The Life of John Adams, by Charles Henry Adams
Chapter X.: The Presidency.
The obstacles which General Washington encountered in the attempt to reconstruct his cabinet during his second term of office have been already alluded to. After offering the chief post to five or six statesmen, always with the same ill-success, he was compelled at last to settle down upon the individual as the permanent officer, whom he had at first selected merely for the moment. This person was Colonel Timothy Pickering, of Massachusetts. In like manner, the earlier retirement of Mr. Hamilton from the treasury had been followed by a similar embarrassment, out of which the President had been relieved only by advancing Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of Connecticut, from the post of comptroller, which he had held for several years. So, too, in the case of General Knox, who declined to remain Secretary of War, the President, after vain attempts to enlist abler men, had been forced to pitch upon James McHenry, of Maryland, as the only person who could be persuaded to serve. Mr. McHenry, it is true, was an estimable man, but Washington himself, when afterwards excusing the original appointment on the ground that he had had Hobson’s choice, agreed with other federalists in admitting that the selection had by no means been such as to give real aid to an administration.1 The weakness of this combination, so long as the imposing presence of Washington was felt in the foreground, a representative of the whole people, was of comparatively little importance. But the moment that he retired from the field, giving place to a successor who had no similar basis of popular confidence to stand upon, and who had just come in upon a chance majority of three electoral votes, it became of the most serious consequence. Apart from all other considerations, the geographical distribution of the members was singularly unfortunate. The President, and two leading members of the cabinet, were drawn from the small territorial extent of New England, whilst neither New York nor Pennsylvania had any representative at all, and the whole wide region of country south and west of the Potomac saw only Mr. Charles Lee, the attorney-general, as the guardian of its interests in the executive department. No bright associations with the struggles of the Revolution clustered around these men, as had been the case with their predecessors in office; not a shadow of that confidence which leading abilities will always inspire when in place under a popular form of government, attended them. So far as moral influence over the mind and feelings of the country is to be considered, Mr. Adams, when he consented to continue the same gentlemen in office, might as well have attempted to go on alone.
Neither was this the most serious disadvantage under which he labored. Nor was it only that these persons owed their advancement to no preference of his, and therefore felt less obligation to defer to his authority, or to strain their energies to carry out his policy. There was a source of weakness greater than all this. In point of fact, three of the four had been drawn from one section of the federal party, and that the one with which Mr. Adams had the least natural sympathy. Mr. Hamilton had been the effective agent through whom they had been promoted, and to him alone they looked as a guide for their own movements, as well as for directing those of the country.1 Their accession to office marked the epoch when his preponderance in General Washington’s administration had become established,2 and they seemed to regard the substitution of a new President as in no way derogating from the liberty which they had taken of differing with and even sometimes of overruling the old one. Indeed, their construction of their official rights was far more latitudinarian than any since permitted, even in the liberal day of Mr. Jefferson. It resembled a joint claim upon the executive power, rather than the right to advise the President, and the duty ultimately to defer to his decision, however adverse to their opinion. Both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury were naturally little prone to bend. They proved at times reluctant to respect even the great authority which encircled Washington. If so disposed towards him, how much less prepared were they to yield to the will of his successor, should he venture to insist upon a system of his own. There is no evidence that, at the outset, any one but Mr. Wolcott passed the formal compliment of offering to resign, in order to allow him a free choice of his advisers. But even had they all done so, no reason exists for presuming that he would have availed himself of the offers. He was disposed to place entire confidence in their coöperation and support. A change must have been attended with more or less of dissatisfaction in some quarters, and it was his desire to harmonize, rather than to distract public sentiment. His sanguine and self-reliant temperament led him to underrate difficulties. He thought he should bring his secretaries into his views, without a doubt. But not many days elapsed in his official career before he had reason to suspect that the task he had assumed would not prove so easy as he had imagined. The difference of opinion which then took place, most seriously compromising his prospect of free action as executive chief, was the premonition of the causes that led to the rupture with and final dispersion of his transmitted council.
The most pressing danger, to avert which was the immediate duty of the new government, threatened from abroad. The mission of Mr. Jay to Great Britain, and the whole negotiation which followed, had been viewed with such unequivocal distrust by the French republicans and the party sympathizing with them in the United States, as to prompt a desire on the part of General Washington to neutralize its effects by an extraordinary manifestation of good-will to France. Conscious that the course of Gouverneur Morris had not been altogether such as the revolutionary party might have had a right to expect from an American envoy, he determined upon selecting, as a compensation, a successor from among the class known to be hearty well-wishers to them, even though he should be an opponent of his own administration, and dissenting from his policy. In this spirit he picked out James Monroe, of Virginia, through whom he hoped to insure a hearty welcome to the national mission, and a useful channel for the restoration of a good understanding. But, however well intended this proceeding, it met with no corresponding success. Mr. Monroe proved either inefficient, or lukewarm, or unfortunate; and he satisfied his employer so little, that he finally decided on recalling him, and substituting in his place General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, of South Carolina. Mr. Pinckney had been known at home as a federalist so moderate as to be classed by some as a neutral.1 But the French Directory, to whom Mr. Monroe seems to have made himself acceptable, not unwilling to strike some stroke in the domestic politics of the United States favorable to the ascendency of those they called their friends, determined upon visiting their resentment for his recall upon the head of his successor. To this end they instituted an imposing ceremony of leave-taking for Mr. Monroe, marked by a speech not a little offensive to the American government, and they utterly refused in any way to recognize Mr. Pinckney. They would not even permit him to remain within the limits of the French territory.
It was in the midst of these events that the change of administration occurred. Washington retired, not averse to an honorable discharge from the labor of unravelling this hard knot, and Mr. Adams came in, determined to make the attempt, but not without anxiety about the best mode of seizing the clue. He was a party man, and heartily agreed in the early views of the federalists; but his heart relucted at placing his administration at the outset upon any bottom less broad than that which had been laid by his predecessor. Neither could he see the wisdom of adopting a rule of exclusion from office, the effect of which would be to aggravate dissensions already too much weakening the spirit of resistance, instead of uniting the people better to counteract the insidious devices of the enemy from without.
In this spirit was the inaugural speech drawn up, with which he entered on his duties. Few efforts of the kind contain, within so narrow a compass, a more comprehensive view of a policy suitable for the chief magistrate of the United States, of any party. Not unaware of the rumors that had been sedulously spread against him, of his desire to alter the existing form of government, and to introduce something which had “an awful squinting to a monarchy,” and not insensible of the importance of putting an end to them by a frank denial, he seized the opportunity to express his entire satisfaction with the constitution, as conformable to such a system of government as he had ever most esteemed, and in his own State had contributed to establish. Then, going to the root of these calumnies, he added the decisive words: “It was not then, nor has been since, any objection to it in my mind, that the Executive and Senate were not more permanent. Nor have I entertained a thought of promoting any alterations in it but such as the people themselves, in the course of their experience, should see and feel to be necessary or expedient, and, by their representatives in congress and the state legislatures, according to the constitution itself, adopt and ordain.”
Having thus removed the obstacles heretofore put in his way, he next declared the principles that should guide him for the future. With a high compliment to the administration as well as to the personal character of his predecessor, he proceeded to give, in one of the longest sentences in the language, his whole creed. Yet long as it is, perhaps none was ever constructed by a statesman with less redundance to convey the same amount of meaning. After alluding to the general satisfaction felt with the course taken by Washington as a model for the imitation of his successors, he added these words: “The occasion, I hope, will be admitted as an apology, if I venture to say, that, if a preference upon principle of a free republican government, formed upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it, until it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions of the individual States, and a constant caution and delicacy towards the state governments; if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interests, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, eastern or western position, their various political opinions on essential points, or their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters, and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, profligacy, and corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of equal laws, of justice and humanity in the interior administration; if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufactures for necessity, convenience, and defence; if a spirit of equity and humanity towards the aboriginal nations of America, and a disposition to meliorate their condition, by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations, and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe, which has been adopted by the government, and so solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of congress, and applauded by the legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be otherwise ordained by congress; if a personal esteem for the French nation, formed in a residence of seven years, chiefly among them, and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people of America, and the internal sentiment of their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause, and remove every colorable pretence, of complaint; if an intention to pursue, by amicable negotiation, a reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of our fellow-citizens, by whatever nation, and (if success cannot be obtained) to lay the facts before the legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the government and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice, as far as may depend upon me, at all times, and to all nations, and maintain peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people, on which I have so often hazarded my all, and never been deceived; if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country, and of my own duties towards it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and intellectual improvement of the people, deeply engraven on my mind in early life, and not obscured, but exalted by experience and age; and with humble reverence I feel it my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service,—can enable me, in any degree, to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.”
When deeply stirred by internal emotion, Mr. Adams’s manner became grave and very impressive. Nothing short of this could have made the delivery of so elaborate a paragraph at all effective before a large audience. The next day he wrote to his wife, in his most natural and candid manner:—
“Your dearest friend never had a more trying day than yesterday. A solemn scene it was, indeed; and it was made more affecting to me by the presence of the General, whose countenance was as serene and unclouded as the day. He seemed to me to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say: ‘Ay! I am fairly out, and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest.’
“When the ceremony was over, he came and made me a visit, and cordially congratulated me, and wished my administration might be happy, successful, and honorable.
“In the chamber of the House of Representatives was a multitude as great as the space could contain, and I believe scarcely a dry eye but Washington’s. The sight of the sun setting full orbed, and another rising, though less splendid, was a novelty. Chief Justice Ellsworth administered the oath, and with great energy. Judges Cushing, Wilson, and Iredell were present. Many ladies. I had not slept well the night before, and did not sleep well the night after. I was unwell, and did not know whether I should get through or not. I did, however. How the business was received, I know not, only I have been told that Mason, the treaty publisher, said we should lose nothing by the change, for he never heard such a speech in public in his life.
“All agree that, taken altogether, it was the sublimest thing ever exhibited in America.”
The fact is unquestionable, that this speech was very well received by the public at large. Even the members of the opposition declared themselves relieved by it from much anxiety, and disposed to await further developments of the executive policy. Mr. Jefferson, on taking his post as Vice-President, had gone so far as to declare that the high functions of the first office had been “justly confided” to Mr. Adams, and to deprecate any untoward event which should devolve the duties of it during his term of office upon himself. The only persons who manifested discontent, were to be found among the federalists sympathizing with Mr. Hamilton. They lamented its tone as temporizing. Their party feeling would have prompted a thorough demarcation of the line between themselves and the opposition, by the delineation of a policy which every man should be obliged to notice, and by the acceptance or rejection of which his own position should be unmistakably defined. The avoidance of this course in the address was ominous to them of the accession to the chair of a man who would not meet their expectations; and this suspicion other events, which soon came to their knowledge, had a strong tendency to confirm.
The day before the inauguration, Mr. Adams had taken pains to seek out Mr. Jefferson, in order to propose to him to undertake the difficult experiment of reopening the avenues of negotiation with France. This was to be attempted by the establishment of a wholly new commission, formed on such principles of fair combination as to preclude every pretext for objection on the part of the French republic. And the first proof of this intention was to be found in the character and opinions of the Vice-President himself. Mr. Jefferson appears to have met this proposition with less cordiality than it merited at his hands. For though his reasons for declining to accept it himself were certainly valid, and were admitted to be so by Mr. Adams, there was no similar excuse for the lukewarmness visible in promoting the acceptance of the offer, when extended to Mr. Madison, and perhaps others of his friends. In the difficulties in which the administration was plunged, it was far more pleasant to dwell in the tents of opposition, than to be drawn out of them by a proposal of alliance in responsibilities which might cut off profitable complaint under failure, or divert elsewhere the advantages of success. Had this overture been accepted, important consequences might have followed at an early day, of which one might have been a reorganization of the cabinet. For it should be remarked that the first intimation of his idea, made by Mr. Adams, immediately after the inauguration, to Mr. Wolcott, then at the head of the treasury, was received by the latter with consternation, as a signal for his retirement. So far from favoring further advances to bring the opposition into a united effort to preserve peace with France, he had made up his mind that the effort itself was not worth repeating in any shape, until some opening should be made by her. Yet the alternative was embargo or war. For the depredations on American commerce, unblushing as they were unbounded, could only be checked by restraining navigation, or else defending it by arms. But an embargo was ruinous to trade, whilst war imperilled the finances. Mr. Adams had no inclination to assume responsibility for such consequences, so long as they could be honestly avoided. Yet finding that perseverance in his project might lead to an immediate difference with his cabinet, which he did not seek, whilst it met with no hearty response elsewhere, he at once abandoned all thoughts of Mr. Madison, and postponed, to a later moment, any decision upon the measure itself.
The chief members of the executive council, Colonel Pickering and Mr. Wolcott, had been long in the habit of looking outside of it for the general direction of the policy adopted within. This habit, formed from the time of their accession in Washington’s administration, was now kept up without the smallest idea of any obligation on their part to apprise the new President of its existence. Of course, communications, more or less free, of what was said or done in the cabinet, were the consequence. In this way, Alexander Hamilton, the recipient of them, was become all-powerful in guiding the movements of the government. It had been so in the last days of Washington, and it was not likely to be less so after his dignified attitude ceased to inspire moderation, and when a much less popular chief was in his place. To the latter as the official incumbent, brought in without any hearty wish of theirs, they were, of course, bound outwardly to defer; but it is plain from their own admissions, that in all important questions they looked to Mr. Hamilton, and not to him, as the suitable guide of their action.1 As a consequence, it followed that unity in the executive policy became likely only when the President should happen, without knowing it, to fix upon the same measures which Mr. Hamilton suggested. And in all important cases of difference, the probability was strong that the President would find his wishes either ineffectively seconded, or ultimately overruled. Such, from small beginnings, grew to be the settled practice under this administration. Happily for the issue of the first measure, when revived a few weeks later, Mr. Hamilton had thought of it too, and had earnestly pressed it on his friends as one of the first necessity. He had even gone the length of proposing the selection of Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Madison, or some equally marked representative of the opposition, as one member of the joint commission. These ideas he had early directed some of his friends in congress to lay before the President himself. This unexpected reinforcement of Mr. Adams’s wishes carried the day over the repugnance of the secretaries. But they yielded, not without great misgivings. Mr. Wolcott, especially, saw in this concession some dangers, which scarcely excited the observation of the others. He then began to conceive the possibility of failure in guiding the will of Mr. Adams, and dimly to discern the results to which it might lead. Prudence was essential, or a change of counsellors might be attended with a more or less complete ejection from the strongholds of power.1
The intelligence received from France came in to hasten the necessity of making a decision. An act of the Directory, of the 2d of March, had followed the expulsion of Mr. Pinckney, which, in substance, annulled the rule of free ships, free goods, ingrafted into the treaty of 1778, and declared all Americans found serving on board the vessels of Great Britain, pirates, to be treated without mercy. Under these circumstances, war would be justifiable. The only question was whether it would be expedient. In order to determine this point, the President requested the written answers of the members of his cabinet to a series of fourteen questions covering all the necessary points. This was on the 14th of April. A proclamation had already been issued, summoning congress to attend at Philadelphia at an extraordinary session, on the fifteenth day of May, there to receive the important communications which he was about to prepare out of these deliberations.
In answering the President’s questions, not a single cabinet officer was found explicitly to recommend a declaration of war. All now acquiesced in the project of reviving negotiation by initiating a new and solemn commission, and some suggested means of facilitating a settlement. The commission having been determined upon, another step was, to designate the three commissioners. Mr. Adams still retained the wish to give one of the number to the opposition. He therefore suggested the union of his old friend of the Revolution, Elbridge Gerry, with General Pinckney and John Marshall. But this idea at once revived all the alarms of his advisers. Mr. Gerry had opposed the constitution, and had been ever since most obnoxious in Massachusetts to the particular class of federalists to which the secretaries belonged. Mr. Adams had casually dropped the name of another friend, Francis Dana. They strongly pressed to have him preferred; and, although this was giving to the commission a purely federal color, contrary to his original design, he cheerfully yielded to their desire. The very last fault that can be justly found with his course is that of a disposition to control their will. With the lights now furnished respecting their conduct, his error lay rather in conceding too much. But his nomination of Mr. Dana was of no avail, for that gentleman declined the trust, on the score of his health. And when the question came up anew, no second name was at hand to present, which could be made again to preponderate over the earlier selection; so Mr. Gerry received the nomination. The President’s counsellors now felt that they were to struggle for their power. Mr. Adams might be bent to a certain point, but he could not be controlled. The expectations with which they entered on their places under him must be abandoned. And henceforth they were to retain them with a view, so far as might be, to rectify his deviations from their policy, and especially to keep the cabinet from going into the hands of other men.
A short time before the decision last mentioned, congress had assembled. The cabinet all cordially coöperated in preparing the opening speech, which must be conceded to be one of the most manly and dignified state papers that ever emanated from the American executive. Its simple recital of the offensive action of France at once rallied the spirit of the members to the support of their own government. Both Houses replied in warm approbation of the policy recommended, and the Senate soon afterwards ratified the nominations of the new commissioners. The federalists, fortified by the reaction everywhere springing up against France, on account of the excesses of her revolutionary era, showed a degree of strength to which they had for some time been strangers. Yet so fierce was the opposition that no attempt was made to press measures of an extreme character. The warmer friends of government complained of a want of vigor. Mr. Hamilton prepared for the use of the Secretary of the Treasury his views of the different objects of taxation, from which further sums might be obtained to the revenue in the present contingency. Of these, congress adopted only the ominous item of stamps, the very name of which did more disservice to government than all the sums collected from it could compensate for. They authorized a small loan of less than a million, and passed several acts, of which the chief were those against privateering, and the exportation of arms, for the further protection of the ports of the United States and for the increase of the naval armament. The time expended on these labors little exceeded three weeks, and both Houses adjourned in season to escape at Philadelphia all danger from the impending pestilence. Mr. Adams returned to his family at Quincy, having good reason to be satisfied with this outset. The commissioners were soon put on their way to the scene of their labors, and the whole country rested for a while, in earnest but quiet expectation of the intelligence which should announce the fate of the latest overtures to reconciliation.
Unluckily for the repose of the world, negotiations with France during the closing years of the last century had no fixed data upon which to calculate any probable issue. The men who held power, changed often; and the tone they took towards foreign nations, whilst they held it, depended less upon notions of equity and justice than upon the latest tidings from the armies of the republic. Unfortunate indeed is that country, the character of whose officers has no other recommendation than the single fact of the popular choice. None know better than the elect how soon that factitious value will vanish. As it happened, Messrs. Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry reached Paris at a moment of extraordinary national intoxication. The young chief, who was about to astonish Europe with his deeds, and fill the world with his fame, was then beginning to make his employers sensible of the value of his energy. He had been cognizant of the coup d’état, under which the legislative and executive departments had been riven in twain, and the best part of the members exiled. And his victorious march in Italy was the sign under which the usurping section hoped to hold their power, maugre all resistance. The sport of fortune, the ordinary men who now held the reins, saw in their position no objects higher than the opportunity to enrich themselves. Napoleon’s successes opened a paradise of jobs from army contractors, besides placing the Directory in a situation to dictate their own terms to weaker nations. Happy chance for such men as Barras, and Rewbell, and Merlin, just now turning up in their lives, soon to end, and never to return! But unhappy chance to all countries deemed weak in resources, which might be brought to deprecate the enmity of France, and pray for protection not to be had without a price! And particularly unfortunate chance to the United States, not yet strong enough to make their anger a cause of fear, whilst their commerce, which was growing to whiten every sea, presented a rich prey wherewith to fatten the officials of the hour!
It was to a government like this, that three single-hearted men, guiltless of a trick of diplomacy or a thought of venality, had been addressed, under the delusive notion that good sense, and truth, and justice might avail to procure an adjustment of every honest difference. The result may easily be conceived. They were met by arts against which they proved no match, by round-about contrivances to ascertain, before recognizing their position, what price they would offer for a treaty. And when the fact became certain that money was not to be made out of them, an adroit effort followed to dissociate the two most impracticable commissioners from the third and more sympathizing one, in order to try the luck of an appeal to him alone. It was all in vain, however. Mr. Gerry, though he permitted the Directory to create an invidious and insulting distinction, gave them no opening for advantage over himself. Of his honesty and his patriotism, however it may have been disputed during the high party times that followed, no impartial person, at this day, will entertain a doubt. And whatever may have been his facility, it should be remembered that the same had been shown, in the same place, by no less a predecessor than Dr. Franklin. The Directory, foiled in their game, ceased to feel an interest in playing it further. Even before Mr. Gerry retired, inexorable to their solicitation to treat, signs appeared of their disposition not to press matters so far as to cut off every opportunity to retrace their steps.
This was a despicable species of adventure for such a noble country as France. Neither is it to be supposed that it would have been attempted in many other stages of its history. But it is in the nature of popular convulsions, when continued for a length of time, gradually to throw to the surface such dregs, that at last the whole community gasps in expectation of the bold hand which will at a single sweep skim them off from the sight. The hand that was ultimately to do this thing, was the very one yet interested to uphold the evil. To affront the United States irretrievably was the height of folly; for, admitting them to be of little positive weight in the scale of nations, they were yet not without power to harm, especially on the ocean, and if allied, as such treatment would inevitably drive them to be, with Great Britain, France’s most dreaded foe, might prove formidable. Besides, the moral effect was exceedingly bad, in withering the sympathies of that large class of American citizens who had persisted, at every disadvantage, in upholding France at home. It was ungrateful, to say the least, towards those who had persevered, through all the odium incurred by their crimes, in glorying in the successes of their dear allies, as they loved to call them, to suffer them to be precipitated into the very jaws of the British lion. These considerations were disregarded a little too long. And when they began to be respected, the consequences were beyond the opportunity of recall.
