“[The vice presidency is] the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.”

THE CANNONS ON Castle Island boomed in celebration as the Lucretia approached Boston Harbor, welcoming two American stalwarts back home. John and Abigail had spent three years as pariahs in London, where they were an unwelcome reminder of American independence. But the crowd at the Boston dock loved them for the same reason that Londoners loathed them, as prominent embodiments of that improbably successful achievement called the American Revolution.1

Governor John Hancock’s ornate carriage was dispatched to pick them up, then sped them through the streets as church bells sounded all around. The ocean voyage had transformed them from outcasts into celebrities. In case John had somehow forgotten, the jubilant reception reminded him that, alongside George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, he stood at the very peak of the American version of Mount Olympus.

The downside of this triumphal return came when they arrived at their new home in Braintree, which they had purchased sight unseen. Abigail’s first impression was disappointment. “In height and breadth,” she reported to Nabby, “it feels like a wren’s house.” They had grown accustomed to the spacious, high-ceilinged rooms of their residences in Paris and London, which made the rooms of their new home feel like cubicles. Abigail warned Nabby that the ceilings were so low that she would not be able to wear her feathered hats when visiting, and her husband would have to stoop if he wore his heeled boots.2

In July 1788, as Abigail and John were moving into their new home, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, thereby ensuring that a newly empowered federal government would be elected in November. A new chapter in the evolution of the American Revolution was beginning, a chapter in which an aspiring American nation-state replaced a loose-knit confederation of individual states. The question facing Abigail and John was whether or not to participate in this next round in the American experiment.

Both of them had made a point of signaling a preference for retirement to the bucolic splendors of Braintree. While utterly sincere, such Ciceronian testimonials had become formulaic refrains among the top echelon of the revolutionary generation, less statements of their true intentions than ritualistic posturings. In this venerable tradition, anyone exhibiting a conspicuous craving for political office was presumed unqualified to serve.

Nabby reported from her new home in New York, already identified as the first capital of the aspiring nation, that no one took such protestations seriously. There was as yet no organized party structure, no agreed-upon process for selecting candidates, so the “smoke-filled rooms” of the day were the taverns and coffeehouses where informal conversations weeded out prospective nominees. Nabby apprised her father that—no surprise—George Washington was the foregone conclusion for the top spot, and that “You will be elected to the second place on the continent,” meaning the vice presidency. Moreover, as she observed to John Quincy, if the informal appraisals proved correct, there was no way that their father would refuse the summons to serve. “The Happiness of our family,” she shrewdly noted, “seems ever to have been so interwoven with the Politics of our Country as to be in a great degree dependent upon them.”3

If subsequent generations of the family had ever devised a plaque to be placed over the Adams plot, these words might very well have been chosen as the most appropriate testimonial. As the first national election approached, however, John was psychologically incapable of acknowledging that his own personal fulfillment depended upon being chosen for a prominent post in the new federal government. Though he was perhaps the most astute student of the role that ambition played among his political peers, he rather lamely insisted that any summons to serve would entail a huge personal sacrifice for both him and Abigail. “My mind has balanced all circumstances,” he told Abigail while awaiting the election results, “and all are reducible to … Vanity and Comfort.” If he was not chosen, so he claimed, they would live out their lives in relative serenity at Braintree. If he was elected, they would dutifully answer the call, once more placing the public interest above their private happiness.4

He twitched back and forth between anxiety and denial: “I am willing to serve the public on manly conditions,” he wrote Nabby, “but not on childish ones.” Only the vice presidency would do. It was not the power of the office that attracted him—indeed, as he was soon to discover, the vice presidency was almost designed as a political cul-de-sac—but the status it carried as the second-ranking office in the government. The election, as he saw it, was a referendum on revolutionary credentials, and Washington was the only person whom John was prepared to recognize as his superior on that score. Abigail concurred that anything less than the vice presidency was “beneath him.”5

Conveniently, he did not need to campaign or even declare his candidacy. The political etiquette of the time regarded outright campaigning for office akin to an act of prostitution, and therefore clear evidence that one was unworthy. Moreover, the electoral process for president described in the new Constitution did not yet distinguish between candidates for the first or second spot. The winner, if he received a majority of electoral votes, became president, while the runner-up became vice president.

Both Abigail and John assumed a somewhat studied posture of nonchalance as they awaited the results of the election. Abigail decided that politics ought not take precedence over her new obligations as a grandmother, so she traveled down to New York to assist Nabby with the birth of her second child, another boy, who was named John Adams Smith, despite John’s objection (“I wish the child every Blessing from other Motives besides its name”). She reported that a visit with the Jay family in the city yielded the opinion that John was virtually certain to be elected vice president, despite opposition from factions in Virginia and New York that objected not so much to him but to any consolidated federal government whatsoever.6

Though she presumed that the nights were cold back in Braintree, she wished to hear no more jokes about “virgins”: “I would recommend to you the Green Baize Gown, and if that will not answer, you recollect the Bear Skin.” In keeping with his custom of silence whenever the voters were deciding his fate, John hunkered down while the snowdrifts piled up at Braintree: “The new government has my best wishes and most fervent prayers,” he wrote to Jefferson, who was still ensconced in Paris. “But whether I shall have anything more to do with it, besides praying for it, depends on the future suffrage of freemen.”7

That was not technically correct. John’s fate depended on electors chosen by each state, mostly by the respective state legislators, who themselves were determined by the “suffrage of freemen.” When these electoral votes were counted in February 1789, Washington had won unanimously, receiving 69 votes. Eleven other candidates received some measure of support, but, with 34 electoral votes, John was the clear runner-up. It was not quite the resounding chorus of confidence that John had hoped for, but as Abigail reminded him, it showed that only Washington ranked higher in the minds of the American citizenry.

The Boston newspapers tended to reinforce this interpretation of the election, describing John’s victory as a recognition of his distinguished service in the Continental Congress and then in Paris and London. No one mentioned the fact that the vice presidency was largely a ceremonial office, ill-suited to his outspoken and passionate temperament, or, as he put it a few years later, “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.”8

Reservations about the limited powers of his new post never crossed John’s mind at that exuberant moment. Both he and Abigail were wholly focused on the status conferred by being recognized as second only to Washington, and therefore the second-ranking family in the United States. John was also thrilled with the long-term implications of his election, for it constituted an early referendum on the primacy of his place within the revolutionary generation, and therefore boded well for his prospects in the most important election of all, namely, the judgment of posterity.

Abigail chimed in with her sense of satisfaction that the location of the new capital in New York would allow her to spend more time with Nabby and the grandchildren. And John beamed with pride when the fishermen of Marblehead offered to provide the vice president’s household with a steady supply of cod, in recognition of his earlier insistence in the Treaty of Paris on their fishing rights off the Grand Banks. Even if his duties were largely ceremonial, this final assignment—which is how John regarded the vice presidency—was the perfect capstone to his political career. There at the start to launch the movement for American independence. There to negotiate the end of the war and the new borders of a continental republic. And now there to help establish the first national government. What more could anyone ask?9


“We are most delightfully situated,” Abigail explained to her sister. “The prospect around us is Beautiful in the highest degree, it is a mixture of sublime & Beautiful.” She was describing the new Adams residence at Richmond Hill, a thirty-acre estate overlooking the Hudson, located about a mile north of the city in what is now the west side of Greenwich Village. While it was not quite up to the magisterial standards of their mansion at Auteuil, it was the most elegant American home that John and Abigail had ever occupied. Soon after Abigail’s arrival in June 1789, it immediately became social headquarters for the second-ranking official in the new American government and his famously impressive wife. “Our House has been a Levee ever since I arrived,” Abigail observed. “Had visits from 25 ladies, all [the wives of] senators and all foreign ministers.”10

No couple in the country was more experienced at managing the social obligations of political office than Abigail and John. Their diplomatic duties in Paris and London had provided an unmatched education in courtly etiquette at the highest levels of refinement. John recognized that Abigail was his greatest asset on the all-important social front, and he expressed his impatience when she delayed her departure from Braintree to make arrangements for their farm. “You must sell Horses, Oxen, Sheep, Cowes, anything at any Rate rather than not come on—if no one will take the Place, leave it to the Birds of the air and Beasts of the Field.” He needed her by his side.11

Since a nation-size republic was a novelty—no such creature had ever existed before—and since the courtly etiquette of European monarchies seemed to defy the very core of republican values, no one was quite sure what the social side of a republican government was supposed to look like. One solution was a weekly open house called the levee, where the president and vice president, along with their respective wives, greeted elected officials, foreign dignitaries, and distinguished guests in a format that attempted to strike the proper middle note between courtly formality and republican simplicity.

