John Adams Presidency — Term, Accomplishments, Timeline of the 2nd President of the United States

March 4, 1797–March 3, 1801

The Presidency of John Adams was from March 4, 1797–March 3, 1801. He was elected as the Second President of the United States in 1796. He ran for a second term in 1800, but was unsuccessful, losing to Thomas Jefferson. During his four years in office, Adams was plagued by a political rivalry with Alexander Hamilton, a falling out with Thomas Jefferson, and political intrigue with France.

John Adams, 2nd President, Portrait, Trumbull

President John Adams. Image Source: White House Historical Association.

John Adams Presidency Timeline and Accomplishments

1796 — Third United States Presidential Election

The Presidential Election of 1796 was the first contested Presidential Election in the United States. It took place during a time of political division, following the emergence of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. John Adams, a Federalist won, becoming the second President of the United States, while Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, became Vice President.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

March 4, 1797 — Inauguration of President John Adams

John Adams was inaugurated on March 4, 1797, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He became the second President of the United States, succeeding President George Washington. Adams took the Oath of Office and delivered his Inaugural Address, emphasizing the importance of maintaining order, unity, and the rule of law in the new nation. His inauguration marked the peaceful transfer of power from one President to another and serves as an example of the stability of the Constitution during its early years.

George Washington, Portrait, Stuart
George Washington. Image Source: Wikipedia.

President Adams Retains the Washington Cabinet

Adams decided to retain the members of Washington’s Cabinet for his own. Adams felt it would maintain stability and continuity in the Executive Branch. The decision affected his tenure in office because the cabinet members, Timothy Pickering, Oliver Wolcott Jr., and James McHenry were loyal to Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton and the High Federalists

The term “High Federalists” refers to a faction within the Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, that held extreme positions and advocated a strong central government, a standing army, and a pro-British foreign policy. This was in direct opposition to Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, who favored limited government, no standing army, and an alliance with France.

Alexander Hamilton, Portrait
Alexander Hamilton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Rivalry of President Adams and Alexander Hamilton

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were both prominent leaders in the Federalist Party. As President, Adams should have been the leader of the party, but Hamilton was influential. The two had a complex and often strained relationship. While they shared some political beliefs, including a strong central government, they also had significant disagreements on various issues. Adams and Hamilton disagreed on matters such as foreign policy, the relationship with France, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Their rivalry intensified during Adams’ presidency, as Hamilton formed his own faction — the High Federalists — within the Federalist Party and undermined Adams. Their rivalry contributed to the division within the Federalist Party and weakened Adams.

March 25, 1797 — Proclamation of President Adams for Convening an Extra Session of Congress

In December 1796, the Executive Directory of the French Government refused to meet with Charles C. Pinckney. When President Adams was informed, he decided it was necessary to recall the members of Congress to Philadelphia. The purpose was to inform Congress of the situation and to “consult and determine on such measures as in their wisdom shall be deemed meet for the safety and welfare of the said United States.”

Charles C. Pinckney, Portrait, Trumbull
Charles C. Pinckney. Image Source: Wikipedia.

May 16, 1797 — Address by President Adams to the Joint Session of Congress

In a Joint Session of Congress, President Adams delivered a speech in which he laid out France’s treatment of Charles C. Pinckney. The President announced he would send commissioners to negotiate with France. However, he also asked Congress to prepare for the possibility of war and equip sailing ships to help defend American merchant ships on the high seas. The President also asked Congress to consider an increase in the “regular artillery and cavalry” and to consider forming a “provisional army.”

President Adams and His Rift with Vice President Jefferson

During the American Revolution and the Confederation Era, Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close friends and political allies. President Adams initially suggested sending Elbridge Gerry and James Madison to join Pinckney. However, members of the Presiden’s cabinet, who were Federalists, were staunchly opposed to Madison, a Democratic-Republican. Adams gave in and replaced Madison with John Marshall, a Federalist. In Jefferson’s mind, Adams caved to party politics. However, Adams also took issue with Jefferson’s unwillingness to accept Marshall. The disagreement led to a rift between the two of them that would last until 1812.

May 31 — 1797 President Adams Appoints Peace Commissioners

President Adams sent a message to the Senate, recommending Charles C. Pinckney, of South Carolina, Francis Dana, Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and John Marshall, of Virginia, as “ministers plenipotentiary to the French Republic.” All three were confirmed by the Senate on June 5, but Dana declined due to poor health. Adams nominated Elbridge Gerry on June 20 and the Senate approved him on June 22.