For, in the mean time, the popular feeling in the United States was daily growing more adverse to France, and more friendly to the administration. The evidence of this became unequivocal upon the reassembly of the two Houses of congress at the regular session in November. No decisive tidings had then been received, so that the opening speech was confined to a simple reference to the difficulties, coupled with a recommendation, in any event, to provide suitable protection for the national commerce. Allusion was briefly made to the state of the relations with other powers, but no suggestion of specific measures followed. It is clear that the time for being explicit had not yet arrived. But it was already far on its way. Mr. Adams, so early as the 24th of January, 1798, in anticipation of the expected intelligence, deemed it prudent to address to the members of his cabinet a letter, requesting their views of the course proper to be taken, in case the commissioners should have failed in accomplishing the objects of their mission. Should a declaration of war be recommended? or an embargo? Should any change be attempted, contingent upon that event, in the nature of the relations held with other European powers in general, and most particularly with Great Britain?
These were questions of the deepest importance. The manner of putting them betrayed nothing of the sentiments of the interrogator, beyond a marked disinclination to any approaches towards Great Britain. It is not absolutely certain whether the secretaries of state and of the treasury sent in any separate answers. At all events, none are found among Mr. Adams’s papers. That the former wrote at this time to consult Mr. Hamilton about the expediency of an alliance offensive and defensive with Great Britain, and that he received an answer, appears elsewhere. But there is no trace of a suggestion of the kind to the President. The only one of the cabinet who proposed a declaration of war, was the attorney-general, Mr. Lee. The remaining member, Mr. McHenry, sent in an answer, in which he dissuaded from a formal declaration, on account of the aversion felt for it by a large portion of the people, but, at the same time, laid down a series of seven propositions to be recommended to congress, the effect of which, if adopted, would have been, if not to make war, at least to place the country on a footing to make it, both by sea and land. They were these:—
1. Permission to merchant ships to arm.
2. The construction of twenty sloops of war.
3. The completion of the frigates already authorized.
4. Authority, in case of a rupture, to the President to provide, “by such means as he may judge best,” ships of the line, not exceeding ten.
5. The suspension of the treaties with France.
6. An immediate army of sixteen thousand men, and a provisional one of twenty thousand more.
7. A loan, and an adequate system of taxation.
This paper is of the utmost importance to a clear conception of the internal movement of this administration; because there are the strongest reasons for presuming that, instead of being Mr. McHenry’s simply, it contains the joint conclusions of Mr. Hamilton and the three secretaries under his influence. The recommendations are almost identically those which appear in Mr. Hamilton’s private letters to Mr. Pickering.1 But in addition to this, the paper closed with some suggestions which show a coincidence even more marked with the peculiar policy which that gentleman was at the same time advocating in his correspondence.
Yet the place in which this appears the most striking, is in that portion of the answer which touches upon the relations to be observed with Great Britain. Deprecating a formal alliance as inexpedient rather than as improper, it yet recommended that overtures should be made through Mr. King, to obtain a loan, the aid of convoys, and perhaps the transfer of ten ships of the line, should congress give the authority to obtain so many; and, what is most significant of all, it urged that, in case of rupture, a coöperation should be secured, by Great Britain’s lodging ample powers of execution in the hands of her envoy to the United States, the object of which should be the conquest of the Floridas, Louisiana, and Spanish South America; all the territory on the east side of the Mississippi, together with the port of New Orleans, to be the share of the spoils allotted to the United States.1
A comparison of these views with the reputed capacity of the person claiming the paternity of them, as well as with those expressed by Mr. Hamilton to other persons, makes the inference irresistible that they were actually supplied by the latter, and that the knowledge of this fact was the reason why the other two cabinet officers felt themselves dispensed from the necessity of offering separate opinions.
All this had been done by way of preparation for probable events. When the news arrived which gave them a definite shape, and the details of the attempts upon the firmness of the commissioners, which had been instigated by the Directory, had been spread before the cabinet, Mr. Adams once more submitted questions to his advisers. They were now reduced to two:—
1. Should all the particulars be disclosed at once to congress?
2. Should the President recommend a declaration of war?
Again no answer came from the chief secretaries. Mr. McHenry contented himself with appealing to his former exposition of his views, to which he had nothing to add. And Mr. Lee, with a provident regard for the personal safety of the commissioners not yet known to be beyond the jurisdiction of France, only proposed a delay until that point should have been placed beyond a doubt.
With these views before him, Mr. Adams was now called upon to take a definite course. Of the source of the policy proposed to him by Mr. McHenry, he seems to have had no suspicion. But so far as it looked to more intimate connections with Great Britain, the argumentative form in which he put his questions1 sufficiently shows that it met with no favoring response in his bosom. It was at war with the whole theory of his life, and all the lessons of his experience. It is not unlikely that his conversation betrayed his opinions, for Mr. Pickering, very soon after this, communicated a significant hint to Mr. Hamilton, that the animosities engendered by the Revolution “in some breasts”2 would probably make the plan of coöperation impracticable. The fact is certain that no further direct effort was made to establish it through the agency of the President. Waving all the recommendations that looked to such a result, he adopted the draft of a message prepared by Mr. Wolcott. But a single paragraph written by himself appears in this paper. It communicated his own intentions in the following terms:—
“The present state of things is so essentially different from that in which instructions were given to collectors to restrain vessels of the United States from sailing in an armed condition, that the principle in which those orders were issued has ceased to exist. I therefore deem it proper to inform congress, that I no longer conceive myself justifiable in continuing them, unless in particular cases, where there may be reasonable ground of suspicion that such vessels are intended to be employed contrary to law.”
This message was sent to both Houses on the 19th of March, 1798. It recommended no new measures, but repeated the exhortation to prepare for protection and defence made in former communications, as the result of a mature consideration of the dispatches. The dispatches themselves were, with a single exception, held back. That exception notified the government of a new act of hostility, forfeiting all neutral ships covering any productions of England, and shutting up France even to such as should, in their voyage, have barely touched at an English port. The message announced the failure of the mission, but gave no details of its proceedings. The papers had been reserved, for the reasons suggested by the attorney-general. But with such a determination the impatience of neither party was content. Dignified and temperate as was the tone of the executive, Mr. Jefferson, fastening for a ground of complaint upon the single measure of self-defence, the withdrawal of the prohibition upon merchant ships to go armed, an act certainly not extravagant in the face of so violent a French decree, denominated this “an insane message;” whilst Mr. Hamilton, unsatisfied so long as no disclosure had been made of facts from which he clearly foresaw the advantages to inure to the party with which he was associated, set in motion, through a member of the House, a demand for the production of the documents withheld. This was adopted on the 2d of April, and the response returned in twenty-four hours. Thus came before the country a full disclosure of the tissue of intrigues, woven in France in order to extort money from the American commissioners. But out of superfluous consideration for the feelings of the three private individuals who had been prevailed upon to serve as go-betweens, Colonel Pickering, the Secretary of State, suppressed their names, and substituted for them the last three letters of the alphabet, X. Y. Z. Hence it happened that in popular parlance these dispatches came to be generally known as the X. Y. Z. correspondence.
Upon the arrival of General Marshall in the United States, the President sent another message to congress, bearing date 21st June, 1798, transmitting a dispatch from Mr. Gerry, who yet remained in Paris, which completed the series of papers belonging to the negotiation. At the end, he added these important words:—
“I will never send another minister to France without assurances that he will be received, respected, and honored as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation.”
It is necessary to a right understanding of the events that followed, to bear the terms of this engagement clearly in mind. For in the different constructions given to it is to be found the ostensible cause of the division that took place in the ranks of the federal party.
The publication by congress of all the papers was like the falling of a spark into a powder magazine. Among the friends of France who had, down to this moment, with praiseworthy constancy, adhered to their allies, even through all the accumulated horrors of their revolutionary days, the news spread utter dismay, precluding them from defence or justification. Even the sanguine Jefferson beheld with consternation the peril to all his brightest anticipations from the huge rising wave of national feeling which promised to carry his federal opponents for a long way in triumph on its crest. The return of the commissioners only served to bring the popular enthusiasm to its height. There was but one voice to be heard, and that was in denunciation of the arrogance and profligacy of France, and in warm approbation of every measure calculated to uphold the dignity and the honor of the United States. The opportunity was a critical one to the individuals intrusted with power. Wisely improved, it would have insured the ascendency of their policy for years to come. Slighted or abused to gain equivocal ends, it might only prove the occasion of a more fatal overthrow. How it was actually used, it is one of the objects of the present narrative faithfully and impartially to disclose.
From what has been already described of the cabinet action, the position of the President may now be pretty distinctly perceived. Surrounded by advisers, three of whom were proposing a system of measures prompted by a gentleman not known by him to be in the secret of his counsels, and not at all in harmony with his own ideas, he seems to have declined the responsibility of assuming the recommendation of it, and to have chosen the safer course of devolving upon the two houses of congress, as the proper arbiters, the task of determining what it was best for the nation, under the circumstances, to do. Down to this time he seems to have entertained little distrust of Mr. Hamilton himself, and not the slightest suspicion of the nature of the influences brought to bear upon himself. It was only when his obvious disinclination to the policy offered to his acceptance had the effect of transferring the theatre for the exercise of them from the seclusion of his secret council to the public arena of the two houses, that he could begin to gather data upon which to form some notion of the perils by which he was beset.
Among the younger and more active members of the federal party in the north and east, Mr. Hamilton had gradually become an idol. Without much hold upon the judgment or the affections of the people at large, he had yet, by the effect of his undisputed abilities and his masculine will, gained great sway over the minds of the intelligent merchants along the Atlantic border. His previous doctrines, in unison with the feelings and interests of the most conservative class, had drawn to him their particular confidence, whilst his position in the first administration had facilitated the establishment by him of a chain of influence, resting for its main support on his power over the mind of Washington himself, but carried equally through all the ramifications of the executive department. Thus it happened that even after he ceased to be personally present, his opinions continued to shape the policy of Washington’s second administration and even that of his successor. But since the day of his retirement from the treasury he had thus far manifested no desire to reënter public life, or to assume any direct share in the regulation of affairs. The prospect of a conflict with France seems to have been the first cause of a change of intention. He now showed signs of a wish not merely to devise the whole system of action, on the part of the government, but likewise to be in a position to direct its execution. He began to foresee a crisis worthy to call forth all his latent powers.
The President’s voluntary act, by which the responsibility of initiating the desired system was transferred from the executive to the legislative department, was not unfavorable to the development of Mr. Hamilton’s plans. His energetic dictation, seconded by the zealous coöperation of his able friends in both houses of congress, naturally gave the lead to opinion. Where the passions of men are heated to the pitch of enthusiasm in any cause, he who advises the most positive measures is generally likely to gain the earliest hearing. Thus it happened in this case. The federal policy proposed and adopted at this session of congress was largely the offspring of Mr. Hamilton’s brain, though it fell far short of the extent of his conceptions. Whether for weal or woe, it is his name that should be associated with it, and not that of the person then filling the executive chair, whose opinions it very partially represented, and whose legitimate influence it was designed to annihilate. Yet strange are sometimes the ways of Providence, which at one and the same moment will not simply expose one man to responsibility for the plans and actions of another, but will even make that other himself a medium through which the censure attending them shall be the most permanently visited on his memory.
The friends of Mr. Hamilton carried through congress some of the measures which had been proposed in the cabinet, and one or two that were not in that list. Without declaring war with France, they voted the treaties with her to be null and void, and authorized hostilities equivalent to war. They sanctioned a considerable augmentation of the actual army, with a prospective organization of officers adapted to a much more extended one, in case of invasion. They increased the navy by directing the construction or purchase of new ships, and they placed the superintendence of it in a distinct department of the government, over which they established a new cabinet officer. With the exception of this last change, all these things had been under the consideration of the executive department. The case was different with some other measures, and particularly those acts which have ever since been known under the name of the Alien and Sedition Laws; acts, borrowed from the extravagant apprehensions entertained in Great Britain of the spread of the revolutionary spirit, which proved of no practical value whatever to America, whilst they furnished an effective handle for attack against their authors. Lastly, congress enlarged the objects of taxation, and gave the necessary powers to obtain by loan a further sum of five millions of dollars. As has been said already, this was not all of the system of Mr. Hamilton, for that contemplated an offensive war, sustained by the ultimate establishment of a military organization of fifty thousand men; but it was in its principal features in unison with his views. To Mr. Adams, who seems scarcely to have been consulted by the active men, no part of it was particularly acceptable excepting that which organized the navy. His system was purely defensive, and his preference would have been to strengthen that arm as the main reliance in warfare, whilst the army should be only a means of deterring the enemy from the idea of invasion. Here is the origin of the difference of opinion in the federal party which in a short time led to the most important consequences.
And, indeed, if the reasons urged in favor of a great prospective army be calmly examined, they seem scarcely strong enough to justify the erection of so ponderous a system. The ostensible motive was the apprehension of invasion by France. But at that time France had not an inch of territory on the American continent. She was, moreover, deeply involved in hostilities with Great Britain and other powers, which tasked her strength quite severely enough in Europe. What was then the prospect of her inclination or ability to dispatch large armies to the United States, whilst so many fields of brilliant conquest remained unreaped close under her hand? Neither had she, in point of fact, shown by any act of hers the remotest disposition towards an expedition of any sort. The naval preponderance of her island neighbor presented too formidable an obstacle, even if there had been no other. So long as the danger apprehended was only contingent, it seemed to require no more than a provisional extension of the established force, to be resorted to when necessary, and to be discontinued with the cessation of the necessity. But the plan of Mr. Hamilton was not limited to this. It had every aspect of a solid establishment, of greater or less extent, it might be, but of permanent duration. It very clearly contemplated other contingencies than that which was immediately before the public, and prepared for a different class of necessities. What the precise nature of them was, has never been fully laid open. But as some notion of them is of the very first necessity to a true conception of the difficulties of Mr. Adams in his Presidency, an attempt will now be made, from the materials which have found their way to the light within the last few years, to furnish such an explanation as they appear to justify.
It may be recollected that in the elaborate plan presented by Mr. McHenry, which has been already described, the herald of that part of Mr. Hamilton’s system which appeared afterwards in congress, some stress was laid on another measure not proposed in that body. This was, the expediency of sounding Great Britain, touching a loan of ten of her ships of the line, and what was called a coöperation, in case of rupture, for the conquest of the Floridas, Louisiana, and the South American possessions of Spain. But inasmuch as Spain had not at this time made herself a stumbling-block of offence, it seems as if no special occasion had occurred for contemplating a plan to attack her American possessions, especially in conjunction with Great Britain, at the very time when the quarrel of the United States was only with France, and the way of providing for that was the single topic proposed for consideration. The mystery is not explicable unless the clue can be supplied from elsewhere. It can only be accounted for by knowing the fact that at this very time Mr. Hamilton had become a party to a grand project of revolution in South America, conceived years before in the fertile brain of Francisco de Miranda, but now taking the form of a political combination, the details of which are found singularly to correspond with this feature of the plan submitted to the President by Mr. McHenry.1 At the date of McHenry’s paper, Miranda was in London, anxiously awaiting the decision of the prime minister, Mr. Pitt, upon the extent to which Great Britain would undertake to assist him. And he had the best reasons for believing that that minister’s favorable answer depended upon the prospect of coöperation held out by the American government. According to Miranda’s plan, Great Britain was to supply ships not exceeding twenty, money and men, but the United States were to furnish not less than seven thousand men, two thousand to be cavalry, and that not at first only, but throughout the war that might ensue, no matter how long. As a compensation for this engagement, the allotment of conquered territory, in case of success, was that which was pointed out in Mr. McHenry’s paper, and perhaps the West Indies besides, excepting only Cuba. It is therefore difficult to resist the conviction that the same person who drew the plan offered to Mr. Adams, was at the time fully apprised of Miranda’s projects, and was desirous so to shape the policy of the American government as to bring it into coöperation with them. For the rest, these facts are certain; that Mr. Hamilton was, during this period, in confidential communication with Miranda; that he suggested a change of the scheme, so far as to supply all the troops from the United States, instead of a part, which was accepted; and that the command of the troops so supplied had been conceded to his wishes.1 Possessed of the knowledge of all these facts, it becomes easy to understand the reasons for an organization of the military force more extensive than would be needed merely for defence. That Mr. Hamilton contemplated heading an expedition to act for a greater or less period outside of the limits of the Union, and against the possessions of another nation than France, is beyond the possibility of doubt.2 It was, therefore, very natural that he should be active to promote the establishment of a larger force than would appear necessary to those who had not been let into the secret of the uses to which a part of it was to be put.
Neither is this the only or the most serious consideration attending this remarkable project. The proposed coöperation with Great Britain, at a moment when she was deeply engaged in a war with the French, by a joint attack upon the dependencies of a power in close alliance with them, could scarcely fail to involve the most momentous results to the futurity of the United States. It was, first of all, about to render them dependent upon Great Britain for ships and money, to execute the object immediately in view. But granting that this could be gained at once, and with a small expenditure of the joint resources of the two nations, a thing by no means certain, the long train of consequences which victory involved, only then begins to be perceptible. The regions of South America, which were thus to be torn away from the control of Spain, were to be established as independent “under a moderate government, with the joint guarantee of the coöperating powers, stipulating equal privileges in commerce.”1 Such is the language used by Mr. Hamilton himself. But a joint guarantee, given in time of war, to the dependencies of one of the belligerent nations, to secure, against its consent, certain terms to them at all events, could not have been maintained without converting all those engaged into parties to the war, so long as it should last, and until the restoration of peace by some new form of negotiation. The effect of such a necessity could not fail to be a drawing closer of the alliance of the coöperating powers, and an entanglement in all the fortunes of the general struggle. An alliance was assumed to be inevitable in the South American project. It is not to be doubted that, though not advocated at the outset, it was distinctly contemplated by Mr. Hamilton, as an ultimate consequence of the execution of that scheme. But it is obvious that such an event could not have taken place without a complete abandonment of the neutrality which had been declared a cardinal point of the federal policy under General Washington’s administration.
But apart from all views of foreign service, temporary or permanent, for the contemplated army, there were considerations growing out of the state of things at home, which greatly weighed on the mind of Mr. Hamilton to make him favor a permanent military organization. His tendencies were never to popular ideas. At the outset of the Revolution, even the fresh enthusiasm of his youth had much of early bias to struggle with before adopting the American cause.1 Neither by birth, education, taste nor habits of life entertaining faith in theoretical democracy, his later observation had only confirmed his profound distrust of every thing which savored of the profession of it. His honorable and successful labors to effect the establishment of the federal constitution, were guided not so much by his confidence in the intrinsic excellence of that instrument, as by his anxiety to escape the danger of something worse. And his confidence in the permanency of that, never great, had been seriously impaired by the trials to which it had been subjected, and by the visible accumulation of elements regarded by him as sooner or later threatening its subversion. To his mind, the future presented, as he grew older, no other vision than that of a great crisis,2 threatening the very foundations of the social system, from which there could be no escape, and which it was important to be in the best situation to meet. Confident of his own powers, he very naturally looked within himself for the agency adequate to cope with the danger. And foreseeing that this danger would inevitably entail civil commotion, he found it not difficult to convince himself that to his genius was allotted the control of the physical means necessary to restore order out of chaos. The first and most immediate duty was to be in a condition to act with effect in defence of the government.3 And if this could not be done without resort to force, force must be at hand to use whenever the occasion should require it. Neither was his system one of aspirations purely selfish. Strong minds seldom fail to associate with dreams of their own glory the modes of exercising power for the good of their fellow-men. Considering their happiness as mainly dependent upon a sense of security from domestic convulsions, his first aim would have been to gain that end at any rate, even should it be done at some expense of their liberties. But, this fundamental point once well settled, those liberties might be freely enjoyed up to the very limits of that necessity.
This seems to be somewhat the transcript of the mind of Hamilton during the last years of his life, as it can be gathered from a close observation of his principles, his language, and his action. He had been some time waiting for the occasion that might call out the capacities which he felt that he possessed. His great aspiration was for military lead. And it is by no means unlikely that in this estimate of his powers he was not mistaken. Some of the elements that insure command he certainly had. The time had now arrived when the field was opening to him abroad as well as at home. Hence his earnest advocacy of a permanent army as a consequence of the difficulty that had occurred with France. Hence his still more earnest labors to pave the way to the command of that army for himself.
An army was raised—not such as he had contemplated, but enough to begin with. The next point was the command; and the nomination to that was vested in the President. Nothing but an extraordinary stretch of his favor could bring Mr. Hamilton within reach of it, for, in point of rank and former services, his claims fell far below those of many prominent officers of the Revolution still on the stage. But of the favor of Mr. Adams, at least to so great an extent as was now required, Mr. Hamilton had his own reasons to feel very uncertain.1 Not oblivious of the secret efforts to set him aside at the time of his election, and too proud to run the risk of a refusal, he addressed himself to the task of attaining his end through an intermediate agency. This was by appealing to a power, with whose wishes, if once expressed, the President would deem it too dangerous to contend. Such a power existed in the person of General Washington, to whom the whole country looked as the individual to be called to the chief command, in case of exigency. And Mr. Hamilton too well knew the confidence entertained in his abilities by Washington, not to be sure that he should himself be relied upon as one of his most useful assistants. So far every thing turned out according to his expectation. The President nominated Washington to be Lieutenant-general of the forces. And the latter accepted, but not without adding two conditions; one, that he should not be called into active service until it should be indispensable; the other, that he should have the right of selecting the officers of his staff. In anticipation of the second condition, Mr. Hamilton had already opened the way to consultations with Washington, and had pointed out the only post in which he would consent to serve. It was that of inspector-general, with the rank of a major-general. These demands were readily assented to on all sides, and the lists of the organization were accordingly made out.