Abigail described the scene, which was thoroughly choreographed. She always stood to the right of Martha Washington, who received curtsies from the women guests and bows from the gentlemen: “The president then comes up and speaks to the lady, which he does with a grace, dignity, and ease that leaves Royal George far behind him.” The guests were passed on to Abigail and John with the requisite curtsies and bows; then the assembled throng made small talk for about fifteen minutes while consuming small portions of ice cream and lemonade—substantive conversations about matters of policy were strictly forbidden—then more curtsies and bows when Washington exited the room. It was a somewhat awkward contradiction in terms, a republican court, and the major venue in which Abigail and John were on display as ranking members of—another contradiction—republican royalty.12

Abigail was the point person for the Adams family at the levees as well as the weekly dinners she hosted at Richmond Hill. And in a reprise of her diplomatic role in Paris, she visited the wives of fifteen to twenty government officials or foreign ministers each week. John’s role, chiefly ceremonial, was to preside over the Senate, usually for six hours every day.

According to the language of the Constitution, the vice president was allowed to vote only in order to break a tie and was required to remain silent during debates. In his maiden speech before the Senate, John acknowledged that the latter requirement would not be easy for him: “I have been more accustomed to take a share in the debates, than to preside in their deliberations,” he confessed, which was an implicit reference to his prominent role in the Continental Congress. Nevertheless, he promised to do his best, and if he forgot the limitations periodically, he hoped his colleagues would forgive his lapses. To John Quincy he confided that the office of vice president required “a kind of Duty, which, if I do not flatter myself too much, is not quite adapted to my Character.” For the passionate and combative veteran of several truly historic debates that shaped the direction of the American Revolution, silence was not a natural act.13

A minor matter of official etiquette prompted the first violation of his oath of office and made him the centerpiece of the first political controversy to afflict the new government. The issue at stake was an apparently harmless question: By what title should the president be addressed? The real protagonist in the debate was Senator William Maclay, who hailed from the western frontier of Pennsylvania, where republican values assumed a decidedly egalitarian character and all forms of pomp and ceremony carried with them the distinct odor of monarchy. Maclay insisted that the proper title for President Washington should be “Mr. President,” and that all efforts to affix greater grandeur to the office conjured up the decadent legacies of British royalty, which he thought the American Revolution had long ago consigned to the oblivion they deserved.

John interrupted Maclay on several occasions, delivering quasi lectures to the Senate on the importance of visible trappings of authority for an infant republic that desperately needed to project symbols of national unity. And besides, since everyone agreed that President Washington was genuinely majestic, why not recognize that fact by referring to him as “His Majesty”? If that sounded too reminiscent of European monarchy, then perhaps “His Highness” would be preferable.

Maclay went on a tirade, protesting the interruptions from someone purportedly required to remain silent during debates, then suggesting that the vice president had apparently been infected by the disease called “nobilmania” during his long sojourn in Europe. Other senators agreed, reprimanding John for his violation of procedure and joking that perhaps he himself would prefer to be referred to as “the Duke of Braintree” or, better yet, as “His Rotundity.”

Maclay’s diary, hardly a neutral source, is the fullest account of the exchange, so that most subsequent historical accounts of the episode reflect his hostile opinion of John, whom he described as an “avowed monarchist” and “a monkey just put into breeches.” But even after one adjusts for Maclay’s biased version, the consensus within the Senate was that John had made a fool of himself. Jefferson, recently arrived from Paris, when apprised of John’s insistence on high-sounding titles, observed that it struck him “as the most superlatively ridiculous thing I have ever heard.” The Senate voted for the simple title “Mr. President,” thus repudiating John’s advice, and from that time forward he refrained from injecting himself into debates.14

Instead of feeling chastised, John felt that he had been misunderstood. And the way to correct the misunderstanding was to demonstrate to all concerned that the hovering ghost of monarchy that haunted all American conversations about government needed to be exorcised if the infant republic was to enjoy any prospect of success. Every afternoon, after presiding over the Senate debates, he returned to Richmond Hill and poured his thoughts onto paper. In typical Adams fashion, the stream of words became a flood, eventually taking the form of thirty-one essays printed in the Gazette of the United States over the next year and subsequently published as a separate volume entitled Discourses on Davila. Looking back many years later, John pronounced Davila his most profound attempt to identify the primal forces shaping all human effort at government.

Much of Davila, in fact, was a repetition or extension of arguments already made in Defence. To wit, any balanced constitution required a singular figure empowered to embody the will of the nation, much in the way that every human body required a head. This “monarchical principle” was a universal tenet, true for all societies throughout history, though the understandable loathing toward the British monarch during the American war for independence had rendered otherwise intelligent American thinkers blind to this fact. (Abigail made the same point in the more specific context of Washington’s presidency: “It is my firm opinion that no man could rule over this great people & consolidate them into one mighty Empire but He who Set over us.”) In most European states—John was thinking primarily of France—it was probably necessary for the monarchy to remain hereditary for the foreseeable future in order to permit a more gradual transition to fullblown republican principles.15

By conflating the American presidency with “the monarchical principle,” however, John almost invited misunderstanding, because the very term “monarchy” had become an epithet that provoked near-universal condemnation within the American political context. It was one thing to acknowledge that Washington was indispensable, quite another to talk so openly and approvingly of “the monarchical principle.” In that sense, Davila only confirmed the murmurings that John had lost the true republican faith during his long residence in Europe. (The truth was that he had harbored the conviction that a strong executive presence was essential for many years, and had embedded the principle in his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution.) But Davila only fed the rumors that he was a closet monarchist who favored making the presidency a hereditary office that, if he ever was elected to it, he intended to pass along to John Quincy.16

There was one section of Davila, however, that had nothing directly to do with the main theme about monarchy, and indeed seems an impulsive aside that popped into John’s head as he was writing. It began with the story of a pauper who was starving but chose to starve rather than eat his dog’s food. When asked why he opted for his dog instead of himself, he responded: “Who will love me then? With these words,” John observed, “there is a key to the human heart—and to the rise and fall of empires.”17

He then proceeded to make the argument that passions or emotions, not ideas, were the driving force in history, and the most potent passion of all was, as he put it, “the need to be considered, esteemed, praised, beloved and admired by his fellows.” The pursuit of wealth was a secondary drive, not an end in itself but only a means to a greater end, “because riches attract the attention, consideration, and congratulations of mankind.” (A hundred years later, Thorstein Veblen would give the economic version of this notion a name: conspicuous consumption.) The primal political urge, often unconscious and beyond rational control, he called “emulation,” which was the compulsion to rise above your rivals and become the focus of public veneration. And the ultimate version of emulation was lasting fame beyond one’s own lifetime by winning the affection and admiration of posterity: “For what folly it is,” he observed. “What is it to us what shall be said of us after we are dead? Or in Asia, Africa, or Europe while we live? There is no greater or imaginable illusion. Yet the impulse is irresistible.”18

There can be little doubt that John’s diagnosis of the role that human ambitions played in the political arena was primarily rooted in his intimate familiarity with his own internal urges. Although the references in Davila were all drawn from European history—whole sections were lifted from English, French, and Italian texts without attribution—the seminal text was his own soul. There John acknowledged his endless quest for recognition in the public arena, which in its ultimate manifestation became an unquenchable desire to live forever in the memory of future generations.


