John Adams, U.S. President

An extraordinary session of Congress, called by President Adams to consider the foreign relations of our government, met at Philadelphia. The conduct of the Directory had produced a great revulsion in public feeling in our country. The reaction strengthened the Executive arm and the administration party, and patriotic Democrats began to talk complacently of war with France, which then seemed inevitable. But a majority of the cabinet favored further attempts at negotiations; and the President, with the concurrence of the Senate, appointed John Marshall, a Federalist and afterward Chief Justice of the United States, and Elbridge Gerry, a Democrat and afterward Vice-President of the republic, envoys extraordinary to join Mr. Pinckney and attempt to settle all matters in dispute between the two governments, by diplomacy. After a session of little more than six weeks, Congress adjourned. They had provided for calling out eighty thousand militia, creating a small naval force, and acts for preventing privateering.

In the meantime success had waited on French arms and French diplomacy almost everywhere. Bonaparte, who was making his victorious marches toward the Danube and the Carpathian Mountains, had compelled Austria to make peace with his government; and England, the most powerful of the enemies of France, seemed to be tottering to its fall, for the suspension of specie payment by the Bank of England had rudely shaken and weakened her financial power. It was at this flood-tide of the military and diplomatic conquests of France in October, 1797, that the American envoys reached that country and sought an audience with the French Directory. Their request was met by a haughty refusal, unless the envoys would agree to the humiliating terms of first paying into the exhausted French treasury a large sum of money in the form of a loan; by the purchase of Dutch bonds wrung from that nation by the French, and a bribe to the amount of $240,000 for the private use of the five members of the French Directory! This proposition came semi-officially from Talleyrand, one of the most expert and unscrupulous political trimmers that ever lived. It was accompanied by a covert threat, that if the proposition was not complied with, the envoys might be ordered to leave France in twenty-four hours, and the coasts of the United States be ravaged by French frigates sent from St. Domingo. The envoys refused compliance, and the occasion gave Pinckney the opportunity to utter in substance the noble words: "Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute." Finding their mission to be useless, the envoys asked for their passports. They were given to the two Federal envoys under circumstances which amounted to their virtual expulsion from the country, while Gerry was induced to remain. He, too, was soon treated with so much insolence and contempt by Talleyrand and his associates, that he returned home in disgust to meet the indignation of his countrymen for consenting to remain. Gerry had held interviews with Talleyrand without the knowledge of his associates, and it was believed that his representation of the strength of the "French party" in the United States encouraged that minister to pursue the course he did.

Meanwhile the Directory had issued another decree, which effectually annihilated American commerce in European waters. This act, the indecent treatment of the envoys and the continued depredations of the French cruisers, aroused a vehement war-spirit in the United States. President Adams, in his first annual message to Congress (November 23, 1797), recommended preparations for war. Some of the more radical of the opposition leaders advised the payment of the money demanded, rather than risk a war with France--better to purchase peace by paying tribute than to contend for the right and for national independence! But the great body of the nation acted patriotically. In March, 1798, the President, in a special message, asked Congress to provide means for war. The request was promptly complied with. A provisional army of twenty thousand regular soldiers was voted, and provision was made for the employment of volunteers as well as militia; and then were made those provisions for a national navy already alluded to. The office of Secretary of the Navy was created, and Benjamin Stodert of the District of Columbia was the first to enter the cabinet as the head of the Navy Department, which he did at the close of April, 1798. Party-spirit disappeared in the National Legislature to a great degree, and the popular excitement against the opposition leaders in Congress became so intense, that some of the most obnoxious of them from Virginia sought personal safety in flight, under the pretence of needed attention to their private affairs. The younger republicans wore black cockades upon their hats, in imitation of the patriots of the Revolution. The stirring songs Hail Columbia and Adams and Liberty, the former written by Joseph Hopkinson and the latter by Robert Treat Paine, were now first published, and were sung all over the land with unbounded applause.