June 12, 1797 — President Adams Recommends the Formation of a Government for the Natchez District

Per the Treaty of San Lorenzo, a joint Spanish-American team was supposed to survey the border between United States Territory and Spanish Territory. President Adams was notified the survey was delayed. In an effort to help protect the growing American population in the area bordering Florida, known as the Natchez District, Adams sent a Special Message to Congress. In it, he asked Congress to consider “erecting a government in the district of the Natchez similar to that established for the territory northwest of the river Ohio.” This led to the establishment of the Mississippi Territory on April 7, 1798.

1797–1798 — XYZ Affair

The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic scandal between France and the United States that resulted in a limited, undeclared naval war known as the Quasi-War. The XYZ Affair took place when French officials tried to bribe the American delegation — Pinckney, Marshall, Gerry  — in early 1797. When the plot was exposed, anti-French sentiment rose in America, and the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” became popular. Congress re-established the United States Navy and American ships battled with French ships on the high seas in an undeclared naval war known as the Quasi-War.

April 7, 1798 — Establishment of the Mississippi Territory

The establishment of the Mississippi Territory occurred on April 7, 1798, when it was created by an act of the United States Congress. This territory encompassed the lands acquired by the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the American Revolutionary War. The Mississippi Territory was organized as a separate political entity to facilitate governance and settlement in the region. Initially, it included the areas corresponding to present-day Mississippi and Alabama. Winthrop Sargent served as the first governor of the territory. Over time, the Mississippi Territory played a crucial role growth of the United States and the eventual formation of new states in the region.

April 30, 1798 — Establishment of the Department of the Navy

The establishment of the Department of the Navy occurred on April 30, 1798, when President Adams signed the Naval Act of 1798 into law. This act authorized the creation of a separate department within the executive branch of the United States government responsible for naval affairs. The Department of the Navy was established in response to increasing threats to American merchant vessels and the need to protect national interests at sea.

Original Six Frigates of the United States Navy

The original six frigates of the United States Navy were a group of warships authorized by the Naval Act of 1794. These frigates were crucial in establishing and strengthening the naval capabilities of the young United States. The six frigates were named USS United States, USS Constitution, USS President, USS Congress, USS Chesapeake, and USS Constellation. They were designed to project American power at sea, protect American merchant vessels, and serve as a deterrent against potential threats. These frigates played significant roles in various conflicts, including the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812, and helped make the United States a naval power on the global stage.

May 21, 1798 — Benjamin Stoddert, First Secretary of the Navy

Benjamin Stoddert was the first Secretary of the Navy in the United States. He was appointed by President Adams and then approved by the Senate on May 21, 1798. Stoddert served until 1801 and played an important role in establishing and organizing the U.S. Navy during the Quasi-War with France.

July 2, 1798 — George Washington, Lieutenant-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Army

On May 28, 1798, President Adams signed “An Act authorizing the President of the United States to raise a Provisional Army.” Less than two months later, Adams nominated Washington to be the Lieutenant-General and Commander in Chief of the Army. The Senate approved the nomination the next day. Washington agreed to accept the position.

Anti-French Sentiment in the United States

France believed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain and President Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality violated the Treaty of Alliance (1778). Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, the United States believed the treaty was no longer in effect because it had been signed with the French Monarchy. The disagreement contributed to the Citizen Genet Affair, the XYZ Affair, and the Quasi-War. In turn, those incidents led to a wave of anti-French sentiment in the United States.

June–July 1798 — Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by Congress in 1798 during the Adams Presidency. The laws targeted immigrants and critics of the government, granting the President broad powers to deport foreigners and criminalizing the publishing of “false, scandalous, or malicious” writings against the government. The acts were signed into law by President Adams in June and July of 1798 and were extremely unpopular with the public. The laws played a key role in the Election of 1800, the decline of the Federalist Party, and the rise of the Jeffersonian Republicans. 

June 18, 1798 — Naturalization Act

The Naturalization Act amended the Naturalization Act of 1795 and was passed on June 18, 1798. It extended the residency requirement for immigrants to become U.S. citizens from five years to fourteen years. It was meant to restrict the ability of immigrants to participate in elections.