At the ceremonial level, when he was with Abigail at the presidential levees or at a dinner party at Richmond Hill, John was regarded as a central player in the new government. When he was presiding over the Senate, however, he was a mere cipher. Significant legislation came before him during Washington’s first term, to include the chief provisions of a national fiscal policy, the location of the new capital city, and a treaty designed as a model for policy toward the Native Americans. But he had nothing to do with the crafting of this legislation, and no influence over its ultimate fate. He frequently complained to Abigail about his abiding irrelevance, and she did her best to reassure him that his ceremonial role as president of the Senate made a difference: “Altho it is so limited as to prevent you from being so useful as you have been accustomed to, yet these former exertions and services give a weight of Character, which like the Heavenly orbs silently diffuse a benign influence.”19

The truth was that John’s status as an established icon of the American Revolution was beginning to seem like an increasingly distant piece of nostalgia, glorious in its day, to be sure, but part of an earlier chapter in the story that had now moved beyond the struggle for American independence to the quest for American nationhood. A new generation of political leaders was emerging, men like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who were almost young enough to be John’s sons. (In 1790 John was fifty-five, Hamilton was thirty-five, and Madison was thirty-nine.) He could not help but think of them as latecomers to the cause that he had championed in its most fragile and formative phase. As he confided to Abigail, it was sheer torture to sit in the Senate and listen to speakers who struck him as “young, inconsiderate, and inexperienced,” mere babes in the woods, while he sat sullenly and silently. It was difficult to think of the indefatigable “Atlas of independence” in the Continental Congress as extraneous and irrelevant, but that is what the vice presidency had made him.20

He felt more comfortable with veteran revolutionaries of his own age, men who had run the gauntlet with him when the odds seemed stacked against success. When Washington arrived in Boston to start his tour of the New England states in November 1789, for example, John and Samuel Adams met with him, and reporters, to John’s immense satisfaction, described the trio as “the three genuine Pivots of the Revolution.” John concurred with the historical significance of the meeting, writing Abigail that an artist should have been commissioned to capture the scene for posterity, painted “with the greatest care, and preserved in the best Place.” If an artist had been commissioned to paint a group portrait of the major players in the Washington administration, however, John would not have been included in the picture.21

His absence from such a putative picture was also reflected in the written record. Whatever the reasons—his wounded pride, his reluctance to write anything about his own personal opinions that might damage the legislative agenda of the administration—John had precious little to say about the political issues passing before him. He had been assigned a minor role that, in truth, he did not know how to play, despite Abigail’s somewhat forced reassurances of his significance. Quite uncharacteristically, apart from complaining about his abiding irrelevance, he said virtually nothing in his personal correspondence about his thoughts on the highly controversial legislation passing before him, except that he felt duty-bound to support whatever the executive branch proposed.

The same was not true of Abigail. Her letters to family and friends back in Massachusetts provide a running commentary on the increasingly shrill political arguments. It is safe to assume that she and John talked on a daily basis about the current issues at stake. And, at this stage of their partnership, it is also safe to assume a seamless symmetry between them that made conflicting convictions virtually impossible. If the Adams family had an opinion about the legislative agenda of the infant republic, the best source turned out to be Abigail.

She recognized from the start that the most controversial and critical provision in Hamilton’s financial plan, presented to Congress in January 1790 as A Report on Public Credit, was the federal assumption of state debts—taking $25 million in state debt, most of it a function of wartime expenditures by the thirteen states, and putting it into one pile. This made excellent economic sense, since by consolidating the state debts, the United States was sending a signal to the international markets that the new nation fully intended to pay its bills.

But politically, assumption was extremely controversial, for it meant that the federal government had also assumed control over the national economy, thereby asserting federal supremacy over the states, even though many of the states, Virginia most strenuously, believed they had fought the American Revolution to protest just such domination by distant authorities in London and Whitehall. “The members of the different states think so widely from each other,” Abigail observed, “that it is difficult to accommodate their interests … What one member esteems the pillar, the Bulwork of the Constitution, an other considers as the Ruin of his State.” She was calling attention to the fact that the Assumption Bill presumed the existence of an established national ethos that, in fact, did not exist because allegiances remained confined within state or, at best, regional borders. She supported assumption, as did John, but she recognized that the debate over its implications was so fierce because it provided a clear resolution of the question of federal versus state sovereignty that the Constitution itself had deliberately left ambiguous.22

As it turned out, Abigail’s enthusiastic support for assumption was not wholly disinterested. She had invested in war bonds issued by Massachusetts during the war, probably for patriotic reasons. The value of these bonds, and the interest they paid, increased considerably once the federal government assumed the Massachusetts state debt, because interest payments were thereby assured. Her profits were hardly huge, but the passage of the Assumption Bill in the summer of 1790 earned her a tidy sum. It is not clear whether John ever knew about this unspoken conflict of interest. It is clear that Abigail’s sense of her own independence included control over financial investments that she regarded as hers and hers alone.23

The debate over the Residence Act did not raise the constitutional questions posed by assumption, but the studied ambiguity of the Constitution virtually assured partisan bickering that came to resemble a political circus. Congress was required to identify a permanent “seat of government” without any guidance on the specific location. All the regional voting blocs—New England, the Middle Atlantic, the South—could imagine schemes placing the national capital within their borders, and none seemed capable of imagining it anywhere else. Abigail found the debates, some of which she witnessed from the Senate gallery, extremely offensive because of the blatantly partisan atmosphere and the wholly argumentative context of the legislative process. “The more I see of Mankind,” she lamented, “the more sick I am of publick Life, and the less worthy do they appear to me.” She thought it was a mistake to open the Senate gallery to the public, since ordinary citizens would now see that making laws was like making sausage: not a pretty sight, and not a scene likely to inspire confidence in the new government. So much for John’s idealistic vision of the Senate as the arena for America’s virtuous elite.24

Nor did Abigail like the eventual selection of Philadelphia as the temporary capital while the designated permanent site on the Potomac, negotiated in a behind-the-scenes bargain, was being built. “You will see by the publick papers that we are destined for Philadelphia,” she wrote to John Quincy, “a Grievious affair to me I assure you, but so it is ordained.” She loved the lavish estate and grounds at Richmond Hill, with its majestic view of the Hudson, and saw no reason why the government should not remain in New York until the Potomac location was ready. She would have to leave Nabby and the grandchildren for a hot and humid place that was infamous as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and infectious diseases. And why would a government seeking to create an impression of permanence decide to move around so often, what she described as “continual roling”? Finally, it was a question of aesthetics and “the Schuylkill is not more like the Hudson, than I to Hercules.”25

What we might call Abigail’s perspective from the periphery enjoyed a crescendo moment near the end of the first congressional session in August 1790. A delegation of twenty-seven Native Americans, all chiefs of the Creek Nation, arrived in New York to negotiate and sign a treaty designed to end hostilities on the southern frontier. Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox also intended the treaty to serve as a model for American policy toward all the Native American tribes located east of the Mississippi. For the first time, the tribes would be legally recognized as sovereign nations, with rights to land that could not be violated without their consent. And once boundaries were agreed to by treaty, the federal government was committed to protecting the Native American residents from encroachment by white settlers, using military force if necessary. Washington envisioned a series of Native American enclaves east of the Mississippi that would be bypassed by the surging wave of settlements. It was his attempt at a just resolution of the Native American dilemma.26

It so happened that the entire Creek delegation was lodged at an inn adjoining Richmond Hill. For nearly a month, Abigail was fascinated with what she described as “my Neighbours the Creeck Savages, who visit us daily.” It was quite a scene: “They are very fond of visiting us as we entertain them kindly and they behave with much civility … Last night they had a great Bond fire, dancing around it like so many spirits, hoping, singing, yelling and expressing their pleasure and Satisfaction in true Savage State. They are the first Savages I ever saw.”