Washington approved the war-measures of the government, and in July he was appointed by the President commander-in-chief of all the forces raised and to be raised, with the commission of lieutenant-general. That commission was borne to Mount Vernon by the Secretary of War (Mr. James McHenry) in person. When he arrived, Washington was in the fields not far from the mansion where his people were gathering his grain-harvest. The Secretary, without doffing his thin traveling cloak (for the day was cool), went out to meet him and presented the document to Washington in the open field. The Beloved Patriot, then sixty-six years of age, obeyed the call of his countrymen with alacrity. "You may command me without reserve," he wrote to the President, qualifying his remark with an expressed desire that he should not be called into active service until the public need should demand it, and requesting the appointment of his friend Alexander Hamilton, then forty-one years of age, as acting general-in-chief. For this purpose, Hamilton was commissioned the first major-general. Washington held a conference with all the general officers of the army at Philadelphia, in November (1798), when arrangements were made for a complete organization of the regular forces on a war-footing. But from the beginning he believed that the gathering clouds, portending a fearful tempest, would pass away and leave his country unscathed by the lightning and the hail of war.

Events soon justified Washington's faith. Circumstances speedily allayed the fear of England, to whom the Americans looked as a possible friend in the event of a war with France. The victorious Bonaparte, who had threatened England with invasion, had gone off to Egypt with a fleet and army with the avowed object of conquering that country, invading Palestine, taking possession of Jerusalem, restoring the Jews to their ancient heritage, and rebuilding the Temple. This was only a cover to his ambitious designs for accomplishing his personal advancement. But his fleet was utterly vanquished by Nelson in the battle of the Nile; and another French fleet, that hovered off the coast of Ireland to encourage an insurrection there, was scattered by English ships-of-war under Admiral Warren. These and minor victories by the English humbled the pride of the Directory; and when there appeared omens of other disasters to their cause in Europe, and they heard of the prevailing war-spirit in the United States and the appointment of Washington to the command of a provisional army, the Directory paused in their mad career. The wily Talleyrand, ever ready to change his political coat, caused information to reach the United States government that the Directory were ready to receive advances from the former for entering into negotiations.

Without consulting his cabinet or the national dignity, President Adams nominated William Vance Murray, then the representative of the United States at the Hague, as minister plenipotentiary to France. Congress and the people were amazed, and the Senate determined not to confirm the nomination. No direct communication had been received from the Directory, and this advance after unatoned insults, seemed like cowardly cringing before a half-relenting tyrant. The President stoutly persisted for awhile, when he consented to the appointment of three envoys extraordinary, of which Mr. Murray should be one, to settle all disputes between the two governments. For this purpose Oliver Ellsworth and William R. Davie were appointed to join Mr. Murray, but they were not to proceed to Europe until assurances should be received from France of their courteous reception there. Such assurances came from Talleyrand, and in November, 1799, the two envoys sailed for France.

Fortunately for all parties concerned, a change occurred in the government of France in the month when the envoys departed from our shores. For a long time the quarrels of factions had threatened France with anarchy. The Directory had become unpopular, and the excitable people were ripe for revolution. The brothers of Bonaparte informed him of this state of affairs at home, and he hastened from the East, with a few followers, and suddenly appeared in Paris. His brilliant exploits in the Orient had so fascinated the French, that they hailed him as the good genius of the republic. With his brother Lucien, who was then president of the Council of Five Hundred, and Seyes, one of the Directory and of great influence in the Council of the Ancients, he conspired for the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a new one.