But although things had thus far gone according to expectation, the most important point, the designation of the second in command, had not yet been settled, or, if to be so regarded, it had not been settled auspiciously to the hopes of Mr. Hamilton. In the list of officers of the second rank, presented by Washington, nominated by the President, and ratified by the Senate, on the same day, were three names, Hamilton, Knox, C. C. Pinckney. The question of priority among them had not been started, even though Mr. Pickering and Mr. McHenry directly, and Mr. Hamilton indirectly, had invoked the interposition of Washington to determine it at once. Such a decision involved considerations of delicacy towards the other two officers, which neither the President nor General Washington felt at liberty to overlook. According to all received ideas, the elevation of Hamilton could not be regarded otherwise than as offensive to them. Knox and Pinckney were both greatly his seniors in the revolutionary army. The former had been at the head of the department of war both before and after the adoption of the constitution. The latter was a brigadier-general in 1783. If the law established in the Revolution were to be regarded as unrepealed, both would be entitled to the precedence as a matter of course. Mr. Adams saw no occasion to justify his going out of the path to set it aside. General Washington, for reasons having a particular relation to the quarter in which attack was most apprehended, inclined to prefer Mr. Pinckney. And, though partial to Hamilton, he was very reluctant to wound the feelings of General Knox.
In the midst of these doubts, Mr. Pickering and Mr. McHenry, in conjunction with other friends of Mr. Hamilton, set in motion the most extraordinary influences to bring about the result they desired. To General Washington, in retirement at Mount Vernon, they represented that the federalists in congress and in the country demanded the elevation of Hamilton. To the Senate, at Philadelphia, they urged that this was the cherished wish of Washington. These movements were successful so far as to make the accidental order of the names, as ratified, appear to convey an intention to determine the rank; but this was not enough of itself to counteract the legal force of the precedents setting the other way. Some direct act of the President would be necessary, after all, or the design would fail of accomplishment. It was at last obtained, by operating upon the strong prejudices of General Washington. In the casual conversations in the cabinet upon the organization of the army, Mr. Adams had let drop some intimations of a wish to give a share of the commissions to leading military men of the opposition. Among the names mentioned by him of suitable persons, were those of Aaron Burr, and Peter Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania. Knowing the strong dislike of the first entertained by Washington, intimations were soon given to him of the tendencies of the President, and of the possibility that he might, if he did not anticipate the danger by a firm demand of the list of nominations exactly in the order presented by himself, be liable to have Burr forced upon him as quartermaster-general, or in some other confidential post.1 These representations wrought upon Washington so far as to bring forth the desired peremptory request, attended with a menace of resignation in failure of immediate compliance, an act so little in consonance with the general spirit of Washington’s life and relations to the President, as at once to imply the existence of some unusual influence to produce it. The contrivers of this measure were not mistaken in their calculations of its success. Mr. Adams gave way. He referred the decision to the pleasure of General Washington, who promoted Hamilton. General Knox refused to accept his commission in consequence. General Pinckney, on the contrary, acquiesced.
Every thing seemed at last to settle down according to the wishes of the cabinet. The first actual conflict between them and their nominal chief had ended in their triumph. They began to think their power established. Washington’s place, they foresaw, would be but a pageant; and that the virtual command of the new army, carrying with it the direction, in conjunction with them, of the future policy of the nation, would henceforth centre in the hands of their real leader, Alexander Hamilton. It was, indeed, a great victory; but it was of that class which is the forerunner of greater defeats. Mr. Adams opened his eyes to the nature of the situation to which it was about to reduce him. He keenly felt the circumstances of duresse under which this result had been brought upon him, and he foresaw, in the motives that prompted the act, that it was only a prelude to worse things. From this time may be dated the beginning of his distrust of his ministers and of his determination to resist their control.
Whilst these things were passing in the interior of the cabinet, Mr. Adams, with the earnest eloquence of his nature, was responding to innumerable addresses poured in upon him from all quarters of the land, and, in his turn, animating his countrymen to stand by their rulers in the trial to which the follies of a foreign government were subjecting them. The effect of the grand burst of enthusiasm that had been elicited, lost none of its imposing character in the distance at which it was seen from the other side of the ocean. The Directory perceived that a mistake had been made, which had had the effect of exposing them to ridicule in Europe, and of annihilating their influence in America. They at once disavowed the agents who had appeared so industrious to effect their designs upon the pockets of the nation, by working on the fears of the commissioners, and quietly set in motion new means of recovering lost ground. The evidences of this change in their policy reached the President long after he had retired for the summer to his farm at Quincy. The gradual effect which the reception of them, from time to time, produced upon his mind, it is of the utmost importance to a clear knowledge of the subsequent events, to trace with some minuteness.
It was one of the most gloomy seasons in Mr. Adams’s life. His house was not, as he had generally known it, a refuge from harassing cares, a resource against public anxieties, a fountain at once of vivacity and of affectionate sympathy, a treasury of judicious and faithful counsels. Mrs. Adams lay stretched on the bed of illness, for a long time flickering between life and death; and even when issuing from the trial, but slowly dispelling the uneasiness her frail condition could not but awaken. In the midst of his domestic sadness came up the serious consideration of his public situation. For the first time, in connection with the movements of Mr. Hamilton and his friends, he now understood the dangers which impended over him. Although not by any means acquainted with the whole truth, he saw enough to understand the nature of the expedients resorted to for the purpose of controlling his will. He had had more than one occasion to feel that his cabinet officers were effective instruments to this end, and that he could place little reliance upon them for the execution of his own wishes. Yet he was to be exposed to the world and to posterity as the responsible instrument to execute a policy, in framing which no discretion was to be allowed him. Already the outline, so far as it had been developed, alarmed him. It involved demands on the public purse which he saw no means of supplying, without risk of convulsions, and the establishment of a permanent military organization, the necessity for which he could not understand. Above all, his instincts warned him, in no dubious tones, that the extraordinary management resorted to for the purpose of placing Mr. Hamilton at the head of this great power, was designed certainly to give to him, and in certain contingencies, perhaps, to the country itself, a master.
Whilst agitated by these doubts, letters from Francisco de Miranda arrived. They were skilfully drawn to have an effect. They set forth the project, which had been listened to by Great Britain, and solicited the coöperation of the American government in its execution. They held out the idea, not likely to be inoperative on the supposed weak points of Mr. Adams, that the institutions to be given to the South American States, in case of success, were to be formed after the model which he had labored so strenuously in his writings to recommend. And they closed by representing the arrangements to be now so far perfected, that upon his answer to the present application would the execution depend. Of the deep and intimate connection of this scheme with the system of Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Adams then had no suspicion. He knew, indeed, that by the same channel which conveyed this dispatch, letters had been received both by Generals Hamilton and Knox; but he had no idea of the extent to which they might be enlisted in carrying it out. There can now be no doubt that Colonel Pickering, Mr. Wolcott, and Mr. McHenry knew more about it than they cared to disclose; and that the main features of the plan were familiar to Mr. Hamilton’s friends in both houses of congress. Why was it that, under these circumstances, this important operation had no issue? The answer is to be found in the situation of Mr. Adams. No one of the parties engaged was willing to take the risk of communicating to him the whole truth. Under these circumstances, he acted upon the application in the most simple and summary way possible. “We are friends with Spain,” said he, in a letter to the Secretary of State. “If we were enemies, would the project be useful to us? It will not be in character for me to answer the letter. Will any notice of it, in any manner, be proper?” The Secretary never ventured to answer the questions; and the grand plan thus perished by inanition. Indeed, other events were approaching which soon put all notion of prosecuting it with the consent of Mr. Adams entirely out of the question.
On the 1st of October, 1798, Elbridge Gerry arrived in Boston, on his return from the unfortunate mission to France. Although by no means satisfied with the course which he had thought it proper to take, in remaining after his colleagues left Paris, Mr. Adams had in no degree suffered his confidence in the integrity of his old friend to be impaired. He therefore welcomed him home as cordially as ever, and showed himself prepared to listen with a favoring ear to any arguments he might have to offer in his justification. It proved the less difficult for Mr. Gerry to relieve himself from censure that he was able to communicate to him good reasons for believing that his stay had not been without its measure of utility. He narrated the last movements of Talleyrand, his earnestness to retain him for the sake of commencing a negotiation, and his professions of regret at his determination to depart, all furnishing to him symptoms of a softening on the part of the French Directory, and of a wish, at least in part, to retrace their steps.1 These communications were received by the President in a friendly spirit to the maker, but with a very natural distrust of the grounds upon which they had been based.2
Not a week elapsed, however, before intelligence came from a new and a wholly different quarter, to make upon him a deeper and much more abiding impression. This was received from Mr. Murray, the minister of the United States in Holland.3 It disclosed clearly enough the uneasiness of France at the danger of an approximation of her opponents in other countries towards Great Britain, her most formidable enemy. Here was visible a new motive for the sudden change of intentions which Mr. Gerry thought he had perceived before his departure, and a sufficient reason for waiting to learn more. These dispatches of Mr. Murray, though sent through the Department of State, were not to be deposited there, as they involved the names and characters of persons in Holland, whose safety might be seriously implicated by exposure. This is a material fact in the narrative, and its bearing will appear presently. The contents of them were, however, well known to Colonel Pickering, and perhaps to other members of the cabinet.
Revolving these various communications in his mind during his retirement at Quincy, Mr. Adams could not resist the belief that a possibility yet existed of averting the calamity of war. In this spirit, he addressed a letter, on the 20th of October,4 to Colonel Pickering, the Secretary of State. Reminding him of the approach of the session of congress, he proceeded to lay before him some thoughts which, in his opinion, deserved to be maturely considered, and upon which he requested early efforts to obtain the advice of the other cabinet officers. They were comprised in two propositions, as follows:—
The first, whether it would be expedient for the President to recommend a declaration of war.
The second, whether any further proposals of negotiation could be made with safety, or any new envoy named, prepared to embark, in case assurances should be given that he would be received.
The symptoms of hesitation, visible in the second question, and still more so in the reasoning of the letter, seem to have burst like a clap of thunder over the heads of the cabinet officers. No answer to either question, or sign of recognition of its existence, was ever returned. The experiment of overruling the President, which had succeeded so well in the case of Mr. Hamilton, was now changed into a fixed policy. Of their system, war was an essential part. In his message to congress of the 21st of June, Mr. Adams had pledged himself “that he would never send another minister to France, without assurances that he would be received.” To that pledge, in its most rigid sense, they resolved to hold him; and, warned by this signal, they set themselves at once to prepare such a form of words for his adoption at the opening of the session, as should leave him no loophole for retreat. Some of them had fixed their minds on a declaration of war. To act with more force, they called together a council of their leading friends, including the military generals happening to be assembled at Philadelphia, Washington,1 Hamilton, and Pinckney, where they matured the language of a draft intended for the use of Mr. Adams in his opening speech, the duty of offering which was devolved upon the person then supposed to be personally most agreeable to him, Mr. Oliver Wolcott.
There is no reason to suppose that when Mr. Adams arrived2 at Philadelphia in the last days of November, 1798, he had the smallest suspicion of what was awaiting him, or of the severity of the trial to which his firmness was to be put. He had seen in the newspapers, on his way, indications of a disposition in some quarters to push for a declaration of war, but he had not regarded them as proving any settled purpose. In this spirit he met the members of his cabinet. The two questions presented in his letter of the 20th of October, of which no notice had been taken, were now formally brought forward by him. No one ventured to suggest an immediate declaration of war, as the President not only did not propose it, but his opinion was clearly seen to be adverse; some of the members were themselves not ready for it; so it was tacitly agreed to leave all notice of the subject out of the speech. The great struggle was upon the other question; to wit, whether any circumstances would justify a renewal of negotiations by the United States. Mr. Adams leaned to the affirmative. He required, however, the manifestation of the strongest evidence of sincerity on the part of France as a preliminary condition. The paragraph which he prepared, expressive of his sentiment, yet remains among his papers.1 Whether it was offered at this cabinet meeting is not positively known, though altogether probable. There is evidence that the Secretary of State, at least, had had it communicated to him. It explicitly declared the President’s disposition to send a minister to France or to receive one from there, whenever the assurances required in his former message of the 21st of June should be forthcoming. If it was submitted at this meeting, the fact that it was not adopted, shows that there was no inclination in the President to be tenacious about terms. On the other hand, the draft which had been prepared in the council already mentioned, and presented by Mr. Wolcott for his acceptance, proved generally satisfactory to him. He concurred in its recommendations, and consented to adopt it, but with the exception of a single passage, to the language of which he demurred. That passage stood thus:—
“In demonstrating by our conduct that we do not fear war in the necessary protection of our rights and honor, we shall give no room to infer that we abandon the desire of peace. This has been wisely and perseveringly cultivated, and as between us and France, harmony may be reëstablished at her option.
“But the sending another minister to make a new attempt atnegotiation would, in my opinion,1be an act of humiliation to which the United States ought not to submit without extreme necessity. No such necessity exists. It must, therefore, be left with France, if she be indeed desirous of accommodation, to take the requisite steps. The United States adhere to the maxims by which they have been governed. They will sacredly respect the rights of embassy. Their magnanimity discards the policy of retaliating insult in bar of the avenues to peace, and if France shall send a minister to negotiate, he will be received with honor and treated with candor.”
The purport of this language could not be mistaken. It was intended to put an opinion in the mouth of the President which would cut him off from the possibility of initiating a mission, no matter what might be the change of disposition in France. And it proposed to require the government of that country to originate the measure, which there was very little probability that it would do, in the attitude in which it then stood towards Europe. It was the United States who were mainly suffering by the continuance of the misunderstanding. Their commerce was the prey of France, who, in return, had no assailable equivalent exposed to reprisal. To require such a condition, was therefore little short of insisting upon an indefinite duration of their own grievances, and a war on a mere point of form into the bargain. The President declined to commit himself to any such extent. The first open struggle of his administration took place. His advisers insisted upon the adoption of the passage, some of them with great warmth and pertinacity. This moment was to decide whether Mr. Adams was yet to stand in history the same man who had determined to defend Captain Preston, the same man who had been avoided in the streets of Philadelphia for urging independence, the same man who in Holland and in France had set aside the dictation of Count de Vergennes, or a mere cipher in the most critical period and the most responsible position known in the annals of the nation. The course he took may be readily conjectured, if this narrative thus far has been anywise successful in tracing the outlines of his character. He persevered in requiring a modification, small in extent, it is true, but significant enough to answer the purpose. His version, as it stands in the speech actually pronounced, reads as follows:—
“But in demonstrating by our conduct that we do not fear war in the necessary protection of our rights and honor, we shall give no room to infer that we abandon the desire of peace. An efficient preparation for war can alone insure peace. It is peace that we have uniformly and perseveringly cultivated; and harmony between us and France may be restored at her option. But to send another minister without more determinate assurances that he would be received, would be an act of humiliation to which the United States ought not to submit. It must, therefore, be left to France, if she is indeed desirous of accommodation, to take the requisite steps.
“The United States will steadily observe the maxims by which they have hitherto been governed. They will respect the sacred rights of embassy. And with a sincere disposition on the part of France to desist from hostility, to make reparation for the injuries heretofore inflicted on our commerce, and to do justice in future, there will be no obstacle to the restoration of a friendly intercourse. In making to you this declaration, I give a pledge to France and to the world that the executive authority of this country still adheres to the humane and pacific policy which has invariably governed its proceedings, in conformity with the wishes of the other branches of the government, and of the people of the United States. But considering the late manifestations of her policy towards foreign nations, I deem it a duty deliberately and solemnly to declare my opinion, that, whether we negotiate with her or not, vigorous preparations for war will be alike indispensable. These alone will give us an equal treaty and insure its observance.”
A comparison of the two passages will show the significance of Mr. Adams’s alteration to consist more in what he expunges than what he inserts. The clause, exacting from France the initiation of a new mission as a preliminary step to peace, wholly disappears, and there remains only a requirement of acts to prove a pacific disposition, the withdrawal of hostility, and the readiness to do justice both for the past and for the future. Negotiation was therefore made to depend upon the actual return of good faith in France, and not upon any particular mode of showing it. And although preparation for war was still strenuously insisted upon, the duration of it was made contingent only upon her persistence in refusing the most equitable propositions. Unobjectionable as this statement of a national position seems to the eye of reason and of Christian charity, it was received by the cabinet officers with the most gloomy forebodings. Mournfully did they retire from the conference, under a conviction that their plan had failed, and that their official, meant to be likewise their real President, after all.
The speech was made to congress on the 8th of December, 1798, in presence of Generals Washington, Hamilton, and Pinckney, then assembled at Philadelphia for the work of organizing the army, and of all the principal officers of the government. It was brief and manly in its terms, reviewing the state of the relations with the powers of Europe, and inculcating the necessity of energy and union under the embarrassments with which the nation had to contend. The only important recommendation was one touching the extension of the navy. This, which was Mr. Adams’s favorite policy, he proposed to develop to a size sufficient to guard the coast, and protect the trade of the country, as well as to facilitate the safe transportation of troops and stores from any one point of the seaboard to every other. Upon this issue, the opposition chose to take the broadest ground of resistance; so that the navy became one of the chief topics of dissension during this administration. And here, Mr. Adams’s individual opinions were in perfect harmony with all sections of the party he represented.
But in other points, where no such agreement existed, the failure to control the executive in regard to the possible renewal of negotiations with France, precipitated matters to an issue. No longer sure of overbearing Mr. Adams, through his cabinet, the friends of Mr. Hamilton immediately turned their eyes to congress, in the expectation that an appeal to them might avail, and that a majority could be persuaded to dictate to him their policy as the sentiment of the whole party. A meeting was accordingly summoned; and the members, now largely preponderating in both Houses, very generally attended it. Here the expediency of making a declaration of war was urged, and warmly and perseveringly pressed. But although many of the most brilliant orators appeared to favor it, their eloquence could not avail to effect the object. A small majority decided the point against them. The result was defeat; and a consciousness on the part of Mr. Hamilton’s adherents, that, from this time, they must consider themselves as not possessed of the ascendant in the party counsels, and that the future course was not to be one exclusively of their suggesting.1
Of course it followed, according to all recognized notions in political associations, that the minority, having been fairly outvoted, was bound to do one of two things, either to acquiesce or to secede. And if the case was not deemed important enough to justify the latter step, then it was no more than just to adopt the former cheerfully. Since war was put out of the question, it seemed the part of wisdom to unite, so far as practicable, in the intermediate policy. To this, however, the friends of Mr. Hamilton manifested but little inclination. On the contrary, their failure was rather the signal for laying aside further reserve towards him whom they considered as the cause of it. In this course the Secretary of State took the lead. Far from respecting the confidential nature of his post, he had never hesitated, when he pleased, to exert his influence secretly to counteract the President’s wishes. This had been strikingly exemplified in the case of Colonel William Stephens Smith, Mr. Adams’s son-in-law, whom General Washington had placed in his list of general officers, and whom the President had nominated to the Senate for an appointment. Taking advantage of his confidential knowledge of the President’s intention, Colonel Pickering hastened to the Senate, privately to rouse, in advance, the necessary opposition to defeat it. The same vindictiveness was repeated at a later period, without, however, being then attended with the same success. It now flamed forth, in a vehement manner, against Mr. Elbridge Gerry.2 Not satisfied with preparing an official report upon his dispatches, so harsh in its character as to call forth the positive interposition of Mr. Adams requiring a modification of its language, he extended his annoyance to the point of disputing the petty items of his pecuniary accounts. Towards Mr. Adams himself he continued only the forms of civility, which did not restrain him from disregarding his wishes, neglecting his injunctions, and, among his circle of intimates, disparaging both his acts and his conversation. Thus it was that, when officially requested, on the 15th of January, 1799, to prepare the draft of a project of a treaty and a consular convention, such as the United States might accept, if proposed by France, Colonel Pickering seems to have passed it over without notice. Thus it was that the reflections in his report, bearing upon Mr. Gerry, were not modified without a stubborn resistance. The same state of things, though in a far less degree, prevailed in Mr. Adams’s relations with the secretaries of the treasury and of war. His familiar talk, never sufficiently guarded, was watched only to be reported for the purpose of fastening inconsistency upon his public action. His wishes were liable to become known abroad, and neutralized by anticipation, if never openly resisted in words. Mutual confidence could not long survive such a state of things. Although not fully alive to the extent of the combination in his cabinet with a power outside of it, such as it has been but very lately disclosed, he yet instinctively felt that he was no longer among friends. Hence that, if any public act should be absolutely demanded on his part, the execution of it would depend only upon the degree in which he could make his unaided individual energies overbear all opposition.
It has been remarked that the policy of the federalists of the Hamilton school was war; that of a portion of them, aggressive war. The motives to it were twofold. 1. The preponderance which an appeal to the patriotic feeling of the people was giving to the party. 2. The great military organization which it was throwing into their hands. With the aid of these forces, they trusted to procure modifications in the laws, and even in the constitution itself,1 so to fortify their position in the government as in time to render it inexpugnable by the opposition. A calm examination of this whole theory, and a comparison of it with the temper of the American people, can scarcely fail at this day to convince any one how visionary, not to say indiscreet, such ideas really were. They were never even remotely shared by Mr. Adams. He roused the country to war, solely as a measure of defence, and to deter France from further persevering in her aggressions. The first appearance of relaxation on her part, far from being hailed by him with misgivings and aversion, was watched with interest, though naturally not unmingled with distrust. At the opening of the session, nothing had occurred to justify in his mind any change of his position taken in June preceding. On the other hand, enough had appeared to forbid the propriety of going one step further, and cutting off even a chance of reconciliation.