The soaring optimism of that moment—the possibility of a just accommodation with the indigenous population of the American continent—was destined to be dashed very shortly, when Washington discovered that the federal government lacked the resources to honor its pledge of protection. But Abigail participated in the short-lived celebratory mood, attending the signing ceremony in Federal Hall, where the Creek chiefs formed themselves into a chorus and sang a song that, as an interpreter explained, was about perpetual peace. That evening she invited a Creek chief to dine at Richmond Hill, and he proceeded to make her an honorary member of the Creek Nation: “He took me by the Hand, bowed his Head, and bent his knee, calling me Mammea, Mammea,” presumably her Creek name. All the chiefs, she observed, “are very fine looking Men, placid countenances & fine shape,” almost perfect physical models in the manner of Greek statues. There were very few high points in the tragic story of Indian-white relations in the United States, but Abigail was able to participate in one of them.27

Although John witnessed the same events as Abigail, he did not leave a written record of his reactions, in part because of his vows to embrace the required role of silence as vice president, in part because he was channeling his intellectual energies into the Davilaessays. These provoked the only occasion when he, or at least his name, emerged from the invisible background, and he went from being essentially harmless to politically dangerous. The incident was provoked, albeit inadvertently, by his old friend and former colleague Thomas Jefferson.

Washington had persuaded a reluctant Jefferson to serve as the first secretary of state. Jefferson was late to arrive in New York, delayed until May 1790 because he needed to oversee the marriage of his eldest daughter at Monticello. He had previously written a glowing tribute to John on his appointment as vice president, and it is virtually certain—though the historical record is blank on this score—that he resumed his social interactions with Abigail and John that summer. The old intimacies of Paris were recovered.28

A few months later, however, Jefferson was asked to provide an endorsement of Thomas Paine’s new book, The Rights of Man, which was a soaring argument for viewing the recent French Revolution as a European version of the American Revolution. Misguidedly thinking that his endorsement would be anonymous, Jefferson praised Paine’s book, which accurately expressed his own somewhat romantic political conviction about ongoing developments in France. He described it as an antidote “against the political heresies which have sprung up among us.” The reference was widely and correctly seen as a swipe against John’s defense of “the monarchical principle” in the Davila essays, and was quickly picked up by all the major newspapers.

Deeply offended, John confronted his old friend for what he regarded as a gratuitous slap and blatant distortion of his views. Jefferson’s remark, he later observed, “was generally considered as an open personal attack upon me, by insinuating the false interpretation of my Writings as favouring the introduction of hereditary Monarchy and Aristocracy into this Country.” His clear intent, so he explained, was to insist that a strong executive was essential in the new American government, and that in France the retention of some version of constitutional monarchy was probably wise in order to ease the transition to more full-blooded republican principles.29

Jefferson had already responded apologetically, but also somewhat elusively. Whatever political differences existed between them mattered less to him than their personal friendship: “And I can declare with truth in the presence of the almighty that nothing was further from my intention or expectation than to have had either my name or your name brought before the public on this occasion.” This was surely sincere, for Jefferson had not expected his name to be cited in an endorsement of Paine’s book. Then he added—and this was not sincere—that he was “not referring to any writing that I might suppose to be yours.”30

Whether John actually believed Jefferson is unclear, but he chose to accept the apology because he wished to avoid a rupture in a friendship that, as he put it, “has subsisted for fifteen years between us without the slightest interruption … and is still dear to my heart.” A series of eleven essays under the pseudonym “Publica” soon appeared in the Boston newspapers, quite deftly criticizing Paine’s linkage of the American and French revolutions, questioning Jefferson’s political judgment in embracing the connections, and defending the opposing views of Davila. Most pundits assumed that Publica was John, arguing on his own behalf. But it was really John Quincy, in his first—albeit anonymous—appearance on the national stage, defending his father.31

It was only a minor incident with no immediate policy implications, a small crack in the friendship, swiftly repaired with the aid of Jefferson’s well-intentioned duplicity and John’s eager gullibility. But it turned out to be a premonition of the looming chasm in both the Adams-Jefferson friendship and, more significantly, the political division between warring camps within the infant American republic. This little flurry was a preview of the debate between two revolutionary veterans over nothing less than the true meaning of the American Revolution, the first skirmish in the battle between self-styled Federalists and Republicans over the proper shape of a republic that also aspired to be a nation.


In November 1790, when John and Abigail moved to the temporary capital at Philadelphia, he was fifty-five and she was forty-six. The euphemistic term middle-aged had yet to be coined, but they both felt that they were closer to the end than the beginning. At one point Abigail seemed to suggest that the running biological clock had, albeit gradually, transformed the very character of their relationship: “Years subdue the ardour of passion,” she observed, “but in lieu thereof a Friendship and affection deep Rooted persists which defies the Ravages of Time, and will survive whilst the vital Flame persists.”32

To the extent that Abigail’s observation suggested that the sexual dimension of their marriage was finished, both of them furnished evidence that the “vital Flame” remained at least partially physical. For example, when John ended a letter with “I am impatiently yours,” Abigail confessed that the phrase prompted her “to be a little Rhoguish and ask a Question.” Or when she referred to his advancing age in one letter, he reprimanded her in a suggestively jesting way: “But how dare you hint or Lisp a Word about Sixty Years of Age. If I were Here, I would soon convince you that I am not above Forty.” One can never be sure about such long-ago intimacies, but the bulk of the evidence indicates that John and Abigail remained lovers in the physical sense of the term well into middle age.33

Although she was nine years younger than John, the inevitable ravages of time struck Abigail sooner and more dramatically. The first symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis appeared during her London years, but the chronic and degenerative disease advanced to new levels of intensity in the 1790s. “I have been so weakened & debilitated as to be unable to walk alone,” she reported in 1791, “and my Nerves so affected as to oblige me to seclude myself from all company except my most intimate companions.” Her rheumatic symptoms, chiefly swelling of the joints, ebbed and flowed in waves of pain and paralysis, often exacerbated by cold weather and the rigors of travel. During one especially acute attack she was confined to her bed for six weeks. Even writing letters became difficult, because she could not hold a pen.34

By 1792, the end of John’s first term as vice president, the extra weight she had put on in Paris and London was gone. “I have scarcely any flesh left in comparison of what I was,” she reported, probably a function of not being able to eat for prolonged periods. The trip from Braintree to Philadelphia became an excruciating ordeal, limited to only a few hours of travel each day. This was the major reason for her decision to remain at Braintree for John’s entire second term. (Actually, Braintree’s north precinct was incorporated into the town of Quincy in February 1792, so her letters to John ever after reflected the new postmark.) During her last season in Philadelphia she found her social obligations “an Egyptian task” because of her chronic condition, and she was forced to decline about half the invitations for health reasons. Better to remain at home, she decided, than become a burden.35

John’s health problems at midlife were less debilitating. His hair continued to fall out, but that was nothing new, and the practice of wearing wigs on all officiai occasions, though a dying tradition, conveniently covered his naked skull. His teeth went the way of his hair—for whatever reason he never replaced them with a false set—but his speech had not yet become slurred as a consequence. He periodically experienced a feverish condition accompanied by violent chills, what he called an “ague,” malaria-like symptoms that were probably latent remnants of his illness in Amsterdam ten years earlier. But he always recovered quickly and fully.