June 25, 1798 — Alien Friends Act

The Alien Friends Act was passed on June 25, 1798, and gave the President the ability to deport foreigners who were considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” during peacetime. It was aimed at foreign spies and people living in the United States who were from a country that was at war with the United States.

July 6, 1798 — Alien Enemies Act

The Alien Enemies Act was passed on July 6, 1798, and authorized the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of foreigners who were acting on behalf of an enemy power during a time of war. The Alien Enemy Act is the only one of the four laws that are still active today.

1798–1800 — Quasi-War with France

The Quasi-War was an undeclared naval war fought between the United States and France from 1798–1800. It was the result of political disagreements over treaties the United States had signed with France and Britain. Following the XYZ Affair, Congress established the United States Navy on April 30, 1798. The small American fleet, under the leadership of Thomas Truxton, quickly established itself as a significant naval force by winning several key battles. While the Quasi-War raged, Napoleon came to power in France and he wanted a better relationship with the United States. The two nations negotiated at the Convention of 1800 and agreed to the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which ended the Quasi-War and restored the political and economic relationships. The Quasi-War officially started when President Adams signed the “Act to Further Protect the Commerce of the United States” on July 9, 1798.

Quasi War, Constellation v L'Insurgente, Painting
This painting by Rear Admiral John William Schmidt depicts the battle between the USS Constellation (left) and the French frigate L’Insurgente on February 9, 1799. Image Source: Wikipedia.

July 11, 1798 — United States Marine Corps Permanently Established

President Adams signed into law “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” which made the Marine Corps an independent branch of the United States Military. This permanently re-established the Marines, which originally operated as the Continental Marines during the American Revolutionary War.

July 14, 1798 — Sedition Act

The Sedition Act was passed on July 14, 1798. declared that any activity deemed to be treasonable, including the publication of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing,” was a crime, punishable by fine and imprisonment. The Sedition Act was put into practice by the Federalists, and more than 20 people — most of them editors of newspapers that supported the Democratic-Republicans — were arrested. Some were thrown in jail, forcing their newspapers to close. The arrests were made as their newspapers had printed what the government considered to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States of America. The Sedition Act was the most controversial of the four laws. Many people believed it was unconstitutional because it violated the rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, which are protected by the First Amendment.

1798–1799 — Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were secretly written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and challenged the Alien and Sedition Acts on the grounds that they went beyond the powers specifically given to the federal government by the United States Constitution. In the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison introduced the concept of Nullification. It was an idea that said individual states had the power to declare federal legislation null and void when it went beyond the powers given to the federal government in the Constitution. The concept of Nullification was used by John C. Calhoun to justify South Carolina’s first threat to secede from the Union. The first Kentucky Resolution was published on November 10, 1798.

James Madison, Painting
James Madison. Image Source: Wikipedia.

January–March 1799 — Fries’s Rebellion

Fries’s Rebellion was an armed tax protest that took place in Pennsylvania during the late 18th century. Named after its leader, John Fries, the rebellion emerged in response to the federal government’s enforcement of a direct property tax on land and houses. Farmers, who perceived the tax as unfair and burdensome, organized and resisted the tax collectors. The rebellion was eventually quelled by federal troops, and Fries was arrested and later pardoned by President Adams.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and became Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814. Through a series of military victories, Napoleon established a vast empire that stretched across much of continental Europe. His rule brought about significant political and legal reforms known as the Napoleonic Code, which had a lasting impact on European legal systems.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, Portrait, David
Napoleon Bonaparte. Image Source: National Gallery of Art.

November 9–10, 1799 — Coup of 18 Brumaire

The Coup of 18 Brumaire refers to the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte in France on November 9-10, 1799, according to the French Revolutionary Calendar. Dissatisfied with the political instability of the French Directory, Napoleon orchestrated a coup d’état, overthrowing the government and establishing the Consulate. This event marked a turning point in French history, leading to Napoleon’s rise to power as First Consul and laying the groundwork for his eventual ascent to Emperor. It also led to the end of hostilities with the United States and eventually the Louisiana Purchase.

December 14, 1799 — Death of George Washington

George Washington, the first President of the United States, died on December 14, 1799. Following his retirement from the presidency, Washington returned to his plantation, Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, he fell ill with a severe respiratory infection and died at the age of 67. Washington’s death deeply impacted the nation, as he was widely revered as a great military leader and statesman. His passing prompted a period of mourning throughout the United States and left a lasting legacy as a Founding Father and symbol of American leadership.