In this state things remained during a considerable portion of the session of 1798-1799. Mr. Adams, in the mean time, continued to receive communications of a very interesting nature from Mr. Murray, all of them tending to prove a real change in the French policy. On the 21st of January, the terms of the Directory’s answer to the Dutch offer of mediation reached his hands. They declared that the disposition of the French to reconciliation had been already unmistakably made known at Philadelphia, and they imposed upon the government of the United States the responsibility of the consequences, if it should persist in misconstruing or repulsing it. This paper, decisive enough, had it emanated from any government of unimpaired character, was yet worthy of some consideration, if viewed simply as a stroke of crafty diplomacy. It threw the burden of perpetuating a quarrel from the French upon the American side. Nothing sustained the administration of Mr. Adams so firmly as the popular conviction that the blame lay wholly with France, and that no measures of hostility had been resorted to until every hope of peace had been exhausted. The knowledge that France had made specific offers to modify her offensive policy, and that the offers had met with no attention, would soon be spread abroad by her friends,1 and would scarcely fail to renew the strength of opposition. These were strong considerations for at least listening to the proposals. Yet they were not decisive; for they could not be said to contain such assurances as would warrant a departure from the memorable pledge given by the President in his message of the 21st of June.
Ten days later, however, something came of a much more positive character. A letter from Mr. Murray was received, in which he narrated the particulars of his interviews with M. Pichon, the French agent at the Hague, respecting the nature of the assurances required by the terms of that message. Difficulties of form were interposed. But they had been at last somewhat skilfully surmounted by the preparation, on the part of M. Talleyrand, of a dispatch, addressed to M. Pichon, in which, whilst reiterating the professions of a desire to come to a good understanding with America, he managed to introduce a promise, in the very words that had been used by the President, to wit, that a new envoy, if sent, would be “received as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation.” This dispatch, thus prepared, was placed in the hands of M. Pichon to be by him delivered to Mr. Murray, and by him, in turn, transmitted to the government of the United States.
The receipt of this paper filled up the measure of Mr. Adams’s responsibility to his country. The question, and an immensely important one, both to his fellow-citizens and to himself, was how it should be met. Should he refuse to do any thing? In that case the burden of all the evil consequences to the country would fall upon himself alone. He might have averted them, had he only acted. Such an idea would ever recur to poison the quiet of his remaining life, and to spoil the remembrance of past sacrifices and services. No! He could not stand still. Clearly, something was to be done.
Then the question followed, what he should do.
Should he call his cabinet into his consultation, and prepare them for the adoption of a new measure of negotiation?
If he did take this, which was obviously, under common circumstances, the proper course, there were strong grounds for believing that all his efforts would be defeated, and come to nothing. Of Colonel Pickering’s views and feelings, even with the full knowledge of Mr. Murray’s communications, he had every reason to be sure beforehand. Experience had already warned him of the fate which the slightest intimation of an offer to revive a mission to France was likely to meet.1 The presentation of it in the cabinet would lead to a warm protest, and to the necessity of either persevering against an opposition profiting of the tactics of delay to become concerted in the Senate, or of abandoning the measure altogether. Judging from subsequent events, there can be little doubt that in these views of probabilities Mr. Adams’s foresight was correct. Party passions had reached such a height, that if he had pursued any ordinary course, it is nearly certain his decision would have been overruled, and his influence ever afterwards annihilated.
No greater trial has ever yet befallen a chief magistrate of the United States. None greater ever befell Mr. Adams, and yet this narrative has shown that he had not been without severe ones. But his convictions of duty were never more clear. War impended over the country, and a chance was yet left to avert it. He was bound not to permit that chance, however slight, to escape. He meditated the means in his own secret heart. There was but one way. He ought to send to the Senate a communication nominating a minister to go to France; and the person must be the individual through whom the overtures for accommodation had been transmitted, William Vans Murray, now minister at the Hague. On the 18th of February, accordingly, the members of the Senate, not one of whom had a suspicion of what was coming, were astounded by the reception of a message from the President, covering the dispatch of Talleyrand to M. Pichon, as the motive to his decision to nominate Mr. Murray. The terms used by him were most carefully guarded in every particular, assuming no risk in trusting too readily the professions of M. Talleyrand, and providing that no advance should be made beyond the appointment, until further assurances, the most unequivocal, should be publicly and officially given by France that the minister now nominated would be honorably received.
It would be difficult, were it within the proper limits of this work, fully to describe the mixed and opposite emotions with which this proceeding was received by the members of the Senate. A large majority of them were now federalists, the greater part, devoted friends of Mr. Hamilton. But Mr. Jefferson, the chief of the opposition, was its presiding officer, and under him yet rallied the small band of his friends who had survived the political tornado of the preceding year. All were equally astonished. The letters of Mr. Murray to the President had been, for the sake of the persons compromised in Holland, kept within the knowledge of very few. And even some of those few had their own reasons for not aiding to give them publicity. They knew and feared the tendency of the President’s mind, and had been endeavoring to counteract it by efforts to commit him, so far as they could, before the public, to their own views. Hence it happened that, in the absence of all acquaintance with the true grounds of the nomination, the wildest conjectures were let loose. “Is Mr. Adams mad?” asked a federal senator of Colonel Pickering, the Secretary of State, who affected greater ignorance than he really had. On the one hand, Mr. Jefferson, the Vice-President, was full of suspicions that the President had kept back Talleyrand’s letter for months, in order to let the war measures go on; and that, finding himself compelled to disclose it at last, he had done so only to let the Senate reject it.1 Whilst the Secretary of State, on the other, exultingly vindictive, informed General Washington, three days after the event, “that the President was suffering the torments of the damned at the consequences of his nomination.”
By way of set-off against these opposite speculations, and to show how Mr. Adams actually felt, it may be as well here to introduce two private letters of his, written to his wife at the very time these gentlemen were penning their epistles. Intermixed with some comments upon matters of no public interest, are these remarks upon the memorable act.
“I have no idea that I shall be chosen President a second time; though this is not to be talked of. The business of the office is so oppressive that I shall hardly support it two years longer.
“To-night I must go to the ball; where I suppose I shall get a cold, and have to eat gruel for breakfast for a week afterwards. This will be no punishment.
“Since my nomination of Murray I have been advised by some to name my son John and Mr. King, with Mr. Murray. But I answer that the nomination of either Mr. King or Mr. Adams would probably defeat the whole measure. Rivalries have been irritated to madness, and federalists have merited the Sedition Law, and Cobbet the Alien Bill. But I will not take revenge. I do not remember that I was ever vindictive in my life, though I have often been very wroth. I am not very angry now, nor much vexed or fretted. The mission came across the views of many, and stirred the passions of more. This I knew was unavoidable. The reasons which determined me are too long to be written.”
Of his anxieties he writes in these words:—
“Your sickness last summer, fall, and winter has been to me the severest trial I ever endured. Not that I am at this moment without other trials, enough for one man. I may adopt the words of a celebrated statesman, whom, however, I should not wish to resemble in many things. ‘And now, good judge,’ says he, ‘let me ask you, whether you believe that my situation in the world is perfectly as I could wish it; whether you imagine that I meet with no shock from my superiors, no perverseness from my equals, no impertinence from my inferiors. If you fancy me in such a state of bliss, you are wide from the mark!’ ”
The following thoughts were called out by private matters, but they equally elucidate the state of his mind.
“Frederick, Franklin, and other soi-disant philosophers insist that nature contrives these things, with others, to reconcile men to the thought of quitting the world. If my philosophy was theirs, I should believe that nature cared nothing for men, nor their follies, nor their miseries, nor for herself. She is a mighty stupid wretch, according to them; a kind of French woman, sometimes beautiful and clever, but very often diabolical; a kind of French republic, cunning and terrible, but cruel as the grave, and unjust as the tempter and tormentor.
“I believe nothing like this of nature, which to me is a machine whose author and conductor is wise, kind, and mighty. Believing this, I can acquiesce in what is unpleasant, expecting that it will work out a greater degree of good. If it were possible that I should be mistaken, I at least shall not be worse off than these profound philosophers. I shall be in the same case hereafter, and a little, a great deal better here.”
Among other modes of binding the President to a policy he was thought not to favor, one had been resorted to by the Secretary of State, which has already been mentioned in another connection. This was to draw up an official report, embracing a summary of the negotiations with France, into which the severe strictures upon the conduct of Mr. Gerry, that roused objections on the part of Mr. Adams, were introduced. The incidental matter had occupied so much of his attention, and the effort to modify it had become so exclusively an object, that he seems to have suffered the other portions of the document to pass almost without notice. Construing this as approbation of every thing that he did not censure, Colonel Pickering afterwards labored to fix upon Mr. Adams a charge of inconsistency between his action at that time and his nomination of Mr. Murray a month later. Feeble as the reasoning is, to justify so violent a presumption, the following letter, written at the moment, sufficiently disposes of it, by showing three things; first, that he saw no necessity for the paper at all; secondly, that his approbation of it, when prepared, was quite dubious even after the required changes had been made in it; and, lastly, that even that share which he gave, had been modified by the reception, soon afterwards, of evidence enfeebling its positions. Thus he deals with the subject, in the letter just quoted. Mrs. Adams had been quite sick.
“The report was not at last as it should have been. But it is very different from the report made to me. I scratched out, a little. I wanted no report. In short, it is one of those things that I may talk of when I see you. After I sent that report to congress, I received a letter, which has favored Mr. Gerry’s opinion and made against the report.
“I have instituted a new mission, which is kept in the dark, but when it comes to be understood, it will be approved. O! how they lament Mrs. Adams’s absence! She is a good counsellor! If she had been here, Murray would never have been named, nor his mission instituted!
“This ought to gratify your vanity enough to cure you!”
These letters illustrate the difficulties under which Mr. Adams labored within his cabinet, in the effort to maintain his own views of policy and duty. The majority of the Senate was not disinclined to arrogate a share of control over him. After two days of delay, the nomination of Mr. Murray was referred to a committee of five persons, all of them federalists. Of this committee, Mr. Theodore Sedgwick was chairman, who had already sent off to Mr. Hamilton a request for instructions what to do. In the mean time its members determined on the extraordinary step of personally visiting the President, to learn the reasons, if he had any, for the measure, and to obtain alterations equivalent to an entire abandonment of it. Such was the temper of the impetuous class. Perpetually indulging the hope of overruling the judgment of their chief, they fancied that a display of senatorial authority might be sufficiently imposing to prompt a voluntary withdrawal of his act, and save them the necessity of voting upon it. The chief agent, who records this, was likewise the person who but eight years before had warmly commended, for his “unconquerable intrepidity,” the very man upon whom he was about to try this crucial experiment.
Mr. Adams met this proceeding with far more moderation than it merited.1 He very properly protested against it as an attempt to dictate to a coördinate department, but, upon assurances being given that no official shape should attach to the results of the conference, he consented to a free conversation with the gentlemen. The result did not, however, correspond with their expectations. Mr. Adams proved quite impracticable. “I have, on mature reflection,” said he to them, “made up my mind, and I will neither withdraw nor modify the nomination.” Yet perceiving them disposed to transfer their objections from the mission itself to the person named by him to fill it, he did nevertheless make a corresponding change in his position. Should the Senate think proper to decide against Mr. Murray, he suggested the possibility that he might then propose to join with him in a commission two other individuals, who should be sent from the United States whenever the requisite assurances should be obtained that they would be favorably received. This step Mr. Stoddert, his Secretary of the Navy, in a letter written to Mr. Adams some years afterwards, characterized as wise, but, in his opinion, as derogating from his personal dignity. But it is not easy to understand how any proposal that is truly wise is likely to be wanting in dignity. In this case, it would seem rather to have been a very just discrimination between firmness and obstinacy, between adherence to the substance and concession in the form. The very fact that his visitors consented to enter into the second question, raised the strongest implication of their surrender of opposition to the first.
In point of fact, the objections to Mr. Murray were such as senators might legitimately entertain, and as were not without intrinsic weight. The President’s reasons for selecting him are obvious enough. He was already in Europe, where he had been resorted to by the French government as the medium of opening their communications with America. Of course they would be precluded from raising objections to further negotiations with the person of their voluntary choice, or, if they did, his testimony as to what had already passed would furnish to the world the strongest evidence of their bad faith. Yet reasonable as were these grounds, and unexceptionable as was Mr. Murray himself, it cannot be denied that his position in the United States had not been so prominent as to justify laying exclusively upon his shoulders so heavy a responsibility. In proposing to join him with two other men of great weight of character, Mr. Adams did exactly what the country would have required of him, and rendered all further opposition to his policy impossible. The committee retired, having gained nothing but the opportunity to reject Mr. Murray, without taking the responsibility of defeating the mission. A meeting of the federal senators was held at the house of Mr. Bingham, at which this step was finally resolved upon. But even this poor satisfaction was denied to them. For the President, learning the result of their consultations in season, and construing it as a decisive expression of opinion, anticipated their formal action, by sending a new message early the next morning, joining Oliver Ellsworth, chief justice of the supreme court, and Patrick Henry, of Virginia, in the commission with Mr. Murray, and attaching the conditions which he had mentioned in his conference with the committee. This act was decisive. The reluctant senators had in the mean time received an answer from Mr. Hamilton, warning them that a rejection of the measure was utterly out of the question, and proposing no amendment beyond an enlargement of the commission, such as was now voluntarily offered. Every objection was thus removed, and nothing was left to the remonstrants but to ratify with the best grace they could.1 Yet, singularly enough, as if the judgment of Mr. Adams was ever to stand approved before posterity, the only one of the three nominations which appears on the record as unanimously confirmed, is exactly that which had been objected to, that of William Vans Murray.
Such is the history of this, the most noted event of Mr. Adams’s administration. The news of it spread rapidly over the nation. People received it with various and opposite feelings. Some rejoiced, not because they hoped the country might be benefited, but rather that the opposition would be helped. Some mourned, not because the country would, in their opinion, suffer from it, so much as for fear lest the federalists should be shaken by the appearance of dissension. Mr. Jefferson exulted in the idea that “the nomination silenced all arguments against the sincerity of France, and rendered desperate every further effort towards war,” neither of which propositions would have been true, had France persevered, instead of changing her policy. Mr. Hamilton and his friends, on the other hand, inveighed against the act as a fatal and dishonest desertion of a settled policy, which required war at least until the time when the French should publicly sue for peace. Neither was this true, the moment after France ceased to show a disposition to provoke a war. Between these hypotheses lay the narrow path which Mr. Adams had marked out for himself. Ready for war, if France continued faithless, he was not less ready for peace the moment she showed signs of returning reason.
Great, indeed, was the responsibility of the course he took, and heavily would his name have been burdened in after ages, had the event failed to correspond to his expectations. As it actually turned out, there can be no question that the country was rescued from a false step, the consequences of which, in the view of the long wars that afflicted the Christian world, the imagination is baffled in attempting to define. In determining his course, Mr. Adams could confidently count upon no support, unless it was from that inert conscience of the quiet and moderate classes, which never approves but with reserve, or commends without qualification; a conscience, the voice of which, most loud when there is the least necessity for its exercise, is too apt to be frightened into silence in the noise and bustle of factions, when it might do the most good. But even that voice could not now be immediately commanded, since the materials for judgment were not yet before the people. As they gradually made their way, the effects became visible. The moderate federalism of the Middle and Southern States first came up to his support. The only two members of his cabinet who represented it, now ranged themselves decidedly with the President, and in opposition to their colleagues. Patrick Henry applauded the act, although obliged for personal reasons to decline his place in the new embassy. It was equally sustained by the person substituted, Governor Davie, of North Carolina. John Marshall, the leading mind of the rejected mission, as well as the pillar of his party in Virginia, signified his decided approbation. Jay was startled into doubts by the vehemence of the condemnations passed by his friends, whilst Knox, and Lincoln, and Dexter, and many others, less known but equally decided representatives of federal opinions, rallied in his defence. The consequence was, that in a short time all direct attacks upon Mr. Adams for originating a negotiation became futile. The efforts to defeat it were not, however, pretermitted. They now took the indirect shape of procrastination, in the hope, by that means, of bringing it ultimately to nothing. And so well were they concerted, that a will less determined than that of Mr. Adams would scarcely have availed to prevent their success.
And here it must be conceded that a great error was committed by the President. Weary with the conflicts of the session, and anxious to return to the only spot in which he really took delight, his home and his farm, he waited at Philadelphia just long enough to mature with his cabinet the points fixed as ultimata, in case the negotiations with France should be renewed, and to prepare the papers required to meet a popular outbreak against the direct tax, in one or two counties of Pennsylvania, before he took his departure for the summer. General Washington had been in the habit of doing the same thing, it is true; but Mr. Adams would have done well to remember that his authority, when absent, was not at all to be compared with his predecessor’s, and that, great as it was, even that had not always been respected by some of the cabinet. And if this had happened with Washington, when there was no want of general unison in his counsels, how much more likely was it to occur now that marked lines of difference were drawn. In truth, this would have been the time to come at once to an understanding with his counsellors, as to the footing upon which they were to stand with him for the future. He had a right to demand from them, what a later incumbent in the same office, General Jackson, did from his cabinet, with energy and success, that is, either a hearty general coöperation in one policy, or an opportunity to replace them with persons who would promise it. Had he known the true state of things, there is no reason to doubt that he would have now done what he did after he partially discovered it. But as yet he retained some confidence in the good faith of his ministers. He knew their sentiments, and understood the nature of their connections, but he saw nothing in all this to prevent them from joining, with good-will, in executing his wishes. Too much trust in the honesty of others was the source of the mistakes which did the most to injure his reputation in his lifetime. It gave repeated opportunities for acts of treachery on the part of correspondents, to whom, in the confidence of friendship, he had written unguarded letters; and it at this time presented to his confidential officers an irresistible temptation to wield, without stint, the power in their hands, for the express purpose of controlling his plans and defeating his policy.1
It will be recollected that notwithstanding Talleyrand’s assurances given in the letter to M. Pichon, the messages to the Senate, nominating the ministers, contained a further provision, guarding against a repetition of the treatment experienced by the former commission. They were not to go to France until direct pledges, from the French minister of foreign relations, that they would be received and treated with in character, should have been received. Of course, this interposed months of delay. On the 6th of March, the Secretary of State was instructed to inform Mr. Murray that a literal execution of this condition must be insisted upon; that no indirect or unofficial communication of any kind would be permitted, and no variation of the designated policy listened to, with a single exception, in case the Directory should themselves prefer to send out a minister to Philadelphia. Mr. Murray did not receive his instructions until May. On the 5th of that month, he addressed to M. Talleyrand a note giving the substance of them. Talleyrand replied on the 12th, by explicitly repeating the assurances which had been required, and somewhat querulously complaining of the delays, which, as nobody knew better than he, the bad spirit betrayed in previous transactions had been the only reason for interposing. Mr. Murray at once forwarded this paper; but owing to the slow transmission across the water customary in those days, his dispatches did not arrive in America until the 30th of July.
The next day, the Secretary of State sent M. Talleyrand’s note to the President at Quincy, with a comment, which overlooked the substantial concession it contained, to dwell on the language that might be construed as offensive. The President, on the other hand, saw in it only a change of policy, no matter what the motive that prompted it, and disregarded every thing else. His reply to Mr. Pickering contains these words, which comprehensively define his whole line of policy:—
“Still they (the French) shall find, as long as I am in office, candor, integrity, and, as far as there can be any confidence or safety, a pacific and friendly disposition. If the spirit of exterminating vengeance ever arises, it shall be conjured up by them, not me. In this spirit I shall pursue the negotiation, and I expect the coöperation of the heads of departments.
“Our operations and preparations by sea and land are not to be relaxed in the smallest degree. On the contrary, I wish them to be animated with fresh energy. St. Domingo and the Isle of France, and all other parts of the French dominions are to be treated in the same manner as if no negotiation was going on. These preliminaries recollected, I pray you to lose no time in conveying to Governor Davie his commission, and to the chief justice and his excellency,” (Ellsworth,) “copies of these letters from Mr. Murray and Talleyrand, with a request that, laying aside all other employments, they make immediate preparations for embarking. . . . . . Although I have little confidence in the issue of this business, I wish to delay nothing, to omit nothing.
“The principal points, indeed all the points, of the negotiation were so minutely considered and approved by me and all the heads of department, before I left Philadelphia, that nothing remains but to put them into form and dress. This service I pray you to perform as promptly as possible. Lay your draft before the heads of department, receive their corrections, if they shall judge any to be necessary, and send them to me as soon as possible.”
The three points, alluded to as agreed upon before the President left Philadelphia, were extremely simple. 1. Indemnity for spoliations committed upon American commerce. 2. The exclusion, as a question of negotiation, of all doubt of the wrongfulness of the seizures of American vessels for want of the paper called a rôle d’équipage; and, 3. The refusal to renew the treaty guarantee of the French West Indies. With these landmarks, settled upon as ultimata the 11th of March, it would seem as if, in anticipation of the opening of negotiations, the leisure before the return of letters from Europe, could have been advantageously used to bring the necessary instructions to a state requiring no further delay. Colonel Pickering seems, however, to have given them little attention, until compelled to do so; and it was six weeks from the receipt of the answer from France, before they had reached a state to be submitted to the approval of the President. A few days of this delay had been caused by the necessity of removing the public offices to Trenton, on account of the ravages of the yellow fever in Philadelphia. But a much stronger reason existed for it, a hint of which now, for the first time, reached the President, in a letter from Mr. Stoddert, the Secretary of the Navy. That gentleman intimated, in cautious but significant terms, that Mr. Adams’s presence was absolutely necessary at Trenton. Simultaneously with the draft of instructions, a letter arrived, signed by Colonel Pickering, but understood to be concurred in by the other heads of department, suggesting the propriety of suspending the mission, at least for some time. Next came a letter from Chief Justice Ellsworth, assigning unusual demands upon his time in his official circuit, as a reason for asking early notice, in case the President should determine to postpone the mission. The coincidence was remarkable, to say the least of it. But it seems at that time to have roused in Mr. Adams no suspicion of the truth. It decided him, however, to take the advice of Mr. Stoddert, to go to Trenton; and to pay a visit to Judge Ellsworth, at his residence in Middletown, on the way.