His most troubling ailments were failing eyesight and persistent tremors in his hands that affected his ability to read and write. When several long letters from John Quincy received only brief responses, he offered his physical degeneration as an excuse: “It is painful to the Vanity of an Old Man to acknowledge the decays of Nature,” he explained, “but I have lost the habit of Writing … from weak Eyes and from a trembling hand to such a degree that a Pen is as terrible to me, as a Sword to a Coward, or as a rod to a child.”36

The tremors, however, came and went, and when in remission allowed him to toss off ten pages without pause. The bloodshot eyes he attributed to a lifetime of reading without proper light, but he stubbornly refused to change his reading habits, declaring in full bravado mode his determination “to sacrifice my Eyes like Milton [i.e., go blind] rather than give up the Amusement without which I should despair.” When Abigail urged him to cut back on his nightly reading, he refused to comply. “The more one reads,” he protested, “the more one sees.”37

In part because he was older, John took these annoying biological reminders of his aging more seriously. He began to fear that he was approaching some chronological line beyond which lay only a downhill slide into senility and death: “How soon will my Sands be run out of the Glass?” he asked Abigail, adding that once you crossed an invisible line “the Days and Hours have additional Wings which then waive and beat with increasingly rapidity.”38

He was especially worried about what he called “dying at the top,” meaning a loss of mental coherence because of dementia or senility. Samuel Adams, then governor of Massachusetts, was apparently suffering from the early stages of dementia, and John cringed when he witnessed “the debilitating Power of Age” during a speech in which the old man made a fool of himself. He had the same reaction when one of his old acquaintances in the Senate lost his train of thought and stumbled his way into complete confusion before his colleagues. The scene, John reported, “moved the tender feeling of any heart for a Friend advanced in years, not many however beyond my own.” Most disconcerting was the alarming realization that neither man was aware of how pitiful he had become, a fate that John vowed to avoid at all costs.39

Abigail was the designated truth teller if such a senior moment arrived, but she herself was having foreboding thoughts about her own final chapters. They were prompted by caring for John’s mother, who was in her mid-eighties and undergoing all the painful tribulations of physical decline, including constant coughing, sleepless nights, an emaciated body, and a listless mind: “My constant attendance upon her has very much lessened my desire of long life,” Abigail confessed to John. “Her fear lest she should recover and become useless, her appearing to have lived out every enjoyment, shows that life is at best a poor play, and the best that can come of it is a miserable Benediction.” Abigail’s chronic battle with rheumatism made her especially sensitive about becoming a hopeless invalid like her mother-in-law, a premonition that paralleled John’s fear of becoming a mindless embarrassment on the public stage. Abigail tended to sustain a stoic stance about the morbid uncertainties of aging, while John veered toward more melodramatic predictions of imminent decline: “My forces of Mind and Body are nearly spent,” he warned. “Few Years remain for me, if any.” At the time, in 1795, he had thirty-one years to go.40

Midlife also required them to renegotiate the relationship with their children, all of whom were now adults out of the nest and no longer mere receptacles into which they could pour their parental wisdom with impunity. Both Abigail and John were accustomed to being hands-on parents, presuming and assuming an authority over their children that verged on the absolute. Now that had to change.

Nabby, after all, was a mother of her own. Abigail relished her new role as grandmother, and when Nabby became pregnant for the third time, she volunteered to take the two young boys for several weeks. She quickly discovered that Nabby’s parenting style was more permissive than her own, since John Adams Smith, a mere toddler, presumed he had the run of the house. “One great mistake in the education of youth,” she apprised Nabby, “is gratifying every wish of their hearts.” All young children, she thought, “should know how to suffer want.” Eventually, however, she acknowledged that her own views “are so old fashioned that … they are illsuited to modern style and fashion.” Her disciplinary standards continued to melt away as she watched her grandson persuade John to pull him around the room in a chair, “which is generally done for half an hour, to the derangement of my carpet and the amusement of his grandpa.”41

Both Abigail and John developed a growing concern for the career choices that Nabby’s husband was making. William Stephens Smith had presumed that he would be offered a prominent post in the new government. He even had the temerity to propose himself for the ambassadorial vacancy in London based on his previous experience as John’s secretary there. This was considered a quite flagrant act of arrogance by all concerned and was summarily rejected; Smith reacted huffily, vowing to prove his critics wrong by making a private fortune in the lucrative but highly speculative market in western lands. Initially, he enjoyed a measure of success, though John did not approve of his new career or his inflated sense of importance: “He boasts too much of having made his fortune.”42

After Smith spent two weeks with him in Philadelphia, John confided to Abigail that their daughter’s husband “is tormented by his Ambitions, but has taken unsagacious measures to remove his Pains. I know not what he is in Pursuit of.” They both felt that their daughter and grandchildren were dependent on a man whose future depended on winning a high-stakes game of speculation in western lands. But they kept their concern to themselves. Nabby’s fate was no longer within their control.43

At least to a slight extent, John Quincy’s was. As the designated protégé, he was the recipient of the same kind of educational injunctions from his father at twenty-five as he was at five: make yourself a master of the classics, to include Cicero, Livy, Polybius, and Sallust; moreover, you must “read them all in Latin—Nor would I by any means consent that you forget your Greek.” In truth, however, John Quincy was now a young man with an emotional and professional agenda of his own. He had become infatuated with a sixteen-year-old girl named Mary Frazier while setting up his law practice in Newburyport—an entanglement that exposed how his emotional immaturity rested uncomfortably alongside his intellectual precociousness. The love affair—his first—ended when he moved to Boston in search of clients. But they failed to show up. John Quincy was humiliated when he had to inform his father that he could not support himself.44

John rose to the occasion. His son was, he told everyone who would listen, “as great a Scholar as this Country has produced at his Age.” He was not one of those “flashing Insects [who] glitter and glow for a moment and then disappear.” A bit later he claimed that his son “has more Prudence at 27, than his father at 58.” The boy simply needed some help over this temporary hump before soaring to the heights that were his destiny.45

John offered to provide an annual stipend of $100, plus free use of one of his Boston properties as an office and home, until John Quincy could support himself. This was a violation of all his earlier pronouncements against providing financial support beyond college for his children. But once decided, John extended the same level of assistance to Charles and Thomas, presumably as a statement of equity. John Quincy was mortified at the fact of his abiding dependence but was in no position to refuse his father’s offer. John preferred to regard it as a safe and shrewd investment in an extraordinarily talented young man whom he had personally groomed for greatness.46

This investment earned dividends in 1794, when John Quincy was nominated by Washington to serve as American minister to The Hague. The vote in the Senate, which John oversaw, was unanimous, despite John Quincy’s tender age, and despite the inevitable whisperings about nepotism. (But who else could claim fluency in Dutch, French, and Russian?) Washington, who had demonstrated over his long career a true genius at spotting talent, assured John that the choice was based entirely on merit and was likely to be merely the first step in John Quincy’s brilliant career. “I shall be much mistaken,” wrote Washington, “if, in as short a Period as can well be expected, he is not found at the head of the Diplomatic Corps.” Like so many of Washington’s judgments, this proved prescient.47

With John Quincy now launched as an erstwhile American statesman—his brother Thomas was appointed as his secretary, so both of John’s boys would be treading the same paths in The Hague that he had walked a decade earlier—John acknowledged that the torch had been passed to the next generation. John Quincy’s official correspondence from his listening post in the middle of Europe, currently aflame with the political and military conflagration generated by the French Revolution, was immediately recognized for the brilliance of its panoramic scope and mastery of detail. At the height of his own powers, John observed, he could never have duplicated his son’s sagacity. “Go on, my son, in your glorious Career,” he wrote, “and may the Blessings of God crown you with success.” He was an extremely proud parent, who fully recognized that his boy had become his own man.48

