Documents of American History
John Adams is an important figure in the history of this country at the most important time in its history: the time of its birth. He is a towering figure in American History and his accomplishments speak to protecting the rights of his fellow men, even if those men were British soldiers accused of shooting Americans as was the case with the Boston Massacre of 1770.
John Adams served as minister to France in 1777 when at that time, the colonists badly needed French intervention if they ever hoped to win the American Revolution. Adams also had a contributing role in America’s Declaration of Independence as he was a vocal member of the Continental Congress. Adams also wrote the Massachusetts State Constitution, including its Bill of Rights. All of the above mentioned speak to the love of freedom and the protection of these rights to which Adams spoke so dearly.
So then why during the 20th century, was Adams almost vilified compared to his friend and one time enemy Thomas Jefferson? It is peculiar how History seems to take sides over one issue of vilifies or glorifies one person above his real role in life. Both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln enjoyed such an honor during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th. Only recently, when it is almost certain, that Jefferson fathered children of a mixed breed, yet still owned 200 slaves at a time, when Adams spoke to the emancipation of slavery, does the playing field become more level.
This is especially true with David McCullough’s book John Adams, which actually sparked a Congressional insight into the importance of John Adams and a rethinking by the American public, spoke about the legacy of a man who was vital to the survival of this new experiment called the American Republic. Adams is vilified to a certain degree for two actions: forcing his bitterness over the loss of the 1800 election, not to greet the incoming President as is the custom now, and the dreaded Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which horrified Thomas Jefferson and helped lead to the one time best friends, not to speak to speak to each other for another twelve years.
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson will be forever linked together in American history. The 2nd and 3rd presidents of The United States and one time best friends, who later became political rivals and has the distinction of dying on the same day; the 50 anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, were giants in the quest for American Independence. John Adams, twice, served as a diplomat to France both during the American Revolution as well as in the years immediately following the war.
“Both Jefferson and Adams were very important times since historians later hailed French involvement in the American Revolution as what helped turned the tide of the war in the favor of the colonists.” (McCullough, 2001 p. 322) And as the war was nearing its end, John Adams wrote his state’s Constitution as well as its Bill of Rights. This Constitution, more than any other of its time, expanded these rights, to a greater degree than had been seen previously. Adams was instrumental in procuring the freedom of African Americans, who in Jefferson’s Virginia, would continue to be slaves or live in slave like conditions well after the end of the Civil War and despite the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. But it would not be until the 20th century that such ironies were given their proper attention.
“But it would be the passage of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act that would puzzle and infuriate all those that had been a part of the construction of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights in 1791 and specifically, the 1st amendment which protected, among others, a person’s right of free speech.” (Burns, 1997) This meaning has been expanded over the years but then as well as now, its first usage was to protect one who criticized the government, from reprisal.
The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts seemed to come in stark contrast to this most sacred of rights within the American Constitution. It said: “That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States… Shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $5,000 or a term in prison between five months to six years.” (Commanger, 1947 p. 177) This Act would later be repealed only to see the light of day again in 1918 during WWI. But such measures, horrified Thomas Jefferson and in response, wrote along with his friend James Madison, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which were in direct response to the Sedition Acts and portrayed the further split between the Federalist and Democratic Parties, made even wider by the personal disunion caused by Adams and Jefferson.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions stated that: “no power over freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press being delegated by the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain, and were reserved to the States, or to the people.” (Commanger, 1947 p. 179) This meant that Jefferson, always distrusting of big government and in line with his belief in states’ rights, proclaimed that the federal government had no jurisdiction in enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the fact that such restrictions on human freedom was in express contradiction to the Constitution and the ideals in which the American Revolution was fought in the first place.
Everyone who had been locked up or fined under the Alien and Sedition Act was either set free or reimbursed by the federal government along with written apologies when Thomas Jefferson took over as President in March of 1801.The feud between Jefferson and Adams, made even larger by the ugliness of the 1800 Presidential election, lasted until 1812, when both were out of public office. Jefferson started a correspondence with Adams in what would become one of the most poignant and heart filled pieces of American literature. They both reminisced about their time together, hoping that this experiment in human democracy called the United States was actually going to work or not. Apologies were not given but rather regret that so much time has been lost to two people that were so important to the nation as well as to each other, were expressed in the correspondence.
And what has to be one of the greatest coincidences in American history, two giants of American freedom who did not always practice what they preached; Adams’ enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Jefferson personally owning more than 200 slaves for most of his lifetime, but still responsible for the expansion of human rights in America, died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Each died while saying that the other still lives. They were both right in that respect.