The repugnance which the friends of Mr. Hamilton entertained to this mission had not been diminished by time.1 They felt that its success would be disastrous to the war policy, the plan of the army, and of coöperation with Britain, and fatal to the hardly won elevation of their chief. Hence the want of alacrity manifested in accelerating it, the anxious watch for something which might embarrass it, and the eagerness to seize the opportunity when it was thought at last to have happened. This occurred about the 26th of August,2 when the public officers removed to Trenton, at which time the Secretary of State received a private letter from Mr. Murray, announcing a new revolution in the Directory, with strong symptoms of the restoration of the Jacobins to power, and the resignation of most of the ministers, including Talleyrand himself. This letter was immediately submitted to the other heads of department, and a consultation held, upon the propriety of making it a basis for transmitting to the President, contemporaneously with the form of instructions to the commissioners then nearly ready, a joint remonstrance against the prosecution of the mission. It was so determined; and Colonel Pickering, with his customary activity, when his heart was in the work, in forwarding another copy of the instructions to Chief Justice Ellsworth, apprised him likewise of the conclusion to which the cabinet had come, hinting, as there is reason to believe, at the expediency of his reinforcing this application to Mr. Adams, by sending another from himself, as if from an independent source.1 This produced the letter of the chief justice which has already been mentioned. Altogether the combination was formidable enough. It had members and well-wishers far and wide among the class peculiarly enlisted in the views of Mr. Hamilton, all of whom seem to have waited, with their expectations raised to the highest pitch, the issue of one more attempt to overrule the impracticable President.
The manner in which Mr. Adams met this assault seems to have entirely deceived its projectors. Apparently unconscious of what was going on, he looked at the papers submitted to him, with a single eye to the merits of the question offered to his consideration, and expressed the simple and natural conclusion to which they led. In a suspension of the mission for a few weeks, if events in Europe should seem to demand it, he signified no unwillingness to acquiesce. This is the substance of his replies to both the secretaries, Messrs. Pickering and Stoddert, and to Judge Ellsworth, each of whom had written to him. He even went so far as to designate the latter part of October as the limit of the delay,2 promising in the meanwhile to be himself at Trenton by the 15th, then and there to judge what it was best, from a view of all the circumstances, to decide. His own opinion, in favor of the prosecution of the mission at the end of the period designated, from a fair comparison of all these papers, can scarcely be mistaken. Yet the hopes which they excited in the persons to whom they were addressed went very much farther. Judge Ellsworth construed his letter as suspending the voyage. And the secretaries augured from theirs an increased probability of victory, through the means which a closer approximation with Mr. Adams would furnish. In order the better to concert their measures, Judge Ellsworth was requested to come from Hartford, whilst General Hamilton himself remained at Newark, within call. Colonel Pickering, in the mean time, had so entirely dropped all reserve, in his mode of speaking of the President, as to create in the minds of at least two of the cabinet a conviction that he ought at once to be removed.1
This was the end of the fourth and last, as it was the greatest trial in the public life of Mr. Adams. And looking back upon the details of it, as given by all the various parties concerned, the wonder is, that he went through with it in the manner which they describe. With his quick and inflammable temperament it would have occasioned no surprise, had he, at the expense of violent and long continued altercations with the resolute men around him, perhaps with some loss of personal dignity, painfully succeeded in maintaining his authority. That such a contest had been expected and provided for, there is every reason to believe. Possibly it might have been arranged to make a combined or separate protest against his perseverance, which should drive him to the necessity either of removing his counsellors at once, or of going on in the face of their declared disapprobation.2 Whatever may have been these calculations, they were destined to be signally disappointed. For he sustained himself without the shadow of a conflict. Mr. Adams paid a brief visit to Chief Justice Ellsworth, at Windsor, on the 3d of October, in which he appears to have expressed the same sentiments to be found in his letters. Judge Ellsworth construed them as he wished; yet some doubts must have sprung up, which drove him to accept Mr. Pickering’s invitation to Trenton. The President arrived at that place on the 10th, quite unwell with a severe cold taken on the journey. He met the members of the cabinet with cordiality.3 Yet one of the number perceived a difference in his treatment of them, especially of the New England members. Mr. Hamilton was soon on the spot too. All awaited the moment for a trial of strength.
At last it seemed really to have arrived, and under circumstances singularly favorable to the success of the combination. For the news had just arrived of the only successes of the British expedition under the Duke of York, in Holland, and of the victorious progress of the Russians under Suwarrow in Switzerland. Grant a delay but of a few days, and the next ships might announce Louis the Eighteenth established on the throne of the Bourbons. Such was the cry. The excitement was at its height, and the eagerness to gain a postponement could scarcely be kept within control. Mr. Adams watched the tone of the conversations, and wrote privately to his wife an expression of his amazement at the scene. The vehemence he found in others had the effect of making him perfectly calm. He had no faith in the predictions, and he penetrated the motives of those who were making use of them. He saw it was not a delay merely, but a defeat of the mission, that was anticipated. He foresaw the possibility of a general peace which might insulate America, and in this he proved correct. Whether he had any warning of what his ministers had in store for him, or whether his own sagacity sufficed to comprehend it, is not disclosed. At all events, he was calm and perfectly prepared when, on the evening of the 15th of October, he summoned the cabinet to a meeting. They came, filled with expectation. He began the conference by laying before them the draft of instructions to the commissioners, prepared by the Secretary of State, and sent for his approbation to Quincy, but not yet adopted, on some points of which he still desired their advice. It was accordingly discussed, amended, and finally met their unanimous approval. But this process consumed much time. It had got to be eleven o’clock, too late to begin upon a new discussion. The President started no further propositions, and the members felt that it was no more than proper to disperse. They did so without reluctance, considering the struggle as only put off, perhaps until morning. Great, indeed, must their amazement have been, when, instead of a new summons, two of them received, before breakfast, a laconic direction from the President, in writing, that the papers agreed upon for the use of the commissioners should be forthwith made out, and that the frigate United States should be put in readiness to receive them, and set sail for France on or before the 1st of the coming month.
At this remote period, the tone used by the cabinet officers in complaining of the issue of this contest, appears not a little extravagant. They treat the President as if he had wilfully set a trap for them; as if he had deceived and cheated them out of all chance of opposing his wishes; as if they were the aggrieved persons, because he had not consented to run into the snare which they had set to entangle him. They now imputed to him a sudden fit of caprice, just as they had done in November, when he refused to adopt their draft of a speech, and just as they had done in February, when Mr. Murray was first nominated. And they labored to make out of their studied efforts to fasten upon him some previous marks of acquiescence in their own opinions, the evidence to establish the charge. A calm survey of his course confutes all this. Indeed, the admissions which here and there occur in their own letters, of their fears of his disposition towards their policy, sufficiently prove their distrust of all these attributions. Else what need of the elaborate combinations made to overrule his will, beginning in November of the preceding year, and steadily kept up until now? Did these not sufficiently show the sense entertained of the strength and energy of character which it was indispensable to overcome? Yet, the favorite charge against Mr. Adams, with which they succeeded in making some impression against him in the public mind, was wavering and inconsistency! This seems like assuming that wavering and inconsistency, in the face of a combination so powerful as this was, could effect about as much in executing a consistent policy as the most persevering firmness. Up to this time, whatever else had been said of Mr. Adams, not one of these persons, or any others, had ever disputed his decision and his energy. These were the characteristics which had been the most fully developed in the course of his career, and made the basis of his reputation as a public man. Surely, at this late stage, there is no likelihood that he would begin to develop symptoms of a wholly different and opposite character. Those symptoms might, indeed, have been perceptible, had he acted in any other manner than he did; had he given way upon any essential point, or prayed for any intermediate concession from his opponents. They are not deducible from any fair construction of the whole tenor of his language and action during these months of trial. His purpose was plain at the outset, and the measures which he took to execute it were simple, easily to be understood, and surely calculated to reach their end. No doubt or delay was interposed by himself, although his hopes of success seem never to have been very sanguine. From first to last, the ruling motive was to rescue, with credit to the country, the imperilled principle of neutrality in the wars of Europe, to which he had all his life been devoted. Neither is it to be questioned that he viewed with alarm the permanent military organization, which others, under his official sanction, were seeking to fasten on the country. He was still essentially the same man that he was when he distrusted in the Revolution the dictatorial powers conferred even on Washington. Hence when the moment came, in which there was ground for supposing peace might be restored, he did not suffer it to pass away unused. The result was that peace was actually made. The clouds rolled away from the political sky. And however severe the trials through which he passed to attain it, however deeply his name was loaded with obloquy by both the contending parties, he might justly have said of this action, as he did to his wife in the memorable case of Independence: “I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph, even though we should rue.”
On the 5th of November, the commissioners sailed for their destination.
Satisfied with the accomplishment of his object, the President retained no appearance of ill-will to his recalcitrating counsellors. Only two days after his decision on the embassy, he drew up his customary call upon the heads of department, for their views of the topics proper to be presented to the consideration of congress in his opening speech. This call was as freely answered as in former cases; and Mr. Adams used the materials thus supplied him as he had always done. One little variation, however, may deserve to be noted. The drafts presented by the Secretaries of State and of the Treasury, were not adopted to the same extent as heretofore, and greater recourse was had to that furnished by the Secretary of the Navy. As a whole, the speech is far more the emanation of his own mind than either of its predecessors. The main question which had agitated all parties, the mission to France, was dispatched in a few words, so ordered that all might assent to them. Allusion was particularly made to the differences which had occurred among the commissioners appointed under two articles of the treaty with Great Britain, and which had put a stop to the proceedings. A revision of the judicial system was recommended; and, in conclusion, an earnest exhortation was given to a perseverance in defensive measures pending the negotiations. The speech is quite short, but in dignity and simplicity it holds its rank with all the other public papers of this administration. It was coldly responded to by the Senate, in which Mr. Hamilton’s friends preponderated; and warmly by the House of Representatives under the guidance of John Marshall, who this year commenced that career at home which shed its lustre on some of the highest posts in the government during a prolonged life. He was the exponent of the moderate section of federalists, representing the Southern and Middle States, whom the earlier events in this administration had returned to congress in unusual numbers, and who now gave a tone to the proceedings by no means satisfactory to the more extreme division. For the most part they approved of the policy of Mr. Adams, and favored a retreat from the violent measures of the last year. As a consequence, all efforts to develop the policy of a large army were abandoned; loans or taxes were authorized to as small an extent as possible, and a considerable number showed symptoms of a desire even to repeal the Sedition Law.
Indeed, it must be now conceded that the greatest and most fatal error of the federal party is to be found in the enactment of this law. The other measure, touching the relations of aliens, especially in time of war, which was made equally the burden of complaint by the opposition, although it vested extraordinary powers in the hands of the President, does not, on the whole, seem indefensible, under the general right of self-protection which inheres in every form of social organization, and which no process of reasoning will succeed in practically doing away. But it cannot be denied that the attempt to punish individuals for mere expressions of opinion of public measures and public men, to subject them perhaps to fine and imprisonment, and certainly to heavy and burdensome charges in their defence, for exercising a latitude of speech, however extreme, in the heat and excitement attending the political conflicts of a free country, verged too closely upon an abridgment of the liberty of speech and of the press to be quite reconcilable to the theory of free institutions. It furnished a very strong ground of concentration to the opponents of the administration, of which they eagerly availed themselves under the guidance of Mr. Jefferson, moderated and softened by the more balanced judgment of Mr. Madison. Hence sprung up the celebrated resolutions of Virginia and Kentucky, which furnish internal evidence of the sources from which they respectively emanated. These resolutions have been made, more or less, the basis of theories and movements in the United States ever since; but nevertheless, if they are ever pushed to their practical consequences, it is certain that they must make a national government impossible. Thus it is and ever has been in the conflicts of men, that collision itself produces extremes of opinion, which invariably show themselves in the simultaneous development of opposite errors. And the changes which time brings about between parties, reverses the doctrines less than it does the persons who proclaim them. No government can afford to relax the powers which it is called to wield, to the extent that its enemies will be likely to demand. If the federalists encroached upon freedom, their opponents equally bordered upon license; if the former tended to make rigid the muscles of the law, the latter strove to unstring the nerves of liberty. Government prospers only as it stands equidistant from these extremes, alike insensible to menace and incapable of wrong.
The origin of these laws, which have become a word of fear to the popular ear in the United States, it is not material here to investigate, excepting so far as Mr. Adams can be supposed to have been concerned. That he had no hand in suggesting them, is very certain. That he declined to insert in his speeches recommendations, offered by his officers, to restrict the rights of aliens and of naturalization, is likewise certain. Yet when they had been once passed upon by the two houses of congress, he had no such constitutional doubts as would justify his declining to affix his official signature to them, nor any scruples about putting them in execution, in an emergency. On the other hand, he had no confidence in their value as effective measures, and very little inclination to attempt experiments. It was this well understood state of his mind that caused great dissatisfaction among those federalists who had favored their adoption. The traces are frequently visible in such of their letters as have come to light.1 There was in this respect a radical difference of opinion between these persons and Mr. Adams, which shows itself incidentally in other acts of his administration. His disposition was naturally affectionate and his feelings tender, so that when not stirred by any unusual and positive emotion, there was a constant tendency to be lenient in deciding upon conduct. This may best be illustrated in the various sentences by courts-martial which came up for his approval; in almost all of which he is found averse to the confirmation of harsh judgments.2 It is perceptible in the sluggishness with which he moved under the instigations of his cabinet to execute the laws now in question. And it becomes striking in the proceedings attending the condemnations for treason, a more particular account of which will presently be given. From all these circumstances, joined to the fact of an almost total absence of allusion to them in his private correspondence, it is fair to infer that Mr. Adams’s participation in the Alien and Sedition Laws was confined to his official act of signature. So far as this goes, he is responsible for them, but no further. Yet his name has been associated with them ever since, as much as if he had been the sole contriver of the arbitrary policy which they have been supposed to symbolize. In this respect more unfortunate than his predecessor, General Washington, who is ever associated with all the most brilliant aspirations for human freedom, and yet of whom nothing is more certain than that he actually approved and defended these obnoxious statutes,3 and that, had he been in the executive chair at the time of their passage, they would equally have received from him a cheerful signature.
That great luminary was, at the moment reached in the present narrative, just setting on the horizon. Never more active in the mere operations of political canvasses than during the preceding year, his death removed the last tie which bound the federal party together, and saved him the painful necessity, to which some indiscreet friends were driving him, of deciding whether to enter once more the arena of contention in person or not. Early in the summer of 1799, the idea had been thrown out by individuals, the friends of Mr. Hamilton, of effecting the displacement of Mr. Adams by appealing to Washington to come forth and consent to fill the President’s chair for the third time. The plan had been submitted in secret to the members of the cabinet, who had connived at rather than promoted it, up to the time when the final struggle for predominance took place at Trenton. That once over, no further restraint seems to have bound them. Consultations took place in the New England States, the result of which was that Gouverneur Morris of New York was commissioned to address a formal supplication to the venerable chief to consent to help the country in this hour of its distress.
Without venturing to question the motives that prompted this movement, it may be permitted here to venture a doubt whether its authors had sufficiently considered the state of the times, or foreseen the embarrassments into which they were about to plunge the person to whom they wished nothing but good. So bitter had party feelings become, and so sanguine the opposition under Mr. Jefferson’s lead, that even Washington could no longer hope to stand as the type of the sentiments of a whole people. But any thing less than unanimity would have thrown a cloud over the closing splendor of his day. Neither is there any reason to suppose that he ever thought differently. At all events, he was never called to express an opinion. The letter of Gouverneur Morris, which would have forced him to it, found him on his death-bed, preparing for other scenes than those disturbed by the stormy passions of men. As he passed away, the effect was for the moment to calm those passions into silence. Persons of all shades of opinion united to do honor to his memory. Probably Mr. Adams had not been made aware of the secret movements alluded to. He had not been insensible to the use that had been made of the influence of Washington to restrain the freedom of his own action, but it had inspired no suspicion of the motives of that hero, and it in no way diminished the regrets he felt at his decease. Among the various tributes paid to his excellence, that given by the President in his reply to the address of the Senate on the occasion is remarkable for its feeling. Two passages of it may serve as an illustration:—
“In the multitude of my thoughts and recollections on this melancholy event, you will permit me only to say, that I have seen him in the days of adversity, in some of the scenes of his deepest distress and most trying perplexities; I have also attended him in his highest elevation and most prosperous felicity; with uniform admiration of his wisdom, moderation, and constancy.
“The life of our Washington cannot suffer by a comparison with those, of other countries, who have been most celebrated and exalted by fame. The attributes and decorations of royalty could have only served to eclipse the majesty of those virtues which made him, from being a modest citizen, a more resplendent luminary. Misfortune, had he lived, could hereafter have sullied his glory only with those superficial minds, who, believing that characters and actions are marked by success alone, rarely deserve to enjoy it. Malice could never blast his honor, and envy made him a singular exception to her universal rule. For himself he had lived long enough to life and to glory. For his fellow-citizens, if their prayers could have been answered, he would have been immortal. For me, his departure is at a most unfortunate moment. Trusting, however, in the wise and righteous dominion of Providence over the passions of men and the results of their counsels and actions, as well as over their lives, nothing remains for me but humble resignation.”
With this melancholy event faded the last hope of preserving harmony in the counsels of the federalists. Mr. Hamilton, in losing the hold he had obtained upon the confidence of General Washington, was compelled to surrender all further expectations of controlling their policy. He foresaw that the command of the army, which he virtually held already, would not be conferred upon him in terms. Many of the inducements which had tempted him to aspire to it, had already been weakened by the unexpected turn affairs had taken both abroad and at home. The policy which he had originated was in ruins, and he only looked to save detached portions of it.1 But the resentment which he felt against the individual whose action had most contributed to destroy it, had taken the place of other emotions. It showed itself most decisively throughout the attempts that were from this time made to bring about some sort of coöperation between the sections of the party. Of these, the largest in numbers sided with the President, whilst the minority made up in talents and activity for that deficiency. All were, however, equally sensible of the pressure of the united opposition, and nearly all were disinclined to forget the risk of a common discomfiture, and perhaps a lasting dispersion, in a mere conflict of personal ascendency. In their minds, the danger of the success of Mr. Jefferson was imminent, and the salvation of the country from that peril, a vital question. In order to escape it, all the federalists in congress were summoned to meet together, for the purpose of devising some means of establishing concert in their future action. The immediate question related to the candidates to be presented at the election for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency soon to come on, which involved the necessity of determining the position of Mr. Adams. The minority warmly and earnestly demanded that he should be set aside. But when urged to name a substitute, they had none to present with the smallest prospect of success. It was generally felt that the retirement of Mr. Adams would only open the way to the accession of Mr. Jefferson.
Sensible of the truth of this, especially in New England, from whence many of the minority came, they found themselves at last compelled to offer a compromise. They consented to accept Mr. Adams as one candidate, provided that General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the same gentleman who had the year before so cheerfully submitted to the military precedence of Mr. Hamilton, could be adopted as the other, and no understanding made of the intent in filling the respective places. But even this concession was more than it was possible to obtain. The overruling objection was that the suspicion it would raise of bad faith would inevitably elect Mr. Jefferson. Hence, the best that could be done was to agree that the two persons named should be equally supported by all the federalists throughout the country; it being, however, understood, that Mr. Adams, though designed to fill the first office, was subject to those chances of a different result which the peculiar operation of the constitutional provision might naturally present. Such are the terms of this compact as explained by persons belonging to the minority.1 Mr. Hamilton seems to have been dissatisfied with them, though his friends acquiesced. Mr. Adams had no agency direct or indirect in producing them. The age of personal solicitation for high office had not arrived.
In the mean time, however, two events occurred of great importance. The first was, the election of the legislature which would determine the political character of New York at the presidential election. Here the influence of Mr. Hamilton had been exerted in furtherance of the design he now avowed,2 to set aside Mr. Adams in favor of Mr. Pinckney. Upon that pivot the selection of the federal candidates in the city had been made to turn just as it did at the election four years before. The consequence was that the moderate class of men were neglected, from a fear that they might lean to Mr. Adams. Mr. Burr, who saw the error, immediately adapted his policy to the contingency, and succeeded in connecting them with the opposition. In this way, General Gates, always friendly to Mr. Adams, George Clinton, and the Livingstons, were drawn into a combination with which they had little affinity beyond a common enmity to Mr. Hamilton, and which, by attracting the doubtful voters in the city, effected the final return of the State to its old revolutionary associations, against New England, and with the adverse influence of Virginia.
The other event was the execution of the design the President had for some time entertained of changing the members of his cabinet. With Mr. McHenry he had never been entirely satisfied, on the score of his incompetency to the laborious office to which he had been assigned. Complaints of him had abounded ever since the commencement of the administration, but they had grown more and more loud after his duties were increased by the difficulties with France. The traces of this are visible in the correspondence of General Washington, of Hamilton, of Wolcott, and many other leading men. They reach even to a manifestation of impatience with the President for not acting with more energy in removing him. But Mr. Adams, as has been already remarked, entered upon his post with no disposition to make changes in the administration, and least of all in the case of Mr. McHenry, for whom, in his personal intercourse, he had learned to cherish some regard. There can be little doubt that the intentions of that officer were of the best; but as little, that his capacity and energy were by no means corresponding. The consequence was, that he became insensibly dependent upon the abilities of Mr. Hamilton for aid in conducting the details of his department, subject, however, to vacillation and change under the disturbing force applied from time to time by the will of the President himself. The effect was to present to the world an appearance of irregularity and uncertainty, which materially contributed to shake confidence in the system of the administration. These symptoms grew more perceptible as the difference between the President and Mr. Hamilton became more wide. To the latter Mr. McHenry habitually deferred, as the director of his official administration. To him he looked, and not to Mr. Adams, as the guide of his political system. Hence his deference to the wishes of the latter became cold, reluctant, and dilatory, as the breach with Mr. Hamilton grew more positive.