The same was not true of Charles, the spoiled son in the Adams family, whom John decided to make his special project. Because the etiquette of the era forbade direct discussion of private domestic problems, the family correspondence makes only elliptical references to the rumors that Charles was drinking heavily. He had apparently fallen in with a rowdy crew at Harvard, been disciplined by the college for running naked while drunk through Harvard Yard, and persisted in his bad habits and bad associations after graduation. John Quincy claimed that he had warned his brother that his behavior, if ever discovered by their father, would produce massive explosions: “I wrote him a very serious letter three weeks ago,” he confided to his uncle, “upon the subject in such a manner as must, I think, lead him to be more cautious.” Abigail took the view that Charles had sowed some wild oats at Harvard, but would recover once removed from the influence of his college companions.49

Nevertheless, the decision that Charles should read law in New York reflected the recognition that he required parental supervision, which could best occur if he lived with Abigail and John at Richmond Hill. By all accounts, Charles was a model law student. “I sometimes think his application too intense,” Abigail observed, “but better so, than too remis.” After his parents moved to Philadelphia, Charles opened his law office just off Wall Street and, unlike John Quincy, was flooded with clients based on his growing reputation as one of the brightest and most personable young lawyers in the city.50

John decided to initiate what became a voluminous correspondence with Charles in 1792, not so much because he still harbored fears of his son’s addiction to alcohol, but mostly because he wanted to carve out a more mature adult-to-adult relationship based on their mutual interests in politics and the law. He sold his own horses in order to purchase the most up-to-date law books for Charles.

During a four-month period in the spring of 1794, John wrote thirty long letters to Charles, asking his legal opinion on America’s treaty obligations to France; bombarding him with lengthy discourses on the misleading doctrine of equality as promulgated by the French philosophes; urging him to broaden his base of knowledge by reading Confucius, Socrates, Plutarch, Seneca, and Epictetus; asking his advice about the convoluted politics of New York; and answering his questions about the existence of any thoroughly democratic societies in world history (“Yes, my son, there are many Such Societies in the Forests of America, called Indian Tribes”).51

He invited Charles to visit him for a week in Philadelphia (offering to pay all expenses), join him to observe the Senate, attend a levee, mingle with the prominent players, let a proud father show him off. Charles did visit, and after he left John described his favorite scene: father and son sitting together after attending a dinner, smoking cigars, sharing their reactions to the political gossip, bantering as friends into the night.52

Once back in New York, Charles received a letter from John in the parental mode: “You appeared to me, when you were here,” wrote John, “to be too plethorick,” meaning bloated. “There are innumerable Disorders which originate in Fulness, especially in a sedentary and studious life. You must rouse yourself from your Lethargy and take your Walk every Day.” Only with the advantage of hindsight, knowing as we do that Charles would die of complications from alcoholism five years later, is it possible to recognize that his bloated condition was most probably not the result of inadequate exercise. He had become an alcoholic who was extremely adroit at concealing his addiction from his father and, for that matter, from everyone else, except his wife.53


When John returned to his post in the Senate in December 1792, the first order of business was to oversee the official counting of the electoral votes for president and vice president. Washington’s reelection was assured, and the tally revealed that, once again, he was a unanimous choice with 132 electoral votes. John’s reelection was less foreordained, creating the awkward prospect of certifying his own rejection by the electorate. Despite opposition from New York and several southern states, which rallied behind Governor George Clinton of New York, John was comfortably reelected with 77 votes to 50 for Clinton. “It does not appear,” he wrote Abigail, “that I am born to so good Fortune as to be a mere Farmer in my old Age.”54

The letter was necessary because Abigail had decided to remain at Quincy. Despite his pleadings, she refused to accompany him to Philadelphia, using her rheumatic condition and her aversion to that city’s heat and humidity as excuses. John complained that her decision produced a nefarious pattern, “to be separated both when we were too young and now when we are too old.” It also broke the prevailing pattern of the preceding eight years, when she was by his side as a full partner in the interstices of politics and life. The only compensation was her letters: “They give me more entertainment than all the speeches I hear,” John observed. “There is more good Thoughts, fine strokes and Mother Wit in them than I hear in a whole Week.”55

This time the roles were reversed; it was John who complained of being lonely and miserable: “I pore upon my Family at Quincy, my Children in Europe, and my Children and Grandchildren in New York till I am Melancholy and wish myself a private Man.” He adopted a refrain about his altered sense of time: “It is a common observation of old People, that as they advance in Life, time appears to run off faster.” But during his solitary days in Philadelphia, without Abigail to quicken his pulse, time seemed to slow down. Abigail, on the other hand, found the distance less daunting this time around, and noted that the existence of dependable postal service created the possibility of an ongoing conversation. She thought it almost eerie that they found themselves, despite the distance, having the same thoughts at the same time: “It may be called the telegraph of the Mind,” she noted admiringly.56

Whether it was telegraphic or telepathic, Abigail and John had nearly identical reactions to the sudden surge of fiercely partisan politics that came to dominate John’s second term. Both of them located the source of the emerging opposition in the southern states, most especially in Virginia, which viewed the entire fiscal program of Hamilton as an engine designed to transfer power from the agrarian to the commercial sector, which effectively meant from South to North. Jefferson and Madison were the highly capable leaders of the Virginia-writ-large view that the federal government had no authority to legislate for the states and that Hamilton’s fiscal program, especially the National Bank, was therefore unconstitutional. Abigail was particularly outspoken in describing this purportedly principled position as a mere mask to conceal the sectional interests of the slaveholding south. “I firmly believe,” she wrote to her sister, “that if I live ten years longer, I shall see a division of the Southern and Northern states.” They both regarded the selection of a Potomac location for the national capital as a victory for Virginia, which was obsessed with ensuring that the federal governent speak with a southern accent.57

The political agenda shifted dramatically in the spring of 1793, when the French Revolution exploded into spasms of violence that sent shock waves throughout Europe. In both Defence and Davila John had predicted that any attempt to impose the utopian schemes of the French philosophes would produce anarchy, though he claimed to take no satisfaction in being proved correct: “It is melancholy that everything in France … should conspire so perfectly to demonstrate over again all my Books … Yet they do not good.” The only thing to do when the guillotine was moving so methodically was to steer clear and allow the bloodletting to run its murderous course. “Dragons Teeth have been sown in France,” he observed, “and come up Monsters.”58

Washington had reached the same conclusion, and in April 1793 issued the Neutrality Proclamation, declaring the United States a disinterested spectator to Europe’s ongoing calamities and, most especially, a neutral in the looming war between France and Great Britain. Though the proclamation represented a repudiation of the nation’s obligations in the Franco-American Treaty of 1778, John could claim that he had long ago abandoned those obligations by negotiating a separate peace with Great Britain in 1783.

While Abigail and John both agreed with the president on the policy of American neutrality, for at least three reasons that policy was much easier to proclaim than enforce. First, the vast majority of American citizens loved the French and loathed the British, for the obvious reason that French assistance had rendered possible the American victory over the British leviathan. Second, diplomatic detachment was difficult to reconcile with commercial entanglements, for the American economy was heavily dependent on trade with both France and Great Britain. (This was an intractable problem that would surface again in 1812 and 1917, in both instances drawing the United States into war.) Third, the burgeoning political opposition, now styling itself the Republican Party to differentiate itself from the Federalists, was more than willing to play politics with the issue, seizing upon the enormous popularity of the French cause throughout the land.