George Washington, Death, Lithograph, Regnier
This illustration depicts the death of George Washington. Image Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

April 24, 1800 — Establishment of the Library of Congress

On April 24, 1800, President Adams signed an act authorizing the move of the Federal Government from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The act included an allocation of $5,000 to purchase “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.”

May 5, 1800 — Establishment of the Indiana Territory

The Indiana Territory was established on May 7, 1800, by an act of Congress. It encompassed a significant portion of the Northwest Territory and was formed in preparation for the region’s eventual statehood. William Henry Harrison, later to become the ninth President of the United States, was appointed as the first governor of the Indiana Territory. The establishment of the territory facilitated governance and settlement in the region, providing a framework for the expansion of the United States into the western frontier. Over time, the Indiana Territory underwent further divisions and reorganizations, eventually leading to the formation of the state of Indiana in 1816.

May 12, 1800 — Timothy Pickering Dismissed

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering was dismissed by President Adams on May 12, 1800, due to their political differences. Pickering also worked to place Alexander Hamilton as Second-in-Command to General Washington and publicly criticized President Adams. Pickering became the first member of a Presidential Cabinet to be dismissed. 

September 30, 1800 — Convention of 1800

The Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, was a diplomatic agreement signed between the United States and France on September 30, 1800. The treaty brought an end to the Quasi-War, a period of naval hostilities between the two nations. It established peace, normalized relations, and resolved several outstanding issues, including the abrogation of the Treaty of Alliance of 1778. The Convention of 1800 facilitated improved diplomatic ties between the United States and France.

November 1, 1800 — President Adams Moves Into the White House

President John Adams moved into the White House, the official residence of the President of the United States, on November 1, 1800. At the time, the construction of the White House was not fully complete, but it was deemed suitable for occupancy. President Adams and his wife, First Lady Abigail Adams, became the first occupants of the presidential mansion. President Adams resided in the White House until the end of his presidency in 1801 when Thomas Jefferson succeeded him.

Abigail Adams, Painting
Abigail Adams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

November 11, 1800 — Fourth United States Presidential Election

The fourth United States presidential election took place in 1800. The main contenders for the presidency were President Adams, a Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, defeated Adams. However, when the Presidential Electors cast their ballots on December 3, 1800., Jefferson and Burr tie. The tie was ultimately resolved in the House of Representatives, where Jefferson secured the presidency on February 17, 1801.

February 13, 1801 — Judiciary Act of 1801

The Judiciary Act of 1801, passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Adams, was a significant piece of legislation that restructured the federal judiciary system. The act expanded the number of federal judgeships, allowing Adams to appoint a significant number of Federalist judges before his term ended.

March 3, 1801 — Peace Establishment Act

The Peace Establishment Act of 1801 was passed by the United States Congress on February 27, 1801. The act reorganized and reduced the size of the U.S. Army following the Quasi-War with France. It aimed to cut military expenses and maintain a peacetime standing army while providing for the defense of the nation. The act reduced the authorized number of soldiers, consolidated military units, and made provisions for officer promotions and appointments. It was part of the government’s efforts to streamline the military and reduce expenditures during a time of relative peace.

March 4, 1801 — Midnight Judges

The term “Midnight Judges” refers to a group of federal judges appointed by President John Adams in the final hours of his presidency, specifically in the last days of his term, which extended into the early morning hours of March 4, 1801. Adams, a Federalist, sought to secure Federalist influence in the judiciary before Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency. The appointments were made under the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created several new positions for judges at the federal level. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans criticized the appointments as an attempt by Federalists to retain control of the Federal Judicial System.

John Adams Presidency Video for APUSH

This video from Heimler’s History covers the APUSH topic of the New Republic, including the John Adams Presidency. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Presidency of John Adams Suggested Reading

In this career-spanning biography, noted historian David McCullough covers the life of Founding Father John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often difficult, always honest Son of Liberty and Patriot who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution. Adams became the Second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into a full-scale, unnecessary war with France. Adams was highly educated but was viewed by some as being “out of his senses.” His marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the most moving love stories in American history.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title John Adams Presidency — Term, Accomplishments, Timeline of the 2nd President of the United States
  • Date March 4, 1797–March 3, 1801
  • Author
  • Keywords John Adams Presidency, John Adams Presidential Term, Presidency of John Adams
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 21, 2024

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