But Mr. Adams had now reached a point when he foresaw that a necessity might occur for the coöperation of some one in the reduction of the military system who sympathized more closely with his own views. Washington was no longer the nominal commander-in-chief. His decease would involve the necessity of deciding upon the position of Mr. Hamilton as the next in command, on which he had made up his mind beforehand. And he knew Mr. McHenry’s relations too well, and had experienced too much of his opposition in his cabinet, not to comprehend the necessity of his removal, if he desired to make sure of the execution of his own policy. Yet there is no knowing how long he might have delayed his action, but for an accidental conversation which terminated in an open variance. Of this conversation, Mr. McHenry afterwards furnished to Mr. Hamilton his own version. It is fair to infer from it at least this, that Mr. Adams lost his temper, a failing for which Mr. Hamilton afterwards made him pay a severe penalty, and for which he sometimes reproached himself. He was thus led on to say many unguarded, and some harsh things, that might have been better omitted, at least in presence of an enemy on the watch to take advantage of them. So far as they wounded the feelings of Mr. McHenry, Mr. Adams afterwards regretted them, for no man ever bore less malice in his composition. But he did not regret the step to which they brought him. McHenry’s resignation was no sooner offered than accepted, to take effect in three weeks.
The case of Colonel Pickering came next. Falling into his office rather by accident, he had manifested in the performance of its duties great industry, punctuality, courage, and qualifications, if not of the first class, certainly far from discreditable to himself or to the country which he had been called to represent. His public papers have the merit of clearness, directness, and simplicity. Had he contented himself with an exclusive devotion to his duties, and a faithful coöperation with the objects of his chief, there never could have been a question of his removal. But herein was his great mistake. Never much used to the control of his vehement impulses, he construed his position as permitting him the right not only to dispute in private, but to counteract both in public and private, such portions of the measures of the President as he happened to disapprove. Neither was this all. He did not hesitate to use the information which he obtained by virtue of his confidential relation, the more effectually to promote his views. The acts and the language of Mr. Adams were noted and reported, not less than the details of his official policy, for the sake of either controlling or defeating it, and at any rate of discrediting him. No similar practice has occurred since that period. Of the extent to which it was carried, Mr. Adams was never made fully aware. If he had known what has since been disclosed, it is impossible to suppose that Colonel Pickering could have remained in his cabinet a day after the 6th of July, 1798. Why he knew no more than he did, might cause a little wonder, considering that Colonel Pickering was not a man of concealments, if all history did not show that people around a ruler, whose evidence is really worth having, are seldom forward to acquaint him with unpleasant truth. He did know enough, however, from the revelations made at the time of Mr. Murray’s nomination, and still more at Trenton, during the memorable struggle six months later, to become convinced that his duty to himself required the presence of an adviser in the State department in whose fidelity he could have full confidence. Accordingly, he seized the opportunity now presented by the resignation of Mr. McHenry, to extend to Colonel Pickering the offer of retiring in the same manner. This was done in a perfectly unexceptionable form, although no room was left to doubt the alternative in case of his refusal. The reply of Colonel Pickering is not in his customary style. It is not direct, nor logical in adapting the premises to his conclusion. It dwells upon his poverty in a manner that, if it meant any thing, seems to deprecate the stroke which his own conduct, as he could not fail to know, had deprived him of all right to resent. For his colleagues, who had been best acquainted with it, manifested no surprise at the sentence. Some of them had expected it would happen earlier. If then he felt it to be inevitable, it would have been more dignified not to plead in mitigation of it. Especially as he was full of schemes of vengeance, which he communicated at once to Mr. Hamilton, offering to supply him with many facts which his official station had put in his power, to make up what he called “a frank and bold exposure of Mr. Adams.”1
This intimation met with a favorable reception from the person to whom it was addressed. The nominations of John Marshall, of Virginia, as Secretary of State, in the place of Colonel Pickering, and of Samuel Dexter, of Massachusetts, as Secretary of War, instead of Mr. McHenry, sufficiently indicated the intentions of the President. They had been received with satisfaction by the moderate federalists, whilst they were viewed by the others as precluding all further insinuations of bargaining with the opposite party, in which they had largely indulged, and, at the same time, a sure presage of the downfall of their own influence. Anxious to ascertain, by personal observation, the probability of averting this calamity by the substitution of General Pinckney for Mr. Adams as the President for the next term, Mr. Hamilton undertook a journey through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, the States where the people were supposed to be the most likely to make difficulties, on account of their attachment to the latter. This was executed in the month of June, 1800. The issue was not favorable to his hopes. He found “the leaders of the first class generally right, but the leaders of the second class were too much disposed to favor Mr. Adams.” The remedy was an exposure of the sort which Colonel Pickering had proposed. Of course, he and McHenry could be relied upon for aid in supplying the materials. But that was not enough. Recourse must be had to another person still in place, and able to betray all the movements of the cabinet down to the last moment. That person was Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury, whose fidelity Mr. Adams never for an instant suspected; who had always so carefully regulated his external deportment, that no one could suppose him likely to become the secret channel through which all the most confidential details of the administration, of which he was a part, should be furnished, with the intent to destroy its head.1 Yet such is the fact which history now most unequivocally discloses. Instead of being too suspicious, as the enemies of his own household chose to describe him, the President had, in the excess of his confidence, retained in his bosom the most subtle and venomous serpent of them all.
The session of congress had been marked by a more decided preponderance of the federalists in both branches than had been the case for years. But in the House the accessions had not been of the more violent class. The effect of this was visible in the legislation, the character of which was moderate, creditable, and judicious. All thoughts of the great military organization which had been contemplated, were at once abandoned. The plans of expenditure which threatened severely to burden the growing energies of the people were reduced; whilst measures were continued to enforce and confirm the system of naval defences, and to persevere in the interdict of all commercial intercourse with France. Several important laws were enacted of a purely domestic character, calculated to quiet past difficulties, or to develop the resources of the country. The dulness of ordinary legislation was now and then relieved by eloquent debates. The most important of these related to an instance of extradition of a seaman charged with crimes committed on board of a British frigate. It was the case of Thomas Nash, or, according to the opposition, who insisted that he was an American and improperly surrendered, of Jonathan Robbins. This discussion elicited a display of the abilities of the House on both sides, and terminated in a speech from John Marshall, which at once settled the question, and established his own reputation as the first man of the assembly. Taken all in all, there are few portions of the legislative history of the country, to which the historian can look back with more pride and satisfaction than to the details of this session. The Lower House was yet a deliberative assembly, confining itself to the objects before it, and discussing them in a business-like and yet a comprehensive spirit; and the Senate was a select council of statesmen, true to their duties, not ambitious of logomachy, and not making their honorable station subsidiary to other objects with which it has no natural or legitimate connection. If the federalists have sins to answer for, that of letting down the dignity of the government is not among them. The result of their action at this period was greatly calculated to increase the public confidence in the wisdom and discretion which they brought to the direction of affairs. That such would have been the effect, had it not been for the untoward nature of the events that followed, there is strong reason to believe.
Previously to entering upon these, it is necessary to explain one other circumstance which contributed to keep open the breach now made in the ranks of the federal party. Some time in the spring of 1798, there had taken place in Northampton County, in Pennsylvania, as has already been mentioned, an armed resistance to the levy of the direct tax, which spread into two or three of the neighboring counties, and for a few days assumed an appearance so alarming as to justify the President’s proclamation and orders to equip a military force to put it down. The mere apparition of this force proved sufficient to effect the object. The men who had taken the lead in the disorders, being deserted by their fellows, were made prisoners, and handed over for trial to the courts. The principal one was a person by name John Fries, who was found with arms in his hands, acting as a chief, although he seems to have possessed few qualities to recommend him for any such elevation. His associates, generally from among the German population of the State, proved to be of a low order of intelligence, utterly unequal to devising any scheme of concerted resistance to rightful authority. At the next term of the United States circuit court, which took place in a few weeks, Fries was put upon his trial, on the charge of treason, and, after nine days spent in the proceedings, was found guilty by the verdict of a jury. The result was immediately communicated to Mr. Adams, at Quincy, by Colonel Pickering and by Mr. Wolcott, in separate letters, expressive of their satisfaction.1 The latter incidentally mentioned that Mr. Lewis, of counsel for the prisoner, had on all occasions during the trial insisted that the offence committed did not amount to treason. He likewise reported the remark as coming from Fries, that persons of greater consequence had been at the bottom of the business.
Both these suggestions seem to have had much weight in the mind of Mr. Adams. He deeply felt the responsibility imposed upon him. To Colonel Pickering he replied in these words:—
“The issue of this investigation has opened a train of very serious contemplations to me, which will require the closest attention of my best understanding, and will prove a severe trial to my heart.”
To the attorney-general, Mr. Lee, he sent a request to obtain a sight of Mr. Lewis’s reasons for his opinion, whilst to Mr. Wolcott he wrote for information as to the character of Fries, the nature and extent of the combination of which he appeared to be the head, and the truth of his intimation, that others of greater importance were behind the scenes.2 He ended with these words:—
“It highly concerns the people of the United States, and especially the federal government, that, in the whole progress and ultimate conclusion of this affair, neither humanity be unnecessarily afflicted, nor public justice be essentially violated, nor the public safety endangered.”
These letters were received by the persons to whom they were addressed, with some dismay. They did not understand why the President should entertain his own views of the law, after the proper court had adjudicated upon it, and they honestly thought that the public safety required an immediate example to be made of Fries. “Painful as is the idea of taking the life of a man,” said Pickering, “I feel a calm and solid satisfaction that an opportunity is now presented, in executing the just sentence of the law, to crush that spirit, which, if not overthrown and destroyed, may proceed in its career, and overturn the government.”
Obviously two different views of duty are here presented, both conscientiously held, but having their source in radical differences of natural character. A conflict between them was, for the time, postponed, by the decision of the court that condemned Fries, which granted a new trial, on the ground that one of the jury was proved to have prejudged the case. Another long and very elaborate hearing followed, Judge Chase now presiding instead of Judge Iredell, the issue of which was the same as before, the condemnation of Fries. This involved the fate of two other persons dependent upon the views taken of the same general testimony. Once more the question of ordering their execution came up for the consideration of the President. It was just at the moment when the change was taking place in his cabinet officers, and whilst but three persons remained to advise him. To those three he therefore submitted, on the 20th of May, a series of thirteen questions, the drift of which sufficiently shows the state of his own mind.1 The answer, given on the same day, showed a division of opinion among the three; Mr. Wolcott remaining unshaken in his belief that the execution of all three was demanded in order “to inspire the well-disposed with confidence in the government, and the malevolent with terror;” the other two believing that the execution of Fries would “be enough to show the power of the laws to punish.” But even they inclined to the execution of the three, rather than to have all three released.
In this case the cabinet could not complain that they had not been consulted at every step. But that seems to have made no difference in the feeling with which at least one of the disaffected viewed the direction of the President, given the next day, that a pardon should be made out for all the offenders. As usual, an effort was made to prove inconsistency, and from thence to deduce a personal motive for the act. It was a “fatal concession to his enemies.” The act was “popular in Pennsylvania.” Such was the tone of the disappointed federalists, who saw in it, and, so far, very correctly, another divergency from the policy which they would have introduced into the federal government. In truth, there is no need of searching deep to find causes for the opposite opinions generated by this event. They lie thickly spread upon the surface of the correspondence during this administration, much of which is laid before the world in the present work. They are the legitimate offspring of the division of opinion into three forms, which has been distinctly developed in the action of all the administrations in America since the first, and which must ever show itself in nations enjoying free institutions, wherever they may be found.
This is the period when the administration of Mr. Adams for the first time appears as a consistent whole. His cabinet was now substantially in harmony with him. Only one member of it remained to repine at the policy indicated, secretly to wish it defeated, to disparage the acts and motives of his chief and his colleagues, and to betray all the proceedings to their enemy.1 Henceforth there is no room for details, as the administration pursued the even tenor of its way, laboring to smooth off the external difficulties with which it had to contend. In this task it was eminently successful. Mr. Marshall, the new Secretary of State, set in motion a negotiation which put an end to the irritations that had followed the inability of the two different commissions under Mr. Jay’s treaty with Great Britain to come to an understanding. And out of the obscurity the signs of peace began to dawn even on the continent of France. Napoleon had at last stepped in to the place which he had long kept in his eye, pushing down, on the one hand, the relics of the old régime, and, on the other, the crumbling columns of the revolutionary temple. To him a quarrel with America seemed purely preposterous. It followed, as a natural consequence, that peace became only a question of terms. He who was busy in holding in his vigorous grasp the reins of Europe, was not likely to have his attention long turned aside by the complaints from the United States of an anterior policy for which he himself had no respect. Yet the conqueror of Marengo could not be expected to consent to have concessions dictated to him by any power which had not ready means at hand to enforce them at the point of the bayonet. The American commissioners, fully conscious of the delicacy of their situation, accommodated themselves to it with dexterity and judgment. The treaty, which was the result, like many other instruments of the same sort before and since, touched but lightly on the causes of grievance between the two countries, and seemed to grant little redress to the wrongs of which America justly complained. But it gained what was of more worth to them; and that was, a termination of all further danger of war, and a prevention of the causes of future difficulties. And even what it lost of redress was the consequence not so much of the treaty itself as of the temper of the Senate, which caused one of the articles to be expunged as a condition of its ratification. The nature and consequences of this amendment will be explained presently. It is sufficient now to say that these measures had the effect of reëstablishing the neutral policy of the United States, which had been for years in imminent peril, and of smoothing the way to the period of great prosperity which followed. It is difficult to imagine any other result of the turmoil and conflict of opinions that had so long prevailed, which, on the whole, deserved to insure a better return of gratitude to its authors, from the great body of citizens most deeply interested in the country’s welfare.
Yet, strange as it may seem, from that day to this, an award of merit for such a successful termination of the difficult task of this administration has been entirely withheld. The causes of this must now be explained, however painful may be the task. The federal party could have easily borne the trial of the appeal to arms against France and of a direct tax. It might have gone safely through the fire of the Alien and Sedition Laws, and its corollaries of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. Possibly it would have breasted the odium of an army needlessly large, and organized for other than its ostensible objects. But it could not be expected to endure the cross of bad faith. The moment when an active minority determined to adopt a line of conduct marked by indirectness of purpose even to treachery, was the moment when wise and patriotic citizens had reason to foresee that shipwreck must inevitably ensue.
Although the truce which had been agreed upon by the two divisions of the party, at the close of the session of 1800, had been predicated upon a concession of a fair and equal support of Mr. Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, as candidates for the highest office, the designation of Mr. Adams for the preference being rather understood than avowed, it very soon became known that Mr. Hamilton and his friends felt at liberty to exert themselves to the utmost, in secretly decrying the character and conduct of one of the persons, for the sake of creating an ultimate preponderance for the other. The word was confidentially given out that Mr. Adams must be sacrificed. To this end information was to be privately furnished of the defects in his character, which were relied upon as a justification for this extraordinary course. As yet but a very small portion of the correspondence, through which this plan was attempted, has found its way to the light. To dwell on its unpleasant details is no part of the present purpose. It bears on its face the verdict which posterity will not fail to pass upon it. All the prominent actors betray their sense of its character so clearly as to make forbearance to expose it no virtue. The letters of Oliver Wolcott, of Fisher Ames, of George Cabot, of James McHenry, of Benjamin Goodhue, all1 equally plead guilty to the tortuous expedients of political rancor. Yet nobody will charge them with deliberate malice or dishonesty. They were servants of a will stronger than their own; of a spirit that could never brook a superior or abide an equal; of one whose disappointment had been as great as his aspirations, and whose self-restraint yielded under the temptation of wreaking his vengeance upon the person who had occasioned it. Mr. Hamilton’s rivalries whether with Jefferson, with John Adams, or with Aaron Burr were never kept within the limits of defensive or moderate warfare; and to this cause it was that he owed his premature and inglorious downfall.
Mr. Adams on his side was not of a spirit to be daunted by denunciation, or to permit himself to be sacrificed without a murmur. He had formed his own opinions of the policy of Mr. Hamilton and his friends, which had impaired his confidence in them, not less than theirs had become impaired in him. The measure which they had first proposed to him under the name of cooperation with Great Britain, he now fully believed to have been intended only as a preliminary to an alliance, offensive and defensive, which would have shut out all prospect of further preserving a neutrality in the wars of Europe.1 And indeed, it is difficult at this distance of time to resist the conviction, that such must have been the consequence of their system, even conceding that they may not themselves have foreseen it. But such an admission can be made only at a heavy expense to their sagacity, so that the inference from the testimony on record is rather that they acted from design. At all events their course had so far committed them, as to render great prudence advisable in avoiding to give cause for an exposure of these differences. Such prudence they unfortunately did not exercise. Intelligence of their endeavors to destroy his character and reputation soon reached the ears of Mr. Adams, as it could scarcely fail to do, however secretly they might labor. In this crisis he was not likely to confine himself to defence. Cool and collected when summoned to act in public on any emergency, he was seldom in the habit of resisting his natural impetuosity in the less guarded hours of private intercourse and familiar conversation. Then it was, that he would give to his language the full impress of his vehement will. He spoke out his thought with the force which only indignation gives. This must be confessed to have been his greatest disqualification for success in public life, which requires, above all things, an open countenance with closed lips, the offspring of an impassible heart. Mr. Adams had nothing of this. His nature though placable, was ardent, and it occasionally impelled him to say more than he really meant, which he sometimes himself described as rodomontade, and to express even what he did mean much too sharply. These were errors, it is true, but at least they sprung from qualities thoroughly honest. The consequence was, that his language excited a greater degree of sensibility in the objects of his attack from its unsparing directness. He charged the hostility, waged by Mr. Hamilton and his friends against himself to their disappointment, in failing to establish through his aid the desired connection with Great Britain, against France. And his statement may now be affirmed to have been in substance correct, without the necessity of implying the existence of wrong motives in them. Yet such a charge could not fail at that time to strike deeply at the influence of those at whom it was levelled. The evidence how much they felt it, is visible in their secret letters.1 The danger was great that even the relatively small popular force they could command, would dwindle away, and leave nothing but leaders. It was plain, too, that their plan of setting aside Mr. Adams by obtaining an equal vote for General Pinckney, was breaking down. There were those in New England, who, when they learned the object of the scheme, could not be induced to sacrifice Mr. Adams. Mr. Hamilton had become convinced of it by personal observation. The consequence was inevitable, that the success of the federal party would make Mr. Adams President. And to this, involving as he foresaw it must, the loss of all power over the next administration, he was not prepared to bring his mind to submit. He proceeded to take his measures, in order to prevent it.
It has already been mentioned that Mr. Hamilton, immediately upon his return from New England, applied to the Secretary of the Treasury for details of confidential transactions in the cabinet, to be used by him “among discreet persons,” to destroy their faith in Mr. Adams. But this was not the only object he had in view; for in the same letter he added an intimation of a design, to write to Mr. Adams, touching certain reports in circulation, of allusions made by him, in conversation, to the existence of a British faction, of which he, Hamilton, was named as one, and to demand an explanation. He added these words: “Mr. Adams’s friends are industrious in propagating the idea, to defeat the efforts to unite for Pinckney. The inquiry I propose, may furnish an antidote and vindicate character. What think you of this idea? For my part I can set malice at defiance.”
From this language it would seem clear, that the project of calling upon Mr. Adams had its source in other motives, than a quick sense of personal injury. It was a politic movement designed to neutralize the labors of Mr. Adams’s friends to defeat the success of Mr. Pinckney. The effect of calumny upon himself, he professed not to apprehend.
Mr. Wolcott replied to this letter on the 7th of July. He evidently understood Mr. Hamilton in the sense just given. He cheerfully agreed to furnish the requisite information, so soon as he could arrange his papers, much disturbed by his late official removal to the new seat of government, because he thought “it would be a disgrace to the federal party, to permit the reëlection of Mr. Adams.” And he closed by saying, “You may rely upon my coöperation in every reasonable measure for effecting the election of General Pinckney.”
On the 1st of August the call upon Mr. Adams was accordingly prepared. As addressed to a person then holding the office of President of the United States, and endeavoring to make him responsible not only for reports of his own conversations, but also for the supposed language of his political adherents, it is very obvious, that Mr. Hamilton could not have expected any reply. Very certainly, propriety demanded that none should be made. Mr. Hamilton in point of fact, did not anticipate a reply. For only two days afterwards, and seven days before his note reached Mr. Cabot, through whom it was forwarded to Mr. Adams,1 he wrote again to Mr. Wolcott,2 expressing impatience at the delay of the promised statement, and announcing an intention to proceed at once to a publication of his opinion of Mr. Adams, as “best suited to the plain dealing of his character.” Then, with the singular inconsistency which marks almost every step of these proceedings, he went on to show how little he felt that he was acting up to the character for plain dealing which he claimed for himself. The words are too remarkable to be omitted.
“There are, however,” he says, “reasons against it. And a very strong one is, that some of the principal causes of my disapprobation proceed from yourself, and other members of the administration, who would be understood to be the sources of my information, whatever cover I might give the thing.
“What say you to this measure? I could predicate it on the fact, that I am abused by the friends of Mr. Adams, who ascribe my opposition to pique and disappointment; and could give it the shape of a defence of myself.”
