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Foreign Policy Under John Adams

Cautious and Paranoid

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Foreign Policy Under John Adams

Portrait of John Adams

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

John Adams, a Federalist and America's second president, conducted a foreign policy that was at once cautious, underrated, and paranoid. He sought to maintain Washington's neutral foreign policy stance, but increasingly found himself grappling with France in the so-called "Quasi War."

Years in Office: one term only, 1797-1801.

Foreign Policy Ranking: Good to Poor

Adams, who had significant diplomatic experience as US ambassador to England before the adoption of the Constitution, inherited bad blood with France when he took over the presidency from George Washington. His responses kept the United States out of full-blown war, but fatally hurt the Federalist party.

Quasi War

France, which had helped the United States win independence from England in the American Revolution, expected the US to help militarily when France entered another war with England in the 1790s. Washington, fearing dire consequence for the young United States, refused to help, opting instead for a policy of neutrality.

Adams pursued that neutrality, but France began raiding American merchant ships. Jay's Treaty of 1795 had normalized trade between the US and Great Britain, and France considered American commerce with England not only in violation of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778, but also lending aid to its enemy.

Adams sought negotiations, but France's insistence on $250,000 in bribe money (the XYZ Affair) derailed diplomatic attempts. Adams and the Federalists began building up both the US Army and Navy. Higher tax levies paid for the buildup.

While neither side ever declared war, the US and French navies fought several battles in the so-called Quasi War. Between 1798 and 1800, France capture more than 300 US merchant ships and killed or wounded some 60 American sailors; the US Navy captured more than 90 French merchant ships.

In 1799, Adams authorized William Murray to make a diplomatic mission to France. Treating with Napoleon, Murray crafted a policy that both ended the Quasi War and dissolved the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Adams considered this resolution to the French conflict one of the finest moments of his presidency.

Alien and Sedition Acts

Adams' and the Federalists' brush with France, however, left them afraid that French revolutionaries might immigrate to the United States, link up with the pro-French Democrat-Republicans, and stage a coup that would oust Adams, install Thomas Jefferson as president, and end Federalist domination in the US government. Jefferson, leader of the Democrat-Republicans, was Adams' vice-president; however, they hated each other over their polarized governmental views. While they became friends later, they rarely spoke during Adams' presidency.

This paranoia prompted Congress to pass and Adams to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The acts included:

  • The Alien Act: enabled the president to deport any resident alien he believed to be dangerous to the United States;
  • The Alien Enemies Act: enabled the president to arrest and deport any alien whose home country was at war with the US (an act aimed directly at France);
  • The Naturalization Act: extended the length of residency required for an alien to become a US citizen from five to 14 years; would prevent immigrants from voting against incumbent Federalist office-holders;
  • The Sedition Act: made it illegal to publish false, scandalous, or malicious material against the government; president and justice department had wide latitude to define those terms so that this act was close to violating the First Amendment.

Adams lost the presidency to his rival Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. American voters could see through the politically driven Alien and Sedition Acts, and news of the diplomatic end to the Quasi War arrived too late to mitigate their influence.

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