The new French minister, Edmond Genet, after coaching from Jefferson, stirred the pot by urging American citizens to defy the neutrality policy of the elected government and demonstrate their loyalty to the French cause of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Charles reported from New York that the city was delirious over Genet: “every man who now ventures to disapprove of a single measure of the French is, according to modern language, an Aristocrat.” The popular sentiment for a pro-French foreign policy, which almost surely meant war with Great Britain, reached a crescendo during the last months of 1793, with popular demonstrations in all the major cities and advocates on each side blazing away at each other in the newspapers. While he could plausibly claim to be the most experienced student of foreign policy in the government, John played no role in the debates or the deliberations of the executive branch. “My own Situation is of such compleat Insignificance,” he lamented to Abigail, “that I have scarcely the Power to do good or Evil.” As Republican editorials targeted Washington and Hamilton for their betrayal of the French connection, John jokingly observed that he was so irrelevant that no one bothered to vilify him: “Poor me,” he confided to Abigail, “I am left out of the Question.”59

This was also the moment when the cracks that had already begun to appear in the friendship between Jefferson and the Adams family became a chasm. It was an open secret that Jefferson, while serving as secretary of state in the Washington administration, was orchestrating the Republican opposition to the very government he officially served. John apprised Abigail that she would not recognize the man they had welcomed into their family in Paris: “I am really astonished at the blind spirit of Party which has seized on the whole soul of this Jefferson,” he reported. “There is not a Jacobin in France more devoted to Faction.”60

Though he claimed to be acting on principle—opposing the excessive exercise of federal authority and embracing the glorious cause of the French Revolution—in John’s opinion Jefferson’s true motives were blatantly self-serving. Like so many of the Virginia planters, he was heavily in debt to British creditors, and therefore predisposed toward an anti-British foreign policy that would delay repayment into the indefinite future: “I wish someone would pay his Debt of seven thousand pounds to Britain,” John confided to Abigail, “and then I believe his Passions would subside, his Reason return, and the whole Man and his whole State [Virginia] become good Friends of the Union and its Govt.”61

As one of the most seasoned students of the Jefferson psyche, John reached the conclusion that his former friend was extremely adept at playing hide-and-seek within himself: “Ambition is the subtlest Beast of the Intellectual and Moral Field. It is wonderfully adroit in concealing itself from its owner.” In Jefferson’s case, John believed that he could not candidly confront his own ambition to succeed Washington as the next president.

When Jefferson announced that he was stepping down as secretary of state, leaving public life for the bucolic serenity of Monticello, John predicted that his retirement would prove temporary: “Jefferson thinks he shall by this step get a Reputation as a humble, modest, meek Man, wholly without ambition or vanity. He may even have deceived himself into this Belief. But if a Prospect opens, the World will see and he will feel, that he is as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell.” A year later, Jefferson claimed to be completely consumed by his new crop rotation scheme at Monticello and wholly oblivious to the mounting efforts of Republican operatives in several states to launch his candidacy for the presidency.62

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that John’s insights into the ambitions simmering away in Jefferson’s soul proved so prescient because they mirrored the presidential ambitions he himself was harboring. If so—and it would seem highly unlikely that the thought never crossed his mind—he suppressed any mention of it in his correspondence. Quite the contrary: his letters to Abigail conveyed the impression of an aging patriarch, eager to complete this last assignment of his public life and then join Abigail in retirement at Quincy. Moreover, the scene he was then witnessing from his perch in the Senate was so full of partisan bickering and nasty political infighting that no sane observer, he suggested, would have been able to think of the presidency as anything but a thankless task fit only for masochists and martyrs.

The chief occasion for this circuslike spectacle was the debate over the Jay Treaty, the controversial centerpiece of Washington’s second term, much as Hamilton’s financial program had been in the first. In both instances, the debate was so fierce because of the embedded resistance to any explicit projection of executive power, which immediately conjured up the dreaded “consolidation” by some faraway federal government and the equally threatening emergence of a “monarchical presence” within the republican temple. John regarded these fears as groundless, and the Republican effort to exacerbate and exploit them as a diabolical plot to topple the Federalist government by partisans of the Virginia-writ-large persuasion.

Here is the essential background. By 1794 the prospects of war with Great Britain were approaching a crisis. It was one thing to proclaim American neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain, quite another to maintain a neutral posture when British troops remained stationed on the northwestern frontier, inciting and supplying Indian raids on American settlers in the Ohio Valley, and British frigates were scooping up American merchant ships in the Caribbean with impunity in order to block all grain shipments to France.

Washington dispatched Chief Justice John Jay to London, where he was charged to negotiate a realistic bargain that would remove the British troops and redefine commercial relations with Great Britain in terms that avoided war. Adams had no say in this decision, though he concurred completely that avoiding war was America’s highest diplomatic priority. Jay returned with a treaty that, on the positive side, required the removal of British troops on the frontier and also committed the British to arbitrate American claims of compensation for cargoes confiscated by the British navy. On the negative side, however, the treaty recognized British naval supremacy in deferential terms that gave American neutrality a decidedly British tilt, a tacit admission that trade with Great Britain was the lifeblood of the American economy. And it required American debtors, chiefly Virginian planters, to pay off their prewar debts to British creditors.63

In retrospect, the Jay Treaty was a shrewd bargain, for it not only avoided a potentially ruinous war but also aligned the United States with the dominant global power over the next century. At the time, however, it was overwhelmingly unpopular. Jay later claimed that he could have walked the entire eastern seaboard at night with his way lit by fires from his burning effigies. Adams thought that Jay had performed the ultimate act of political virtue, the trademark Adams act, by defying popular opinion to further the long-term public interest: “He will live to see the Federal City,” Adams predicted, “and inhabit the proudest House,” meaning that Jay’s contributions would eventually lead to his election as president. Meanwhile, popular opinion raged against the treaty: “No event since the Commencement of the Government,” Abigail observed, “has excited so much undue heat, so much bitter acrimony, so much base invective.”64

In June 1795, with John watching in stony silence, the Senate approved the treaty on a straight party-line vote (20–10), thereby behaving in accord with John’s description of the Senate as the custodian of America’s enduring interests, regardless of popular disapproval. “It is well the Senate only have the discussion of it [the Jay Treaty],” Abigail noted, “for if it was to go to the House for Ratification, and was a Treaty from the Kingdom of Heaven, proclaiming Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men, there would not be wanting characters to defame and abuse it.”65

Although Senate approval should have ended the matter, the Republican opposition under Madison’s adroit leadership devised a strategy to sabotage the treaty by denying the funds for its implementation in the House, which had authority over all money bills. John believed he was watching the triumph of party politics in its most partisan form. “There is an Inveteracy and Obstinacy on this occasion as I scarcely ever saw,” he lamented to Abigail. The Republican opposition was highly orchestrated, “all moving as one Man, not a dissenting Voice among them, appearing as if drawn by one Cord.” And if he could have read the correspondence between Madison and Jefferson, John would have seen that the cord stretched back to Monticello, where Jefferson had roused himself from retirement to assume command of Republican strategy to kill the treaty.

The Republicans had a clear majority in the House, but as petitions poured in from merchants, Quakers, and frontier settlers, all of whom had come to the realization that failure to pass the treaty meant war with Great Britain, the majority began to melt away. “Mr. Madison looks worried to death,” John reported to Abigail. “Pale, withered, haggard … They have brought themselves into great embarrassment.” Funding for the Jay Treaty passed by a slim majority (51–48) on April 30, 1796.66

What John had witnessed in the debate over the Jay Treaty was the emergence of a highly partisan brand of party politics for which he was both intellectually and temperamentally unprepared. And because this episode would prove to be a preview of coming attractions, indeed the first appearance of what would become a two-party system that made the very idea of the disinterested statesman into an anachronism, he was also witnessing the arrival of a political culture almost designed to torment him until his dying days. His political irrelevance as vice president had allowed him to avoid the full force of the partisan game: “I have escaped in a whole skin,” he wrote to John Quincy, “as Mr. Jay and the President have attracted almost the whole Attention, Genius, Inventions and Industry of the Libellers.” But this was all about to change.67


In January 1796 Washington leaked the news that he intended to step down after his second term as president. Although he had been hinting at his intentions for nearly four years, Washington’s stature as the only self-evident truth in American politics made it difficult to imagine an American government without him as the centerpiece. There had been, therefore, an unspoken assumption that he would continue to serve until his soul was carried to its heavenly reward, dying in office like an American king. Now the indispensable man let it be known that he was leaving.

