02 John Adams


  • Identify the key events of John Adams’ presidency
  • Describe why Adams was unsuccessful in his re-election bid
  • Evaluate Adams’ impact on American history

Despite an impeccable political resume, founding father John Adams had a difficult presidency.  Adam’s personality did not suit the job as well as Washington’s.  He was hot headed and prone to fits of depression.  Situations he faced also made his term in office tough.  Adam’s presidency was marked by three major decisions: his handling of the XYZ Affair, the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and his infamous midnight appointments.

The XYZ Affair was a major event during Adam’s presidency.  As France and Britain fought in the Napoleonic Wars, the United States got dragged into the European conflict.  France began seizing American ships bound for Britain.  Adams sent a delegation of diplomats to France to ask them to stop and avoid war.  The French officials that met with the Americans demanded a bribe.  When word got back to Congress about this, war-hawks in Congress wanted war with France.

Despite the pressure to go to war with France, Adams sent a second peace delegation to France and they hammered out a peaceful solution.  Adams faced criticism for even attempting to make peace with the French, despite the fact that the result was far better than a war would have been.

The Alien and Sedition Acts caused further controversy during Adams term in office.  Adams was hypersensitive to criticism. The XYZ Affair gave his opponents reason to criticize him.  The Federalist controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, as set of laws making the spreading of untrue statements about federal officials a crime.  Adams and Congress claimed that these laws were necessary as an issue of national security.  The public, however, viewed it as presidential insecurity.  Adams already had a poor image and this limit on freedom of speech was seen as him abusing power.  The Alien and Sedition Acts did much to ruin Adam’s bid for re-election  in 1800.  He became the first president to not win a second term.

A third important event of Adams presidency came at the end with his infamous midnight appointments, leading to the Supreme Court Case Marbury v. Madison.  Adams did not take defeat gracefully.  He and his party lost both the Presidency and control of Congress to Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans.

The election of 1800 took place in November.  The winners of the election did not take office until March of the next year in those days.  In this period between the elections and the new terms, the lame duck Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, creating several new federal judgeships for Adams to appoint before leaving office.  The lame duck period is the time between and election and when an official leaves office.  Because they’re leaving, they really don’t have much power.  The Federalist controlled Congress hoped to put as many Federalists in the court system to make sure Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans didn’t change the country.

Adams made the appointments up until leaving Washington.  His Secretary of State, John Marshall, applied the seal to the documents, but left them to be delivered later.  Upon taking office, Jefferson refused to deliver several of the appointments, including Marbury’s.  Jefferson believed Adams was abusing his power with these appointments.

Marbury sued Secretary of State James Madison, claiming he was owed the appointment and wanted to Supreme Court to force his confirmation.  Surprisingly, the Supreme Court—which was populated with Federalists—ruled in favor of Jefferson and Madison and did not give Marbury his appointment.  In deciding on whether Marbury deserved his appointment, the court decided that the law giving the Supreme Court the power to force appointments though (called a writ of mandamus) was in violation of the Constitution.  Since the Supreme Court shouldn’t have the power to issue the writ, Marbury could not be confirmed as a federal judge.

The decision proved to be far more important than whether or not Marbury became a judge.  It established the Supreme Court power of judicial review—the ability to declare laws unconstitutional and nullify them.  This power is the Supreme Court’s most important check and balance against the executive and legislative branches.  Because the Constitution left so much to interpretation in regards to the operation of the court system, this Supreme Court system helped clearly define the role of the Court in American government.

Historians have re-evaluated  the Adams presidency in recent years.  Although he faced difficulties, his time in office still did much to solidify the strength of the American government.

Presidential Decision:  John Adams decided to send negotiators to France instead of going to war.


Presidency of John Adams

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BEFORE: 1 – George Washington          AFTER: 3 – Thomas Jefferson

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