Once Adams had won the presidency, his attention was instantly directed toward the foreign disputes that had plagued Washington’s administration, but now Adams had to deal with these issues on top of the newly developed political parties.
The United States and France are now strong allies (even with all the current disagreement among their leaders), but the relationship was not always so harmonious. During John Adams’ term as president, he found himself in a tricky situation with the newly formed republican government of France. This tension peaked during what came to be known as the XYZ Affair and ballooned into a pseudo-war between the U.S. and France. Adams continually tried to avoid the potential conflict by maintaining America’s neutrality in European affairs, which had been established under Washington’s term in office.
France was becoming increasingly more aggravated with the American government for their proclaimed neutrality in relation to France’s conflict with Great Britain and for their inaction in regards to the revolution that had overthrown King Louis XVI. The French people felt that the United States had wronged them by not helping in their own effort to free themselves from a corrupt monarchy. In response to this, President Adams sent three highly regarded ministers to France in an attempt to negotiate an end of hostilities between the two nations; interestingly enough, one of those ministers was future Chief Justice John Marshall. Once they arrived, the French foreign minister demanded that the trio pay him a hefty bribe and then supply the French government with an even larger loan if they wanted to get a meeting with government officials and formally begin negotiations. This practice was not uncommon within mainland Europe at this time, but nevertheless, it enraged the ambassadors who soon left France in a fury.
The failure of this potential meeting eventually led to the beginning of the Quasi War between the United States and France. It was never a formally recognized conflict, but the Federalists, who now controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, welcomed the conflict and used it as an opportunity to build up the nation’s military. This action greatly angered the Democratic-Republicans, who were pro-France and greatly opposed to a large federal military. Adams had tried to keep the reasons for the commission’s failure a secret by hesitating to disclose the bribery demand to congressional leaders. By withholding this information, Adams hoped to quell the demands for war – but ultimately the interest from Congress became too great and forced Adams’ hand. When he eventually released the documents to Congress, the names of the French actors were redacted and replaced with “X,” “Y,” and “Z” – hence the reasoning for the event being called the XYZ Affair. Once this information was made public, the Federalists demanded the president ask for a declaration of war against France in response to their hostile diplomatic actions. The Democratic-Republicans found themselves without a defense after the truth had been exposed, so the Federalists pushed forward with little opposition. However, Adams refused to ask for a declaration of war and tried to subdue the anger among his colleagues. His attempts were in vain as Congress went around the president to create the Department of the Navy in order to permit the construction of warships for attacking French vessels. The Federalists also voted to nullify America’s treaty with France from 1778 and authorized military action against French warships. The conflict was ultimately solved with another treaty in 1800, but came to deeply define the beginning of America’s attitude toward the world.
These actions taken by Congress against the president’s wishes displayed the dream of America; a place where three separate but equal branches of government were permitted to work in opposition of one another. The founders had intended for Congress to hold substantial power over the president and Supreme Court, in order to prevent the formation of a dictatorship. It is almost unbelievable for modern Americans to realize how much authority Congress holds in regard to authorizing military attacks and developing their own foreign policy in opposition of the president. And just as Congress’ job is to ensure that one man does not make all the decisions for America, it was revealed to be the president’s duty to prevent mob rule from dominating the American government, by demonstrating restraint in regards to the impulsive tendencies of congressmen. By maintaining the need for neutrality, Adams was able to save the young American government from a full-scale war and allowed the conflict to remain small enough so that it could be resolved relatively quickly. It is intriguing to study this conflict in regards to America today, where we have an impulsive president and a Congress that is too reluctant or gridlocked to exercise the full power of their co-equal branch of government. The progressive decline of Congress’ authority matched with the increased power of the president over legislative agenda and foreign policy can be clearly observed throughout the evolution of America. We are truly witnessing the opposite of what our past countrymen underwent during the Quasi War.
The XYZ Affair and subsequent Quasi War also displayed the character of John Adams, a man who was not afraid to take on the establishment of his own political party and ally himself with members of the opposition – because to John Adams, doing the right thing for the nation was far more important than ensuring the preservation of his party. Sadly, it was actions like this that came back to hurt him in the 1800 election.