By Gary J. Schmitt and Joseph M. Bessette
Social Science Research Network
This essay analyzes John Adams’s understanding of executive power and Adams’s practice as president. Its principal focus is the constitutional issues surrounding Adams’s handling of the national security crisis with France and the resulting Quasi-War. It examines Adams’s views on executive leadership, his administration’s relationship with Congress, and Adams’s relationship with his own cabinet–all within the context of the rise of national partisan politics and the emergence of the Republican Party.
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In his writings Adams had advocated that a nation’s chief executive should provide balance to the political order by standing above and, when needed, resolving disputes between the lower and upper legislative chambers—and more deeply, the classes they would represent. The problem was, this was not really America where the real political divide had become one of parties, not social class.Adams’s desire to stand above this political divide meant that he never considered the possibility of using his leadership position to balance the growth of the Republican party with a coherent, more populist Federalist party agenda of its own. Instead, the High Federalists, who believed that the government’s design and practice was to minimize its republican character as much as was feasible, were free to drive the Federalist persuasion into a political dead end. Yet, not to be forgotten, it was also Adams’s sense of independence, when combined with the constitutional and institutional tools at the president’s disposal, which allowed him to bring the crisis with France to a successful conclusion.