On the morning of the 9th of November (1779), Seyes induced the Council of Ancient to place Bonaparte in command of the military of Paris. Then Seyes and two other members of the Directory resigned, leaving France without an Executive authority, and Bonaparte, with its strong arm--the military--firmly in his grasp. The Councils immediately perceived how they had been deceived by a trick, and assembled at St. Cloud the next morning. Bonaparte appeared at the bar of the Ancients to justify his conduct. Perceiving their enmity, he threatened them with military violence if they should decide against him. Meanwhile Lucien Bonaparte had read to the Council of Five Hundred the letter of resignation of the three Directors amid shouts from the members of "No Cromwell! no Dictator! the Constitution forever!" Bonaparte now entered that Chamber with four grenadiers and attempted to speak, but was interrupted by cries and execrations. The members appeared to be on the point of proceeding to personal violence against him, when a body of soldiers rushed in and bore him off. He was then a small, spare man, of light weight. A motion was made for his outlawry, which Lucien refused to put, but leaving the chair, he went out and made an inflammatory speech to the soldiers. At its close Murat, at the head of a body of grenadiers, entered the hall and commanded the Assembly to disperse. The members replied with shouts and execrations. The drums were ordered to be beaten, the soldiers levelled their muskets, when all but about fifty of the Council escaped by the windows. These, with the Ancients, passed a decree making Seyes, Bonaparte, and Ducos provisional consuls; and in December, Bonaparte was made First Consul or supreme ruler of France for life.

It was at this crisis in the political affairs of France when the American envoys reached Paris. They were cordially received by Talleyrand, by order of the First Consul, and an amicable settlement of all difficulties was soon made. A convention was signed at Paris on the 30th of September, 1800, by the American envoys and Joseph Bonaparte, C.P.E. Fluvien, and Pierre L. Roederer, in behalf of France, which was satisfactory to both parties. The convention also made the important decision, in the face of the contrary doctrine avowed and practiced by the British government, that free ships should make free goods. This affirmed the doctrine of Frederick the Great, enunciated fifty years before, and denied that of England in her famous "Rule" of 1756, revived in 1793. Peace was established, the envoys returned home, and the provisional army of the United States was disbanded.

While the political events just recorded were in progress, war between the two nations actually began upon the ocean, although neither party had proclaimed hostilities. In July, 1798, the American Congress had declared the treaties between the United States and France at an end, and authorized American vessels-of-war to capture French cruisers. A marine corps was organized, and a total of thirty cruisers were provided for. Under the law for the creation of a navy, several frigates had been put in commission in 1797, but they were not ready for sea in the spring of 1798; but it was not long in the presence of impending war, before the United States, the Constitution (yet afloat), the Constellation and other war-vessels were out upon the ocean under such commanders as Dale, Barry, Decatur the elder, Truxton, Nicholson, and Phillips. Decatur soon captured a French corsair (April, 1798); and the British and French authorities in the West Indies were greatly surprised by the appearance of so many American cruisers in those waters in the summer and autumn of 1798. At the close of the year the American navy consisted of twenty-three vessels, with an aggregate armament of four hundred and forty-six guns.

It was at this time that the first of a series of outrages upon the flag of the republic was committed by a British naval commander, that finally aroused the people of the United States to a vindication of their honor and independence by an appeal to arms. The American cruiser Baltimore, Captain Phillips, in charge of a convoy of merchant vessels from Havana to Charleston, when in sight of Moro Castle fell in with a British squadron. The United States and Great Britain were then at peace, and Phillips did not expect anything from the commander of the squadron but friendship, when, to his surprise, three of the convoy were captured by the British cruisers. Phillips bore up alongside the British flag-ship to ask for an explanation, when he was informed by her commander that every man on board the Baltimore, who could not show a regular American protection paper, should be transferred to the British vessel. Phillips protested against the outrage; and when fifty-five of his crew were taken to the British flag-ship, he, under legal advice, surrendered his vessel with the intention of referring the matter to his government. Only five of the crew were detained by the British commander. These were impressed into the service of the royal navy, and the remainder were sent back. The Baltimore was released, and the British squadron sailed away with the three merchant-vessels as prizes.