Surely this language will scarcely answer to any definition of the term plain dealing. It sufficiently shows that the demand of an explanation was a mere cover to an attack which Mr. Hamilton had for some time designed to make, out of the materials with which his confederates of the cabinet had been steadily supplying him during the whole period of the administration. And that he was withheld from it only by the fear of betraying the sources from which he had got his information. This difficulty pressed hardly not on him alone, but upon the confidential friends to whom he communicated his intentions. George Cabot, Fisher Ames, and Oliver Wolcott himself grew pale at the idea of an open assault upon the President. They all wrote letters of remonstrance,1 dwelling upon the imputation of breach of faith to which it exposed them with their own friends, if the design of destroying Mr. Adams should be avowed, and upon the absurdity of the other position, of continuing to uphold as a candidate a person whom the argument was intended to prove wholly unfit for the office. These three letters supply a curious but painful picture of the moral difficulties, into which honorable men sometimes allow themselves, in the heat of party passions, to get entangled. But a deeper shadow falls upon it, when the fact is perceived that the concluding advice of all three is, not to withhold the attack, but only to withhold the name of the assailant. It would be safer to make it anonymously. This proposal to skulk in ambush could not have fallen pleasantly on the feelings of Hamilton, even when under the unnatural tension to which they were now subjected. Neither would the stroke be nearly so effective. He concluded to prosecute his purpose, regardless equally of their good and bad advice; and on the 26th of September he transmitted to Mr. Wolcott the draft which he had prepared, with a request that he would “note exceptionable ideas or phrases.” “Some of the most delicate of the facts stated,” he added, “I hold from the three ministers, yourself particularly; and I do not think myself at liberty to take the step without your consent. I never mean to bring proof, but to stand upon the credit of my veracity.”
The reply of Mr. Wolcott is long. It corrects many statements in the draft, and dissuades the publication of others. But its most remarkable admissions appear in the conclusion. He says:—
“As to the measure itself, I can give no opinion. My feelings and individual judgment are in favor of it. I never liked the half-way plan which has been pursued. It appears to me, that federal men are in danger of losing character in the delicate point of sincerity. Nevertheless, when I consider the degree of support which Mr. Adams has already received; that our friends in Massachusetts say that they still prefer the election of Mr. Adams; that the country is so divided and agitated as to be in some danger of civil commotions, I cannot but feel doubts as to any measure, which can possibly increase our divisions. You can judge of the state of public opinion in the eastern States better than I can. If the popular sentiment is strong in favor of Mr. Adams,—if the people in general approve of his late public conduct, or if there is a want of confidence, for any reason, in General Pinckney, I should think the publication ought to be suppressed; on the contrary, if the publication would increase the votes for General Pinckney, and procure support to him in case he should be elected, it would certainly be beneficial. Notwithstanding your impressions to the contrary, I am not convinced that Mr. Adams can seriously injure your character.”
It should be recollected that the professed object of Mr. Hamilton’s paper was the defence of character. How little stress Mr. Wolcott laid upon it, is shown plainly enough in this extract. What he considered to be the true object, is likewise clear. If the attack could be the means of politically destroying Mr. Adams, or of establishing General Pinckney, it was worth making. If on the other hand, Mr. Adams was likely to maintain his ground in the affections of the people of Massachusetts, the publication which was to prove his unfitness for their confidence was to be suppressed. Surely no more can be necessary to prove that he viewed the thing as a pure electioneering device. Not so with Mr. Hamilton however. He went on to print, without giving his friends any assurances of the mode in which he meant ultimately to use his paper. Perhaps he had not made up his own mind, down to the moment, when an accident is supposed to have settled it for him. His arch-enemy, Aaron Burr, by some means not yet fully explained, got access to the sheets whilst passing through the press, and caused extracts to be published in the opposition newspapers far and wide. The partial use thus made of the attack, was assigned as a reason for authorizing a complete publication. So it came out, under the title of a “Letter from Alexander Hamilton, concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States.” This was in the very last week of October, but a short time before the choice of electors in the different States. If the single purpose had been to defeat Mr. Adams at all hazards, no more propitious moment could have been thought of. Yet, with the singular fatality of retribution, which more than once attended the acts of Mr. Hamilton, the sequel showed that, at the instant of this publication, he was striking the first spade into what was ere long to be to him a duellist’s grave. Whilst on the other hand, the object of his vindictive assault, outliving the days of bitter trial, which it prepared for him, was destined at last to close his eyes with the acclamation of millions uniting to do unexampled honors to his name.
A publication, having for its object the destruction of the public character of a man who had spent twenty-five years of his life in stations of the highest responsibility, in some of which he had acquitted himself so honorably as to have extorted even from its author both praise and support, needed the most convincing proof of very grave offences against the public good in order to make it justifiable before the world. Especially was this true, when a consequence was liable to ensue, that was esteemed by the assailant, and at least one half of the nation, to be fraught with extreme peril to the state. That such a consequence did not actually follow, is not material to this view of the case. The only question is, what Mr. Hamilton himself anticipated. In magnifying, as he habitually did, the dangers certain to attend the triumph of Mr. Jefferson and his friends, he in the same degree magnified his own responsibilities, if by any act of his that triumph were to be secured. Neither could he release himself from them, excepting by the offer of the most irresistible evidence to show such incompetency or malfeasance in office on the part of the individual relied upon by his own party as the only formidable competitor for the public favor, as to render it probable that the country would suffer even greater evils from his success. So soon as the news of Mr. Hamilton’s pamphlet went abroad, men of all parties naturally expected disclosures of the gravest offences, involving the moral and political integrity of the President. What was their surprise then, to discover, in the course of thirty printed pages, that the proofs relied upon to show Mr. Adams utterly unfit to be President, were not deemed by the author himself sufficient to prevent his advising his friends not to withhold from the object of his invective one single vote!
Of course the charges could not fail to correspond to the monstrous logical solecism, with which they concluded. The gravest of them were founded upon the determination of Mr. Adams to initiate the mission of Mr. Murray to France without consulting his cabinet; upon his perseverance in afterwards dispatching Messrs. Ellsworth and Davie, in opposition to the better judgment of Mr. Hamilton and his friends; and upon his pardon of John Fries, who according to them should rather have been hanged. Neither of these acts, even if admitted to be an error, was shown to have vitally injured the government, or to involve any censure of the author beyond a defect of judgment. At this day, neither of them stands in need of justification even on that score. The facts have already been submitted in the present chapter. They are supported by all the original documents connected with them, as found spread forth at large for the first time in other portions of this work. Upon these materials it will be for impartial posterity to decide with whom the errors really rested, whether upon the accused or his accuser; and, even should it be possible to attach the slightest censure to the former, for doing what he firmly believed to be his duty, against the judgment of his nominal friends, whether such errors, followed by such fortunate consequences in the restoration of peace abroad and of quiet at home, were of so mischievous a kind as to establish the charge of unfitness for high station, which was the ostensible purpose of the attack.
As to the general imputation upon Mr. Adams of an impracticable spirit, which led him to act without the advice of his cabinet, and to rely solely on himself, as the caprice of the moment, rather than any fixed opinions, might dictate, its utter groundlessness is sufficiently shown by the publication now made of the secret papers and correspondence of his administration. By these it will appear, not only that he consulted the members of his cabinet constantly, and called for their written opinions upon almost every important question, but that he often adopted their conclusions in the very language which they proposed, in many cases, even at the sacrifice of his own. The few exceptions that occurred were those in which a concerted attempt was making by his ministers to overrule his known convictions upon matters of the most serious importance. In these instances he certainly did decline to call for opinions of which he knew the nature too well already, and he did take such a course as to defeat their efforts at counteraction, and to provide for the full execution of his own policy. The very fact that he acted with such consistency in reaching the desired results, is a sufficient answer to all the efforts to stigmatize him as wavering and uncertain. These charges originated rather in the hopes that he would fluctuate, gathered from the concessions the authors of them could wring out of his casual and unguarded conversation, and in the disappointment at discovering in his action no traces of the vacillation upon which they had counted. There is no doubt that, when not stirred by any emotion, Mr. Adams’s disposition was easy and inclined to yield. If he committed any mistake, it was in conceding too much rather than too little to his ministers. The effect was to lead them on to attempts upon his independence, which they would scarcely have ventured on a character more outwardly stern, and from which it was too late to retreat when they found him fully roused to their nature and to the necessity of defeating them. Thus it twice happened that the very moment when they felt the most sure of their success in controlling him, was exactly that when a single exercise of his will, to their great mortification, demolished their straw-built castles at a blow.
If any further answer were necessary to this charge, it might be found in the perfect harmony and efficiency of his cabinet after he had succeeded in organizing it to suit himself. With such men as John Marshall and Samuel Dexter for his counsellors, his system went on vigorously, partaking of the valuable fruits of the reflections of all, and jarred by no discord whatever. The motive for contention had been removed. Indulging in no wild dreams of overruling their chief for special purposes of their own, nothing remained to contend about, excepting which should most effectively serve the common cause. The effects are made visible in the steadiness of the policy pursued during the rest of the administration; and the nature of the intercourse appears in the private correspondence now published in this work.
With regard to the minor causes of complaint in Mr. Hamilton’s pamphlet, which resolve themselves into natural imperfections of temper, and personal foibles, such as men of every grade in life are liable to, if it were conceded that the charges, instead of being greatly exaggerated, were just, to the full extent alleged, the fact would scarcely avail as an argument in the pending controversy, unless it could be proved that the consequences showed out in public conduct of a pernicious or shameful character. The great measures actually adduced, whether in their inception or in their execution, prove nothing of the kind. Even the calm Washington was not free from occasional bursts of violent passion, as nobody claimed more fully to know than Mr. Hamilton himself. For he is reported as authority for the statement, that so great had been the General’s asperity of temper towards the close of the war, as very much to impair his popularity in the army.1 That Mr. Adams was subject to the same infirmity, in a much greater degree, and with less power of self-control, is unquestionable. But the traces of it are nowhere visible in the public acts of his life, in the records of his administration, or in his correspondence with his ministers. However warm his conversation may at times have been, in his action he never failed to be cool. One proof of this is that the issue of his measures so seldom failed to correspond to his calculations. And certainly neither the nomination of the commissioners to France nor the pardon of Fries can be said to form exceptions to this remark. Yet these two acts form the substance of Mr. Hamilton’s charge of incapacity. Well will it be for any future chief magistrate, and well for the republic itself, if, during his term of office, nothing more dishonorable should ever be proved against him.
Neither is it essential, in this connection, to go into any elaborate defence of Mr. Adams from the other imputation, of inordinate vanity. Even conceding it to be true to the extent affirmed, it yet remained to prove how the manifestation of it had done any injury to the public. For of public action only was there, in this case, any question. Vanity is a foible which may unpleasantly affect the relations of men with each other in social life, but there are plenty of cases in history to show that it is not incompatible with the possession of the very highest qualities of character and the noblest attributes of statesmanship. Nobody at this day will dispute the fact that Cicero, in his writings, shows himself, in this particular, among the weakest of men. Yet it is quite as undeniable that he will forever rank in the very first class of orators and statesmen, of thinkers and writers and actors, among men.1 Neither is it necessary to go further for an illustration than to the very case of Mr. Hamilton himself. Singularly enough, one of his most devoted friends has left on record his testimony as well of his own sense, as of that of many others at the time, of Hamilton’s betrayal, in this very publication, of the same fault which he was so prompt to charge upon Mr. Adams.2 Yet nobody will be disposed to question, on that account, Mr. Hamilton’s abilities to play a great part in public affairs. To dwell more at large on this branch of the attack, seems to be superfluous. For were it all exactly as is affirmed, instead of being much exaggerated, the whole would not go very far to establish the fact that Mr. Adams could not, nevertheless, be, at the same time, a wise, an energetic, an independent, and an honest President.1
This publication was not received with approbation by the public or by the federalists. The press teemed with replies, all written with more or less vigor, and some not unfelt by Mr. Hamilton himself.2 His most ardent friends, McHenry, Ames, and Cabot, reported to him, the last-named so candidly and faithfully that he anticipated the loss of his friendship from it, the nature of the censure he had incurred. All felt that if he had succeeded in pulling down Mr. Adams from his eminence, it had been done only by bringing in ruins with him the pillars of the federal structure. If this consideration filled the members of one party with grief, it correspondingly exalted their opponents. So fluctuating had been their confidence in their power to overthrow Mr. Adams, that even their sanguine chief had more than once entertained the notion of abandoning opposition to him, and directing the strength of his party to the question of the succession. But this pamphlet did more to invigorate them than all their own efforts. A curious admission of this fact, made under his own hand, by one of the most active partisans in the struggle, has recently found its way back from the other side of the Atlantic. In transmitting a copy to his friend, General Collot, who had fled to Paris from a threatened application of the Alien Law, not without justice in his case, the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the most efficient press in the service of the opposition, wrote the following note, on the 3d of November:—
“Citizen General,—This pamphlet has done more mischief to the parties concerned than all the labors of the Aurora.
Nor yet was it among the least singular of the consequences attending this strange history, that the pamphlet should have been fatal to the prospects of the very person whom it was originally designed to aid, and should have elevated the author’s most bitter and deadly enemy in his place. As in the case of Thomas Pinckney, who lost the Vice-Presidency by Mr. Hamilton’s interference at the preceding election, so Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, on the present occasion, was cut off, in the same way, from the opportunity of arriving fairly at one of the two highest stations. Without possessing abilities of the first class, General Pinckney had owed the respect which followed him in life quite as much to his integrity and nice sense of personal honor, as to the creditable manner in which he acquitted himself of his duties. This might have secured for him from the legislature of his native State, a repetition of the experiment which had been made in favor of his brother at the preceding election, a union of his name with that of Mr. Jefferson as the choice of the two candidates of the Electoral College. Had such a union been actually made, the effect would have been his elevation certainly to the second office, and perhaps even to the first. That it was not made, was very much owing to the decision of General Pinckney himself. Unwilling to subject himself to the remotest suspicion of bad faith, after the reception of Mr. Hamilton’s pamphlet admitted of a possible inference of collusion, he insisted upon standing or falling upon the same ticket inseparably with Mr. Adams.2 The consequence was that the federalists would enter into no coalition, and Thomas Jefferson was enabled to secure seven votes to Aaron Burr, the ubiquitous evil genius of the author of the pamphlet himself.
Under the circumstances in which the parties went into the election, with the federalists divided among themselves, and with little heart or hope, the cause of surprise is that they should have come so near success as they did. The loss of the election in the city of New York, in the month of May preceding, had determined the votes in the legislature of that State for Mr. Jefferson. But even this would not have turned the scale, had South Carolina, which hung in suspense, proved true. Both results were arrived at through the cool astuteness of Aaron Burr, profiting by the excessive self-reliance of Mr. Hamilton. In truth, the latter was no match for his opponent in the game to which he had lent himself. With abilities beyond comparison higher, and aspirations the magnitude of which alone gave him far superior dignity, he only failed in sufficiently measuring the descent he was making when he entered upon the arena of partisan intrigue on the same level with his archenemy. The source of this error is to be traced to a deficiency in early moral foundations, the effects of which, here and there, make themselves visible, breaking out of the folds of a noble nature throughout his career, but especially towards its close. It was this which substituted the false idol of honor, as worshipped in the society of his day, for the eternal law of God; which impelled him to justify himself against a charge of peculation of the public money at the expense of a public confession of what to him seemed the more venial offence of aiding to corrupt an immortal soul; which led him into the clandestine relations with the cabinet officers of Mr. Adams, and the ultimate breach of confidence he made such awkward attempts to hide; which prompted that application to the upright John Jay, marked by the latter with so significant a condemnation;1 and, lastly, which, in the vain idea of the importance to his ulterior schemes, of retaining the regards of superficial men, drove him, against his most solemn convictions of duty, to the act that presented him unanealed for the final sentence of his Maker.
In the election, the event which one section of the federalists had anxiously desired, an equality of the votes between Mr. Adams and Mr. Pinckney, did not happen, by reason of the refusal of Arthur Fenner, of Rhode Island, to sacrifice Mr. Adams. But the same thing did happen where it was not desired, and where no labor had been spent to bring it about, that is on the side which supported Mr. Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Each of these gentlemen received seventy-three votes, or three votes more than the number necessary for a choice. This did not point out who was to be President; so that the task of choosing between the two devolved upon the House of Representatives, a numerical majority of whom belonged to the federal side, although not a majority, when counted by States, according to the mode prescribed by the constitution for this election. Of course, Mr. Adams was now out of the question. He had nothing more to look forward to than the dreary pageant of three months which the constitution requires every President to enact after substantial power has departed from him.
The first sign of dissolution was the dropping away of the decayed limbs. So soon as General Pinckney was supposed to have failed, the scruples which had haunted the mind of Mr. Wolcott, about holding his office under Mr. Adams, returned with force. On the 8th of November, he addressed to the President a letter of resignation, which was to take effect at the close of the year, that is, about sixty days before the expiration of Mr. Adams’s own term. He was not ashamed to add something about affording him suitable time to designate a successor to the official crumbs which he was disposed to leave unconsumed. So adroitly had he conducted himself, that Mr. Adams, though aware of his devotion to the views of Mr. Hamilton, had never ranged him in his mind in the same category with Colonel Pickering or McHenry. To the day of his death he always excepted him from the suspicions of bad faith, which he entertained of the others. Recent disclosures, however, place him in much the most sombre position of the three. From the day of the departure of his comrades, he remained the only person of the cabinet in secret relations with Mr. Hamilton. Not deterred by their dismissal, he seems to have used the warning only to labor the harder to cover the traces of his industrious treachery. His efforts to betray and disgrace his chief, as well by stimulating the disaffection of others wherever he could, as by supplying and revising the materials for the vindictive assault of Mr. Hamilton, are now before the world. It is no part of the present design to dwell upon them further than is necessary to show how deeply Mr. Adams was wronged by this behavior. One of the favorite modes of detraction resorted to by him and his associates was to describe his chief as unreasonably jealous and suspicious. How little he deserved this at the hands of Mr. Wolcott will now appear. Towards the last days of his official term, Mr. Adams, remembering that his old secretary had retired under no favorable pecuniary circumstances, fixed upon him, though long removed from practice in the courts, as a suitable recipient of the life-long post of judge of the circuit court of the United States, under the law freshly passed for the reorganization of the courts. He did this without prompting or suggestion from any one, out of personal regard, and in the overflowing confidence of his heart in one whom he believed to have been faithful to him, and honorable in all his dealings. Mr. Wolcott betrayed no sensitive delicacy in accepting this most unmerited reward. He did not look back upon the secret letters which might, some day, show him to the world as he really was. He confessed nothing, but cheerfully took the gift from the hand of the man he had so sedulously labored to destroy. In his letter of acknowledgment he promised a change at least for the future. “Believing,” said he, “that gratitude to benefactors is among the most amiable, and ought to be among the most indissoluble of social obligations, I shall, without reserve, cherish the emotions which are inspired by a sense of duty and honor on this occasion.” There is reason to suppose that from that date to the end of his life, he kept this promise; for letters down to a late period remain among Mr. Adams’s papers as evidence to show it. Had it not been for the revival of the memory of these events, in the most painful form of partisan harshness towards Mr. Adams, by the publication of Mr. Wolcott’s papers, this exposition, unwillingly made, and based almost exclusively upon the testimony therein furnished, would never have been needed.
The second session of the sixth congress began on the 22d of November, with a speech from the President, destined to be his last. It is remarkable as more exclusively his own work than any of its predecessors. The exordium, which is brief and dignified, alludes in suitable terms to the inauguration of the new seat of government at Washington, where the different departments of government were now for the first time assembled.
“May this territory,” he said, “be the residence of virtue and happiness! In this city may that piety and virtue, that wisdom and magnanimity, that constancy and self-government, which adorned the great character whose name it bears, be forever held in veneration! Here, and throughout our country, may simple manners, pure morals, and true religion flourish forever!”
Recommending to the care of congress the territory thus consecrated, he proceeded to give a summary of the relations of the country with foreign nations, and of the state of the negotiations yet pending with Great Britain and France. A treaty of amity and commerce had been concluded with Prussia. Turning from thence to the view of domestic affairs, he touched upon the reduction effected of the military organization, recommended further measures for the establishment of a defensive naval force, and dwelt with some urgency on the necessity of amending the judiciary system. He congratulated the House of Representatives upon the prosperous condition of the revenue during the year, the amount received exceeding that of any former equal period, and concluded with the following somewhat significant exhortation:—
“As one of the grand community of nations, our attention is irresistibly drawn to the important scenes which surround us. If they have exhibited an uncommon portion of calamity, it is the province of humanity to deplore, and of wisdom to avoid the causes which may have produced it. If, turning our eyes homeward, we find reason to rejoice at the prospect which presents itself; if we perceive the interior of our country prosperous, free and happy; if all enjoy in safety, under the protection of laws emanating only from the general will, the fruits of their own labor, we ought to fortify and cling to those institutions which have been the source of much real felicity, and resist with unabating perseverance the progress of those dangerous innovations which may diminish their influence.”
This picture of the state of the country was not in the least exaggerated. The trying crisis caused by the French revolution was now over, and the people were just beginning to feel the prosperity, which was about to come upon them in a flood. All that was needed was peace, and this was on the point of being secured to them. The great responsibility which Mr. Adams had assumed, was completely redeemed by the event. The neutrality of the country was saved. A few weeks brought the tidings of the success of the much denounced commission to France, in framing a convention. Straggling murmurs against the insufficiency of its provisions from some of the malcontents availed nothing against the general disposition to accept it as a terminator of all differences. Only one important objection was raised to it. The second article annulled the old treaties containing the guarantee that had proved so troublesome, but it left the question of indemnities on both sides for past grievances, as a matter to be settled at some more convenient time. This involved on the one side the question of compensation for surrender of the guarantee, and on the other the indemnity for injuries done by the spoliations upon American commerce, during the violence of the revolution. The Senate, not content to leave open a source of future dissensions, ratified the treaty, with the exception of this article, which they desired to have expunged, and of the substitution of a provision that it should be in force for eight years. The President accepted the ratification in this form, but not without leaving on record his own opinion, that the treaty was better as it originally stood. Further negotiations became necessary. Assent to the required modifications was readily obtained from Napoleon, but it was saddled with a little proviso the effect of which went far to prove the correctness of the President’s opinion. It was in these words: “Provided that by this retrenchment the two States renounce the respective pretensions, which are the object of the said article.” This little condition abandoned the rights of reclamation to the amount of twenty or thirty millions of dollars, for the most unjustifiable robberies of private property ever committed by a civilized nation. The United States obtained from this abandonment of the claims of some of their citizens a great benefit; but to this day those citizens and their descendants have had no reason to draw any favorable distinction between the parties abroad who originally did the wrong, and those at home who profited by sacrificing their rights, and who yet withhold from them even the most trifling compensation. Very fortunately for Mr. Adams, this, the only stain which attaches to that negotiation, does not rest upon his garments.
