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President John Adams: From Alien and Sedition Acts to XYZ Affair

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  • 0:05 John Adams' Presidency
  • 0:53 The XYZ Affair
  • 4:21 The Alien and Sedition Acts
  • 6:49 Adams' Lasting Legacy
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

John Adams was an important founder of the United States. In many ways, he was the voice of the Revolution. As president, he had some proud shining moments and one major blight on his legacy.

John Adams' Presidency

President John Adams
President John Adams

The legacy of John Adams is so much more than the accomplishments and failings of his presidency! Before Adams was President of the United States, before he was Vice President, he was one of the driving forces behind the Revolution.

Adams' fiery and quite blunt passion as a patriot was of unquestionable importance. He was a mentor to Thomas Jefferson, although they became major political rivals. He knew, or at least was advised by his wife Abigail, to temper his direct and abrasive style by utilizing the skills of others, such as Jefferson, for tasks which required an eloquence he did not possess.

In this lesson, we'll look at the most lasting actions of Adams' presidency: his handling of the XYZ affair, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Midnight Appointments.

The XYZ Affair

The signing of the Jay Treaty that averted war with England and settled issues with the Treaty of Paris, which had ended the Revolutionary War, actually angered a lot of Americans and Europeans. Many Americans saw the treaty as a humiliating surrender to the British. French leaders saw it as a step toward the U.S. allying with the British, which was a breach of the 1778 treaty between France and the U.S.

John Adams took office in 1797, and he walked into dealing with several issues left by President Washington, including difficult dealings with France - our most important ally! Because of the Jay Treaty with England, French forces began attacking American ships. In an attempt to set things right with France and make the seas safe again for American ships, President Adams sent three commissioners to France: Charles Pinckney, who was the United States minister to France and had negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain; John Marshall, a lawyer from Virginia and future Supreme Court Justice; and Elbridge Gerry, future Vice President under James Madison.

Commissioners Pinckney, Marshall, and Gerry traveled to France in 1797.
XYZ Commissioners Pinckney Marshall Gerry

When the three commissioners arrived in France, they weren't exactly welcomed through the official channels to begin negotiations. Instead, they were met by three agents of the Foreign Minister Talleyrand. Instead of giving their names in their official report, the commissioners labeled these men X, Y, and Z - hence the scandal's name. The agents demanded a $250,000 bribe to meet with Talleyrand and a $12,000,000 loan! At the time, bribes in politics were normal, but this was ridiculous. Pinckney's response to the men was, 'No, no, not a sixpence!'

The commissioners' report to Congress was made public, and Americans were irate! Even the Democratic-Republicans, who had staunchly supported the French, were supporting the rallying cry: 'Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.' Many people wanted war, especially Adams' fellow Federalists, but President Adams refused to declare war. Instead, he emphasized the importance of building up the military.

Congress stopped trade with France, dropped the alliance with France, tripled the size of the army, and commissioned the building of 40 ships for the newly created department of the Navy. The newly built-up military needed strong leadership, so President Adams got President Washington to come out of retirement to lead the American military once again.

The newly created Navy, along with some American privateers, went ahead and made shipping a nightmare for the French. In 1798 and 1799, Americans seized almost 90 ships!

The XYZ Affair shows Adams at his finest. It shows his willingness to do what he felt was right for the country instead of merely what was more important for his party. Alexander Hamilton was leading the Federalists' push to war, but President Adams stuck to his guns and did not succumb to his party's pressure. He was convinced that war with France would lead to a civil war for the States.

And, it turned out, war wasn't necessary. What has been called the Quasi-War had been enough, and Talleyrand was ready to talk. He invited the U.S. back to negotiate; however, by the time the Americans arrived to negotiate, Napoleon had come to power in France. He immediately cut ties with the U.S. to focus on his own agenda. Had President Adams not held the States back from war, it is quite possible that the Louisiana Purchase would not have come to be in 1803!

Napoleon cut ties with the United States after coming to power in France.
Napoleon Closeup

The Alien and Sedition Acts

For every finest hour, there has to be a darkest - the Alien and Sedition Acts. Following the French Revolution and the States' 'quasi-war' with France, partisan tensions were high. The Federalists were in control of Congress, and Adams was president. Democratic-Republicans in some states were refusing to enforce federal laws. There were even some calls for secession. Some began to fear something like the French Revolution spreading to the States. Some Federalists feared anarchy. Others feared losing power, but it led to the Federalist-controlled Congress passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed into law by President Adams.

Many Federalists saw this all as having been caused by French and French-sympathizing immigrants. The acts were meant to guard against this threat of anarchy.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were a group of four bills passed:

  • The Naturalization Act, which extended the amount of time a person had to reside in the States before they could become a citizen from 5 to 14 years.
  • The Alien Act, which authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered 'dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.' This act had a two year expiration date.
  • The Alien Enemies Act, which authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States of America. At the time, war was considered likely between the U.S. and France. The act is actually still technically intact today as U.S. Code 50, sections 21-24.
  • Lastly, the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish 'false, scandalous, and malicious writing' against the government or certain officials. It had an expiration date of March 3, 1801, which happened to coincide with the day before President Adams' term was to end.

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