This outrage--this practical application of the claims of the British government to the right of searching American vessels without leave and taking seamen from them without redress--lighted a flame of hot indignation throughout our republic. But, at that time, the American government, like that of England, was strongly influenced, if not controlled, by the mercantile interest which had become very potential. The trade between the United States and Great Britain was rapidly increasing, and was very profitable; and the American merchants, as a body, were willing to submit to almost any insult from the "Mistress of the Seas," rather than to endanger the foundations of their prosperity by provoking hostilities with Great Britain. The American cabinet in their obsequious deference to Great Britain had actually instructed the naval commanders not to molest the cruisers of any nation (the French excepted) on any account--not even to save a vessel of their own nation. The pusillanimity of this policy was now aggravated by an act of flagrant injustice and cowardice on the part of our government, that made the cheeks of true patriots crimson with shame. Captain Phillips was dismissed from the navy, without trial, because he had surrendered his vessel without making a show of resistance, and no notice was taken of the outrage by the British commander!

During the year 1799, the American navy was much strengthened by the launching and putting into commission of several new vessels. In February, the frigate Constellation, Commodore Truxton commanding, fell in with and captured the famous French frigate L'Insurgente, of 44 guns and 409 men, off the Island of Nevis, in the West Indies. The American and English press teemed with eulogies of Truxton. Many congratulatory addresses were sent to him; and the merchants of London gave him a service of silver-plate worth more than three thousand dollars, on which was engraved a picture of the battle. For a long time a popular song called "Truxton's Victory" was sung everywhere at private and public gatherings.

Very little of importance occurred on the ocean during the remainder of that year; but at the beginning of February, 1800, Truxton, in the Constellation, gained a victory over the French frigate La Vengeance, of 54 guns and 500 men. The battle was fought on the 1st of February, off Guadaloupe. In consequence of the falling of the mainmast of the Constellation, the supporting shrouds of which had been cut away, the Vengeance escaped. For this exploit Congress gave Truxton a gold medal. La Vengeance would have been a rich prize. She had on board a large amount of merchandise and specie, and the governor of Guadaloupe and his family returning to France. The convention at Paris brought peace, and the navy of the United States was soon called into another field of service.

The action of President Adams in the nomination of envoys to France before official intimations from the Directory that negotiations were desirable had been received, caused very serious divisions in the Federal party. Hostile feelings, already existing, were thereby intensified, and the speedy downfall of the Federal party, as a controlling power in the government, was charged to the errors of judgment and temper on the part of Mr. Adams. He had already become unpopular because of his obstinacy and personal strictures. Very vain and egotistical, he was sensitive and jealous. His judgment was often swayed by his vivid imagination. His prejudices were violent and implacable, and his honesty and frankness, which made him almost a stranger to policy and expediency, made him very indiscreet in his expressions of opinions concerning men and measures. These characteristics made him an unfit leader of a great party. Persons who disagreed with him concerning measures of public policy, he regarded as personal enemies, and for this reason his feelings toward Hamilton were as bitter as ever were those of Jefferson. The consequence was that he was at variance with many of the leaders of the Federal party, who, regarding him as a Jonah, laid a plan to defeat his re-election to the Presidency--an event which they knew he earnestly desired should take place. The cunning Democrats fanned the flame of separation in the Federal party. Mr. Adam's political partisans succeeded in the scheme for his defeat; but they did more. They defeated the Federal party. The Democratic candidate for President, Mr. Jefferson, was elected, with Aaron Burr as Vice-President. The controlling power of that party, in the government, was then lost forever, after a most useful existence of about ten years. The odium in which Adam's administration was held was in consequence of the passage of the Alien and Sedition Laws which he favored--laws which authorized the President to expel aliens from our country under certain conditions, and by which citizens might be punished by fine and imprisonment who might combine in opposing government measures, or who might resist the government in words, in a "false and scandalous manner." Hamilton deprecated the laws and wrote: "Let us not establish a tyranny. Energy is a very different thing from violence." He saw the danger, and wrote prophetically: "If we push things to the extreme, we shall then give to faction body and solidity." A rhymer of the day wrote exultantly:

"The Federalists are down at last! The Monarchists completely cast! The Aristocrats are stripped of power-- Storms o'er the British faction lower. Soon we Republicans shall see Columbia's sons from bondage free. Lord! how the Federalists will stare At Jefferson in Adams's chair.

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