Two domestic events of note mark this session. The first was the election of a President of the United States for the first time by the House of Representatives. The second was the passage of an act to reorganize the judicial system of the Union.
In the first case it has been already stated, that the choice was confined between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. There was not a doubt in the mind of a single member, which of the two the popular will intended to make the President. There should not have been a doubt which should be preferred. Yet such is the strength of party passions, when once roused, that no calculation of what will be done can ever be based upon merely abstract considerations of expediency or of right. The federalists controlled the voices of six States, and they neutralized two more. There were sixteen States, nine of whom were necessary to elect. But Mr. Jefferson had only eight in his favor. He therefore could not be chosen without their assent express or implied. It was enough that they had the power to change the result, for them to be tempted to use it. The combined fear and hatred of Mr. Jefferson, who seemed to many of them the type of destruction to every thing valuable on earth, perhaps not unmingled with a hope of making terms not absolutely unfavorable to a revival of their own influence, led them, as a choice of evils, to give the preference to Mr. Burr. The violation of the spirit of a popular election, by a perversion of its forms, had been already made so familiar to them by the sanction of Mr. Hamilton, that they were little moved by his remonstrances, now that they were earnestly applied to prevent this to him very unwelcome result. Such is not infrequently the consequence of such a departure from sound principle to serve a temporary end.
Mr. Hamilton was not averse to any refinement of policy short of actually electing Mr. Burr. He wrote to Mr. Wolcott, that it might “be well enough to throw out a lure for him, in order to tempt him to start for the plate, and then lay the foundation of dissension between the two chiefs.1 But further than this, he was unwilling to go. There can be no doubt that in this scruple he was right. But he could not fail to foresee that in case of Burr’s success he could have no hope of exercising more control over either the chief or those who had elected him than he would have done under Mr. Adams. To him Burr was the most formidable of all opponents, because he lived on his own ground, and baffled him at every turn. But the federalists being mostly from the Northern States, sympathized the more with Burr for that very reason. Parties rarely spend the time in refining. If it was allowable to “throw out a lure to Mr. Burr,” the step was easy to giving him a vote. Thus it happened that the federal members took a course, success in which would have proved a misfortune, and wherein failure sunk them forever in the public esteem. Notwithstanding the election of Mr. Jefferson was effected at last by the honest scruples of some, and the timidity of others, who withdrew their opposition, that triumph gave so great an impulse to the victors, that no credit was ever awarded to those through whom it was attained. In all such political strokes, no medium is to be found between success and utter ruin. The great federal party which had shed so much lustre over the inauguration of the new government, which claimed Washington as its solar orb, and a host of the best and greatest of the revolutionary heroes as its lesser lights, sunk in obscurity and disgrace, martyrs to the false and immoral maxim, that the end will sometimes justify bad means.
It is one of the inconveniences attending the elective forms of the federal government, that every fourth year must be wasted in the process of transition from one administration to another. Most especially is this true, when the change becomes at the same time a change of parties. The acting President is then left scarcely strong enough to preserve the ordinary course of business. This inconvenience was most seriously felt by Mr. Adams. The desertion of Mr. Wolcott rendered it impossible to find a person, not already in office, willing to occupy the post of Secretary of the Treasury for only two months; and what was true in that case was equally true in every other, the tenure of which was subject to be terminated by the incoming President. As a consequence, Mr. Dexter was transferred to the treasury from the war department, whilst the latter was left temporarily under the same charge. There was, however, one class of exceptions to this rule. The federalists, who still held the power in both Houses, alarmed by the prospect of having Mr. Jefferson at the head of affairs, a man whose opinions respecting the judiciary were supposed to be radical in the extreme, determined upon carrying into effect the other measure of this session, already alluded to, the reorganization of the federal courts. This had been often and repeatedly urged by the executive, and was really called for by the changes that had taken place in the population and circumstances of the country. The union of the duties of riding a circuit with those attached to a seat upon the supreme bench, whilst it has some advantages, has, in a wide-spread land and under cumulative litigation, objections which become more and more serious with the progress of time. It must sooner or later be abandoned. The new act reduced the number of justices of the supreme court in future, and increased the district courts to twenty-three, arranged into six circuits to be travelled by three judges in each. It was not in itself ill devised for the purposes intended, but it happened quite unfortunately that it established a large number of offices with a life-tenure, which were to be filled.
Had the President determined to withhold the appointments, in such a manner as to give the nomination to his successor, a serious difficulty might have been avoided, and the irritation, which ultimately effected the repeal of the act, prevented. Had he been, what the violent federalists not infrequently in their private correspondence say he was, disposed to court his opponents, nothing would have been more easy than to have secured their good-will by a simple omission to act. This course would have been under all circumstances the most advisable. But Mr. Adams, once entertaining the most friendly feelings toward Mr. Jefferson, had had his faith in his principles greatly shaken in the contests of the preceding twelve years, and most especially in regard to his disposition towards the judiciary. He fully believed that the control he might obtain over the courts, by filling them with the extreme men among his followers, would endanger the safety of the government itself. He therefore viewed the power placed in his hands as one which it was a paramount duty to exercise, for the best good of the Union. The last days of the session were therefore spent in a laborious effort to select from the great number of candidates recommended, such as seemed the most capable, honest, and firm to fill these seats.
It naturally followed, that members of the federal party were generally appointed. Mr. Jefferson resented this more than any other act of Mr. Adams’s life. But in view of the events which followed his entry into office, the attack made upon the courts, as well as the particular assaults upon several of its officers through the forms of impeachment, it may well be questioned whether the vehement contest on the incidental question of the repeal of this new law, did not prove a shelter to the general system, and ensure it the stability which it has enjoyed ever since. Almost at the same time happened the resignation by Mr. Ellsworth of his high post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Mr. Adams immediately offered the place to John Jay, then Governor of New York; and, upon his declining it on account of his health, he tendered it to John Marshall, his Secretary of State. These appointments excited dissatisfaction on both sides of him. The ultra federalists murmured at the nomination of Jay as useless, and complained that Patterson had been overlooked in order to reward a favorite; the opposition, that the strongest opponent of their chief in Virginia had been set as a check over him. But looking back upon the events of the first half of this century, and upon the combination of qualities, requisite to fill that most responsible and difficult post in such a manner as to consolidate instead of weakening the Union, it is scarcely possible for the most prejudiced man to deny that the selection by John Adams of John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States was, for its political consequences, second in importance only to that virtually made by the same individual, twenty-five years earlier, of George Washington, as commander-in-chief of their armies.
Thus terminated the official life of Mr. Adams. His Presidency had been one long and severe trial, in the course of which it was his lot to have his firmness and independence of spirit put to the test for the fourth time in his career, under circumstances more appalling than ever before. For the first time his own popularity sunk completely under the shock. He retired disgraced in the popular estimation, and his name became a by-word of odium for many years. But he had fully redeemed the pledge into which he entered with himself at the commencement of his career, to “act a fearless, intrepid, undaunted part,” though not forgetting “likewise to act a prudent, cautious, and considerate part.”1 And never was a union of these qualities more exemplified than during this administration, in the course of which his inflexible courage had saved the neutral policy, and had removed the obstacles which threatened the prosperity of the nation at the moment that he took the helm.
Residence of John Adams.
[1 ]The authorities to sustain the text are collected in a note in vol. ix. p. 51. There is, however, a letter of Mr. Hamilton to President Washington, not mentioned there, which gives a complete view of the difficulties in the way of reorganizing the cabinet at this period. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. pp. 61-63.
[1 ]See a remarkable letter of Colonel Pickering to Mr. Hamilton, explaining the causes of his own promotion, and the reasons of his acceptance. The following words are of great significance: “The President, beyond all doubt, will at the close of his present term retire forever from public life. We do not know who will succeed him. Our internal politics, and our exterior relations, may be deeply affected by the character and principles of the President, and the Secretary of State.” Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. pp. 67-69.
[2 ]The nature and extent of Mr. Hamilton’s influence is curiously illustrated by the tone of his letter to Oliver Wolcott, of the 15th June, 1796. Works of Hamilton, vol. vi. pp. 129-131.
[1 ]He is so described by Mr. Wolcott, Gibbs’s Fed. Adm. vol. i. p. 487, and by Mr. Hamilton, Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 247.
[1 ]The opposition of Mr. Wolcott to the new mission, stiff whilst he supposes Mr. Adams alone to favor it, becomes ductile when he traces the same sentiment to Mr. Hamilton. See his letter to Hamilton of 31 March, 1797. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 221. Colonel Pickering appealed to him from a check by Mr. Adams, within the first month. Ib. p. 220.
[1 ]The substance of this paragraph may be gathered from a close study of the guarded intimations contained in the letter of Mr. Wolcott to Hamilton, above cited.
[1 ]Compare the seven propositions, with the seven in Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. pp. 269-271. The only difference is in the recommendation to fortify the principal ports, and to raise fifty thousand men instead of thirty-six. That McHenry was in the habit of drawing upon Hamilton for his papers is shown in other places. Hamilton’s Works, vol. v. passim. Vol. vi. pp. 267, 282.
[1 ]In order that there may be no doubt on this subject, an extract from Mr. McHenry’s opinion is subjoined:—
“As to England. Notwithstanding her naval victories and undisputed control of the ocean, her fate remains yet perhaps precarious, and must continue so, as long as invasion remains practicable or possible. This consideration may render it best to avoid entangling ourselves with an alliance. It may be said, besides, that the interest she has in our fate will command as much from her as a treaty; that, moreover, if she can maintain her own ground, she will not see us fall, and if she cannot, our help will not maintain her, and a treaty will not be observed. It may be said further; if we enter into an alliance, and France should endeavor to detach us from it, by offering advantageous terms of peace, it would be a difficult and dangerous task to the President to resist the popular cry for acceptance of her terms.
“Upon the whole, it would appear the safest course to avoid any formal treaty, and to do no more than to communicate through Mr. King the measures in train; to sound Great Britain as to a loan; as to convoys; and coöperation in case of open rupture, pointing the coöperation to the Floridas, Louisiana, and the South American possessions of Spain, if rupture, as is probable, should extend to her; to prevail on Britain to lodge in her minister here ample authority for all these purposes, as far as they can be managed by him, but to do all this without any formal engagement or commitment in the first instance. It might also be thrown out, in the event of coöperation, that we should expect all on this side the Mississippi, with New Orleans, to be ours. It would also appear expedient to direct a provisional negotiation to be opened for ten ships of the line, to be manned and commanded by us, to have effect, should congress give authority to the President, in case of open rupture, to provide so many. It would be best to charge with the instructions a confidential messenger.”
Compare with this, Hamilton’s letter to Pickering, printed in his Works, vol. vi. p. 278, and that to King, p. 348, and the later policy, as hereafter explained. The plan seems to have been communicated to the British government through Mr. King, but not as coming from the American government. This needs further explanations. Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 368.
[1 ]The questions are to be found in vol. viii. pp. 561-62.
[2 ]Pickering to Hamilton. Works of Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 307.
[1 ]The original project, signed by persons calling themselves deputies of South America, will be found in full in the Appendix to the present volume (G.)
[1 ]“Vos souhaits sont remplis.” So says Miranda to Hamilton, in his letter of the 19th of October. Edinburgh Review, vol. xiii. p. 291. Mr. Hamilton explains them for himself in his letter to Rufus King. Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 347.
[2 ]After describing the extent of the military supplies to be provided, Mr. Hamilton writes to his friend, General Gunn, of Georgia: “This, you perceive, looks to offensive operations. If we are to engage in war, our game will be to attack where we can. France is not to be considered as separated from her ally. Tempting objects will be within our grasp.” Works, vol. v. p. 184.
[1 ]Hamilton to King, Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 347. This letter is deserving of the closest attention by all who desire to understand the history of this period. Mr. King’s public and private papers, not yet before the world, must throw a flood of light on these transactions. See also Hamilton to Miranda, in the same volume, p. 348.
[1 ]This is stated by himself, in the advertisement prefixed to his early pamphlet in answer to Wilkins, Works, vol. ii. p. 38.
[2 ]The expectation of a great crisis haunted his mind during several of his last years. See the Life of Gouverneur Morris, vol. iii. p. 217. Also the Works of Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 281.
[3 ]See the letter of Hamilton to Rufus King, Works, vol. vi. p. 416. See also a significant intimation in General Harper’s letter to Hamilton, Works, vol. vi. p. 282. Also the allusion to “the possibility of internal disorders” in Hamilton to Otis, Works, vol. vi. p. 380, Hamilton to Dayton, ib. p. 384.
Of Mr. Ames’s sympathizing opinion there can be no doubt. See his letter to Wolcott, Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 320. “I would have in preparation the force to decide the issue in favor of government.”
[1 ]Hamilton to Pickering, in Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 355.
[1 ]This is plainly hinted at in a note from Pickering to Wolcott, Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 71. Mr. Adams has himself explained it more fully in his letters to James Lloyd, in the 10th volume of this work.
[1 ]It is to be observed that Rufus King, then minister in London, in two letters, a week apart, announced to Mr. Hamilton this change in the French policy as certain. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. pp. 357, 359.
[2 ]This must have been in the first week of October.
[3 ]This was on the 9th of October. Vol. viii. Appendix (A.) pp. 677-684. The dispatches were sent to Philadelphia, as a portion was to be deciphered, and returned on the 18th, in season to produce the letter of the 20th.
[4 ]Works, vol. viii. p. 609.
[1 ]There is no evidence yet before the world, that General Washington actually took part in the consultation.
[2 ]In writing to his wife, on his arrival, he says: “For once I have accomplished a journey from Quincy to High Street without one escorting man or horse. This was done by invention, as I will explain some other time.” Yet this was the person charged by his opponents with a great fondness for forms and ceremonies.
[1 ]It is printed in a note to the passage of the speech of which it was intended to make a part. Vol. ix. p. 131.
[1 ]These three material words are not found in the draft printed in Mr. Gibbs’s Work.
[1 ]Not only the fact that a party urged a declaration of war at this time is conceded, but the propriety of it is maintained and defended, in Mr. Gibbs’s Work, vol. ii. pp. 216-217. The issue is, therefore, clearly made up on this point.
[2 ]Mr. Hamilton has left on record his warning to General Washington of the necessity of keeping a check on Colonel Pickering. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. pp. 162-163.
[1 ]This seems the unavoidable construction to be put upon the language of Mr. Hamilton, when he speaks of “surrounding the constitution with more ramparts,” and of “the erection of additional buttresses to the constitution, a fabric which can hardly be stationary, and which will retrograde, if it cannot be made to advance.” Works, vol. vi. pp. 384, 416.
[1 ]The notes of M. Talleyrand to M. Pichon were actually printed in a newspaper in Virginia in the summer of 1799.
[1 ]Mr. Jefferson indeed reports one of the secretaries as saying that if the cabinet had been consulted, the advice would have been against the nomination. Writings of Jefferson, Washington’s edit. vol. iv. p. 297. Although this is probable, Mr. Jefferson’s statements respecting his opponents during this period must be taken with caution.
[1 ]Letter to Madison, 26 February, 1799, in Washington’s Edition, vol. iv. p. 298. Mr. Jefferson’s letters during this period scarcely do him credit.
[1 ]Mr. Sedgwick admits that it was “an infraction of correct principles,” but, as usual with party men, he lays the blame of it on necessity. Works of Hamilton, vol. v. p. 217.
[1 ]Sedgwick to Hamilton. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 400.
[1 ]Gibbs, vol. ii. pp. 213-214.
[1 ]J. McHenry to G. Washington, in Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 281. T. Pickering to G. Washington, ib. p. 280. S. Higginson to O. Wolcott, ib. p. 245. G. Cabot to O. Wolcott, ib. p. 284. F. Ames to T. Pickering. Works of Ames, vol. i. p. 257.
“We expected that the mission would first be delayed, and then be relinquished, and our former position, as far as possible, be resumed.” J. Morse to O. Wolcott, in Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 287. Dr. Morse’s testimony is to the point only as it reflects the ideas current in his circle.
[2 ]Secretary of State to J. Adams. Vol. ix. p. 23.
[1 ]Gibbs, vol. ii. pp. 265-267.
[2 ]To Mr. Pickering he says, “the middle of October.” See vol. ix. p. 30. And again, “between the 20th and 30th,” p. 33. To Judge Ellsworth “even to the 1st November,” p. 35.
[1 ]McHenry to Washington. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 282.
[2 ]This may be inferred from Mr. Wolcott’s language in his letter to Mr. Hamilton respecting this affair. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 278.
[3 ]McHenry to Washington, ib. p. 282.
[1 ]Hamilton to Dayton. Works of Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 388. S. Higginson to O. Wolcott. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 230.
[2 ]See, for example, the letters in vol. viii. pp. 654, 655, 656, 657, 667, 668.
[3 ]This is visible in many of his unpublished, as well as in his published letters.
[1 ]A very good picture of his mind at this time is given in his letter to Rufus King of the 5th of January, 1800. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. pp. 415-417.
[1 ]Cabot to Hamilton, in Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 459. James McHenry to O. Wolcott. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 385. Harper’s Letter to his constituents, there quoted.
[2 ]Hamilton to Sedgwick. Works, vol. vi. pp. 440, 441.
[1 ]Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 443.
[1 ]Wolcott to Hamilton. Works, vol. vi. p. 444.
[1 ]See the Letters. Vol. viii. pp. 644, 645.
[2 ]See the Letters. Vol. viii. pp. 648, 649, 650.
[1 ]See vol. ix. pp. 57-58. The view of treason opened in this case there is no room here to consider. It must infallibly come up for revision at some time or other in the courts of the United States.
[1 ]“If I can escape from the toils without loss of character, I will take care not to expose myself to such risques as I have of late encountered.” Such is Mr. Wolcott’s confession of his state of mind at the time of his resignation. In view of this, and of his subsequent change of course, it has not been without deep regret that these strictures have been prepared. But they seem absolutely demanded by the use that has been made of his papers since his decease. Had these been permitted to remain undisclosed, or had they not been made the groundwork of new attacks upon Mr. Adams’s good name, no part of this picture could have been painted. For Mr. Adams always retained his confidence in Mr. Wolcott’s good faith. There is not a trace of the contrary recollected among his papers.
[1 ]For single examples of this confession, in the instances named, see Mr. Gibbs’s Work, vol. ii. pp. 384, 407, 431. Ames’s Works, vol. ii. p. 281. A. Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 479. But this is no way to get at the whole truth. He who seeks it, must read all the letters together, so far as they have yet been permitted to see the light, and compare the general drift of them with the estimable character of their authors in private life.
[1 ]Mr. Gibbs, whose admissions must be taken as superseding the necessity of further citation of authorities, so far as they relate to the policy of this section of the federalists, concedes that “an alliance might have taken place.” but he says, “it would have been for common defence.” Vol. ii. p. 219. Mr. Hamilton, however, expressly declares that he contemplated offensive operations. Works, vol. v. p. 184.
[1 ]Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 422. A curious example of the feeling of the time is found in a letter of Timothy Phelps to Oliver Wolcott. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 380.
[1 ]Cabot to Hamilton. Works, vol. vi. p. 453.
[2 ]Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 449.
[1 ]See the letters in full. Wolcott to Hamilton. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 416. Cabot to Hamilton. Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 458. Ames to Hamilton, ib. p. 463. Hamilton to Wolcott. Gibbs, vol. ii. p. 422.
[1 ]Madison Papers, vol. i. p. 351. The reason why Mr. Hamilton retired from his post of aid-de-camp to Washington is well known. Mr. Jefferson testifies to the same tendency in Washington.
[1 ]The remarks of the historian Niebuhr upon this trait of Cicero’s character are of universal application, and are well deserving of consideration by generous minds. Lectures on the History of Rome, edited by Dr. Schmitz, vol. iii. pp. 24, 25.
[2 ]“I am bound to tell you that you are accused, by respectable men, of egotism; and some very worthy and sensible men say, you have exhibited the same vanity in your book, which you charge as a dangerous quality and great weakness in Mr. Adams. Cabot to Hamilton. Works of Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 482.
[1 ]For the same reason it has not been deemed necessary to enlarge upon some minor errors of fact which occur in the course of the pamphlet; nor to touch upon the use made of the accidental publication at the moment of Mr. Adams’s private letter to Tench Coxe, dated eight years before, in which he had inadvertently done some injustice to Thomas Pinckney. That injustice he had amply repaired by a public letter before he saw this pamphlet or any extracts from it. A memorandum to this effect, dated the 27th of October, 1800, is written by his own hand on his copy of the pamphlet.
[2 ]Mr. Hamilton thought of answering them, but was deterred from it by his friends. Works of Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 477. Gibbs’s Fed. Adm. vol. ii. pp. 448, 454.
[1 ]This pamphlet, with the note attached, and some other tracts, bound in a volume once belonging to Collot, was brought from France, since the commencement of this work, by one of its publishers, the late James Brown, and is now in the possession of the author.
[2 ]One of Mr. Hamilton’s most ardent friends, General Gunn, of Georgia, seems to lament that this double treachery had not been committed. Works of A. Hamilton, vol. vi. p. 483.
[1 ]Jay’s Life of John Jay, vol. i. p. 414.
[1 ]Hamilton to Wolcott. Hamilton’s Works, vol. vi. p. 486.
[1 ]See the Diary for the 24th May, 1773, vol. ii. p. 320.
Editors Note: This is Volume 1 of the 10 Volume “The Works of John Adams”, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). The author, Charles Henry Adams is John Adams grandson. The copyright for the original text is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. The font, and formatting of this version of The Works of John Adams, as well as all other Americanist Library and Founders Corner selections are, unless otherwise specified, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.