed, anyway.)

The point is that by now, we’re a world power, still the wealthiest nation on earth, responsible for maintaining freedom of the seas and some level of global stability.  That we’ve reverted back to some of the inchoate quality of our early political development does not necessarily bode well for the coming decades, possibly the coming century.

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