John Adams kept the peace with France

French flag

John Adams, of Massachusetts, elected the second president of the United States, had neither the prestige nor the commanding appearance of his predecessor, George Washington. His short, stout figure caused some wits to suggest that he be called “His Rotundity” instead of president, but Adams was one of the ablest men ever to occupy the presidential chair.

Adams was soon called upon to show his mettle as president. Not all Federalists were satisfied when he was chosen as Washington’s successor. Alexander Hamilton was known to have opposed Adams and would do so again in the election in 1800.

Adams did not help himself by retaining the Washington cabinet, composed of men with no particular loyalty to the new president. But the overriding issue during Adams’ presidency was the question of war or peace with France.

French not happy

In the eyes of the French government, the wrong person was elected in 1896 — they would have much preferred Thomas Jefferson. The former American Revolution ally was also unhappy that the United States signed the Jay Treaty with England and thus repudiated the France-American Alliance of 1778.

The French Directory charged that the acceptance of the treaty was an unneutral act inasmuch as the United States had obviously accepted the British definition of neutral rights at sea. Breaking off relations with the United States, the French subjected American vessels on the high seas to searching and refused to receive Charles C. Pinckney as our newly appointed ambassador to France.

Three-man delegation

In an effort to forestall a complete break between the two nations, 61-year-old Pres. Adams sent a three-man delegation to negotiate with the French. Chosen were two distinguished individuals — Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts Republican, and John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist — to join Pinckney in presenting the American position to the French government. By October of 1797, the three were in Paris.

Call to Congress

While Adams and the Federalists were determined to avoid war if at all possible, Adams called upon Congress to look to the defenses of the nation. Bills were introduced calling for the enlargement of the regular Army, the creation of a provisional army of 15,000 men, the construction of three new frigates for the Navy, creation of a school to train professional officers, and tax measures to pay for these programs. The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, accused Adams and his party of warmongering and succeeded in defeating the army and tax bills.

French demands

The three Americans in Paris made no progress for several weeks. Suddenly three unofficial agents (X-Y-Z) of Charles Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Affairs, appeared with certain demands as prerequisites to negotiation. President Adams was to apologize for certain statements in his message to Congress on May 15, 1797. The United States was to pay a gratuity of $250,000 to Talleyrand and make a loan of 30 million dollars to France.

This entire package was construed as a demand for a bribe. The three Americans, with no instructions relative to making payments, could do nothing but refuse and end deliberation. Pinckney and Marshall, convinced of the futility of remaining in France, packed and came home. Gerry, the optimist, lingered on in Paris for several months but was soon recalled.

United against France

Congress was shocked at the attempt by the French to dishonor the United States. The result was great excitement throughout the country and virtually all Americans, regardless of political views, were united in condemning the insolence of the French. There were demands that the United States take immediate steps to defend its integrity. “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” was the battle cry of the day.

Congress declared the Treaty of Alliance and Friendship of 1778 with France quashed and authorized public and private vessels of the United States to capture French ships on the high seas. The good relationship of the two nations during the American Revolution, now, was coming dangerously close to war.

In the spring of 1798, Congress created a department of the Navy and appropriated a fund to build warships. Preparations were made to raise an army of 15,000 men. The aspect of an army was slow to materialize because Adams did not much believe in it, since certainly most of the fighting would be on the high seas. A regiment cost money, and money was hard to find in a fledgling nation.


However, by 1800 the juvenile Navy, with the aid of hundreds of privateers, had successfully cleared American waters of French cruisers and even carried the naval warfare into the French West Indies. Talleyrand, thoroughly alarmed by the excitement in the United States and with the selection of Bonaparte as First Consul in France, did an about-face to avoid war.

Through the aid of the Holland government, a plan to prevent a declared war was avoided. The wise policy that he, Bonaparte and President Adams pursued led to the convention of Sept. 30, 1800, which ended the two-year undeclared war or half-war as Adams called it. The United States was over the war mood anyway.


Adams was much criticized by members of his own party for avoiding war, and it injured his reelection in 1800. In retrospect, he was right in avoiding embarrassing entanglements with European nations that Washington had advised against. The policy of permanent American neutrality, however, was given an added impetus in foreign affairs by the treaty. The French were thinking about reestablishing their influence again in the new world and would need the friendship of America against the British.

Years later, Adams said that as his epitaph he could ask nothing better than the following: “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.”

That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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