John’s initial response to this news was extremely revealing: “You know the Consequences of this, to me and to yourself,” he wrote to Abigail. “Either we must enter upon Arduors more trying than any yet experienced, or retire to Quincy, farmers for Life.” He obviously recognized that he was a viable candidate to succeed Washington, but he had not allowed himself to think about that prospect until the moment arrived. And now that it had, Abigail needed to be an equal partner in the decision. His initial instinct, or at least his first conscious reaction, was to lean toward retirement: “But I think upon the whole the Probability is strong that I shall beat the hasty Retreat,” he wrote her, “and spend the rest of my days in a very humble Style with you.” On the other hand, he wanted Abigail to know that the decision was not entirely theirs to make: “I am Heir Apparent, you know, and a Succession is soon to take place,” he half joked. “I have a pious and philosophical Resignation to the Voice of the People in the Case, which is the Voice of God.” In other words, he was waiting to gauge the prospects of his candidacy before making a final decision.68

Abigail’s reaction was less ambivalent: “My Ambition leads me not to be first in Rome,” she responded. “If personal considerations alone were to weigh, I would immediately say retire.” Then she added a crucial caveat: “But in a Matter of such momentous Concern I dare not influence you. I must pray that you have Superior Direction.” It was a repeat of the pattern established when John was in Europe and she urged him to come home. Her own preferences were clear, but she would support whatever decision he made. She did feel free to remind him that the partisan politics surrounding the Jay Treaty debates boded badly for the next president, who would also face the nearly impossible task of succeeding the greatest hero of the age: “I am sure it will be a most unpleasant Seat,” she warned, “full of Thorns, Briers, thistles, murmuring, fault finding, calumny … and what not.”69

John acknowledged that the political atmosphere had become quite toxic, and he could testify that it had taken its toll on Washington, who had aged a decade over the past two years. He also harbored doubts about his own health, at one point concluding that it made more sense to retire “before my Constitution failed, before my Memory failed, before my Judgment failed.” And, yes, he had to admit that he was “weary of the Game.” But then he added: “Yet I don’t know how I could live out of it.”70

Abigail surely realized that, when all the internal twitchings and vacillations were done, when all the arguments for and against were exhausted, her husband would find the summons to serve irresistible. But as he rocked back and forth among all his demons and doubts, she felt an obligation to let him know what he would be up against: “You know what is before you. The Whips and Scorpions, the Thorns without Roses, the dangers, anxieties and weight of Empire.” Moreover, she had some doubts about herself: “I am anxious for the proper discharge of that share which will devolve upon me.” Over the past four years she had grown accustomed to the serenities of her Quincy home, where she could speak her mind: “I should say that I have been so used to a freedom of sentiment,” she observed, “that I know not how to place so many guards about me.” John concurred that the social obligations of the office would be a burden for them both: “I hate Levees and Drawing Rooms. I hate to speak to 1000 People to whom I have nothing to say.” But then came the caveat: “Yet all this I can do.”71

Although the ultimate decision had probably been made by March, John’s wrestling match with his own ambitions continued throughout the spring. Once again, as in the two previous presidential elections, the absence of a formal nomination process meant that he did not need to declare his candidacy. But in newspaper editorials, even toasts at dinner parties, his name topped most lists throughout New England as the obvious choice. He had, after all, received more votes in the two previous elections than anyone except Washington. And if the chief criterion was revolutionary credentials, one would be hard-pressed to find anybody else who could match his. Abigail assured him on this point: “There remains not a Man in America whose Publick Service [more] entitled him to the office.”72

Prospective voters south of the Potomac did not quite see it that way, insisting that there was a certain Virginian currently in retirement at Monticello who possessed impeccable revolutionary credentials of his own, and whose views on the proper limitations that should be placed on federal power were more akin to their own. By the summer of 1796 it was clear to all concerned, except apparently to Jefferson himself, that the contest for the presidency would match the two former friends. Jefferson later claimed that he was wholly oblivious that he was a candidate, and that he was too busy harvesting his vetch crop to notice that the Republican opposition had rallied around his candidacy. Madison endorsed this rather incredible version of Jefferson’s indifference, claiming that he made a point of not visiting his friend at Monticello that summer for fear that any mention of the presidential election might cause Jefferson to withdraw his name.

John could not claim that he was unaware of his own candidacy, in part because he lacked Jefferson’s powers of self-deception, in part because he was receiving letters from Abigail and John Quincy about his prospects. Abigail made a survey of newspaper editorials on the eve of the election and reported that his endorsement of American neutrality and support for the Jay Treaty would cost him most of the electoral votes in the South. She predicted a clear sectional split in the final tally and a very close contest. If he did not win but came in second, she requested and received a solemn promise that he would refuse the vice presidency and join her in retirement in Quincy.73

For his part, John took refuge behind the classic code of silence. Anyone who uttered any statements on his own behalf, or even commented on the ongoing campaign being conducted by surrogates, thereby exposed his own vanity and was deemed unqualified to serve. On good days he boasted to Abigail that he would be fine regardless of the outcome: “I feel myself in a very happy temper of mind. Perfectly willing to be released from the Port of Danger, but determined, if call’d to it, to brave it.” On bad days he confided his emotional confusion: “I laugh at myself twenty times a Day, for my feelings and meditations … It really seems to be as if I wished to be left out. Let me see. Do I know my own heart? I am not sure.” Could he, with proper decorum, announce Jefferson’s victory in the Senate, where the electoral votes were counted? Or would he be too mortified to do his duty? He did not know.74

After the election, but before the results were known, Abigail reported to John that she had had an interesting dream. She was riding in a coach when a barrage of twenty-four cannonballs came flying at her. She was terrified and fully expected to be blown to bits. But the cannonballs all exploded in midair before they reached her. She interpreted the dream as a kind of supernatural signal not to worry. Either way, they would be fine. And the dream probably meant that, despite all the anguish, John was going to win.75

He did. As Abigail had predicted, the vote was extremely close (71–68). As she also predicted, the split was mostly sectional, with John’s margin of victory dependent on two electoral votes in western Virginia and North Carolina. The results were reasonably clear over a month before the votes were officially counted in the Senate in February 1797. “According to present Appearances,” John apprised Abigail in late December, “Jefferson will be Daddy Vice,” a fate that would require him to adjust his indulgent living habits to the meager salary of the office.76

Abigail wrote back to report that congratulatory compliments were pouring in from all their friends and relatives. The only sour note concerned the revelation, based on several reliable sources, that Alexander Hamilton, in a brazen act of skullduggery, had attempted to manipulate the electoral votes on behalf of Thomas Pinckney, a South Carolina Federalist, in the apparent hope of sneaking Pinckney in ahead of John. The plot failed, but it probably cut into John’s margin of victory.

This was clinching evidence that Hamilton could not be trusted. “He is a Man ambitious as Julius Caesar,” Abigail warned. “His thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept my eye on him.” The clear implication was that John had rather nonchalantly taken Hamilton’s support for granted and vastly underestimated his ambition to control the Federalist agenda after Washington’s departure. Hamilton must now be regarded as a rival.77

Although she had made her own preferences for retirement clear, now that the voters had spoken, Abigail was prepared to embrace the verdict and join John again as a partner in this final triumph of his public career. It was so cold in Quincy that it was freezing her ink and chilling the blood in her veins, she observed, but his election had quickened her heartbeat in defiance of the cold. They were in all eyes, including hers, a team, so in some sense she, too, had been called to serve. She promised to be at his side, “in the turbulent scenes in which he is about to engage.”78

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