"When foreign Nations interfere, and by their acts, and agents, excite and foment them into parties and factions, such interference and influence, must be resisted and exterminated or it will end in America... in our total destruction as a republican Government and Independent power."
When Adams became President in March of 1797, the French had seized nearly 300 American ships bound for British ports. They had ordered this measure in retaliation for the Jay Treaty the U.S. had signed with Great Britain, which the French considered evidence of an Anglo-American alliance. Relations between France and the...
When Adams became President in March of 1797, the French had seized nearly 300 American ships bound for British ports. They had ordered this measure in retaliation for the Jay Treaty the U.S. had signed with Great Britain, which the French considered evidence of an Anglo-American alliance. Relations between France and the U.S. worsened when Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, rejected the Federalist Charles C. Pinckney as America’s minister to France.
In the U.S., Republicans believed that it was the intention of the Adams administration to stir up trouble with France (like selecting an anti-French ambassador to Paris) so as to steer the U.S. towards the British, and they opposed the President’s measures and appointments. The American people were more disunited and disaffected than ever; the French continued to seize American ships, many Federalists demanded war on France, and Republicans cried foul. Seeking to avoid a war, President Adams sent a three member commission to Paris consisting of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry. After many delays the American commissioners were approached by three intermediaries of Talleyrand, who demanded apologies for allusions critical of France made by Adams and payment of a bribe of several million dollars before official negotiations could proceed.
The American delegates found this bribery unacceptable and the mission ended unsuccessfully. Adams received a report of this exchange in March 1798 and he was outraged. He hesitated, however, to release the complete details of the report for fear that it would increase war fever. Congress, and particularly his Republican opponents, thought he was withholding information because the talks showed a peaceable resolution was feasible, and on April 2 demanded the entire report be immediately turned over to it. Adams complied.
At this point Adams’ situation was completely transformed. Americans were furious at the bribery demand and opposition to Adams’ handling of the crisis collapsed. As many of his critics became advocates, Adams became widely popular, the only time in his life of which this can be said. As a tangible expression of this sentiment, patriotic addresses of support came in from around the country. Adams revelled in his new-found popularity, and as stated in The Age of Federalism by Elkins & McKitrick, “Adams spent a large portion of his time feasting upon these addresses, composing replies to each one himself…each reply echoing the soaring feelings they inspired in his bosom.”
The President was a historian, philosopher and classical scholar, and as he drafted his responses, he made full use of his knowledge to not merely address the issues of the day, but to provide historical lessons and offer his considered opinions on political philosophy and republics. A number of the more important of these addresses, with Adams’ answers to them, were printed at the time in book form: A Selection of the Patriotic Addresses to the President of the United States. Together with the President’s Answers, John W. Folsom, Boston, 1798. In it, we find ”The Address and Memorial of the Citizens of Baltimore and Baltimore County, to the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States.”
This letter from America’s fifth largest city, directed to Adams and supporting the government, must have warmed his heart. The Baltimorians wrote: “That your memorialists at this important and eventful crisis, when a foreign nation…has menaced with destruction the freedom and independence of the United States, and represented the citizens thereof to be a divided people, feel themselves impelled by considerations of duty and love to their country, to express their sentiments and declare their determination to support the constituted authorities. Your memorialists highly applaud the wise and liberal measures pursued by the government of the United States…and although warmly attached to peace…we cannot for a moment hesitate in making our election between freedom and servile submission to a foreign power. Having the fullest confidence in the wisdom of our government, we submit to their consideration the necessity of placing our country in a state of defence, and protecting our commerce; and trust…temporary inconvenience resulting from the interruption of peace will not be considered of such magnitude as to be placed in competition with the sovereignty and freedom of the United States, whose existence is unjustly threatened.”
Adams, the atlas, instigator and philosopher of American independence, responded in this letter reflecting his thoughts on the nature of republics and his concern that the fledgling American government make such a system work – something no European nation had yet managed. He also defined his view on the scope of freedom of expression, saying that divisions of opinion are a natural and often salutary part of a republic, so long as foreign nations are not able to foment those divisions into a destructive disunity. On the immediate political questions, the President stated that the United States would defend itself and protect its commerce from foreign powers in order to maintain its sovereignty. This is Adams’ reply to the people of Baltimore, a reply printed in Folsom’s book.
The sense you entertain of the conduct of a foreign nation in threatening with destruction the freedom, and Independence, of the United States, and representing the Citizens of America as a divided people, is such as patriotism naturally and necessarily inspires.
Letter Signed as President, Philadelphia, May 2, 1798, “To the Citizens of Baltimore & Baltimore County in the State of Maryland.” “Thank you for communicating to me this respectful address. The sense you entertain of the conduct of a foreign nation in threatening with destruction the freedom, and Independence, of the United States, and representing the Citizens of America as a divided people, is such as patriotism naturally and necessarily inspires. The fate of every republic in Europe however, from Poland to Geneva, has given too much cause for such thoughts and projects in our Enemies, and such apprehensions in our Friends and ourselves. Republics are always divided in opinions concerning forms of Government, and plans, and details of administration – these divisions are generally harmless, often salutary, and seldom very hurtful, except when foreign Nations interfere, and by their acts, and agents, excite and foment them into parties and factions; such interference and influence, must be resisted and exterminated or it will end in America, as it did anciently in Greece, and in our own time in Europe, in our total destruction as a republican Government and Independent power. The liberal applause you bestow on the measures pursued by the Government, for the adjustment of differences and restoration of harmony, your resolutions of Resistance in preference to submission to any foreign power, your confidence in the Government, your recommendation of measures of defences of the Country, and protection of its commerce, and your generous resolution to submit to the Expences and temporary inconveniencies which may be necessary to preserve the sovereignty, and freedom of the United States are received with much respect.” His docket on the verso, “Answer to Baltimore,” indicates that this is Adams’ own retained copy of the letter.
The mailed copy is likely in the Baltimore archives to this day. Adams’ concern for determining the nature and bounds of a republic, and for finding a way to successfully maintain one, brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s comment on the same subect. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him what type of government the Constitution was bringing into existence. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Adams here articulates the important political principle that dissent and differences of opinion should form a part of the fabric of the American republic, though drawing the line that they are “salutory” unless they arise to divisions “fomented” by foreign powers. He also takes a strong patriotic position, insisting that he will defend “the freedom, and Independence, of the United States…” The man who first proposed American independence was not about to permit any nation to threaten it. Adams would have served himself best by sticking to the positions he propounded in this letter. Instead, in July 1798, he advocated and signed the Sedition Act, a law that contained broad prohibitions on spoken or written criticism of the government, the Congress or the President (and lacked the element of foreign involvement). This revived the opposition against him, and prominent Jeffersonians were tried, and some were convicted, in sedition proceedings. Kentucky and Virginia then passed resolutions purporting to nullify the Act, and its enforcement did much to unify the Republican party and to foster Republican victory in the election of 1800.
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