His two terms under Washington appear to have eased somewhat Adams' concern over the weakness of the presidential office, and he took pains in his inaugural address to deny that he advocated radical changes in the Constitution. Yet his view of the president as an independent mediator between contending factions left him largely incapable of bridging the constitutional separation of powers by working closely with Congress to enact his program. His constitutional duty as he construed it was to alert Congress to the nation's problems and to judge its solutions but not to intervene otherwise in the legislative process.
Even had Adams' concept of the presidency permitted him to use the powers of his office to influence Congress, the lack of a Federalist party structure would have thwarted him. Like Washington, Adams had deplored the rise of parties in the first two administrations. In his inaugural address he pronounced the "spirit of party" to be one of the "natural enemies" of the Constitution. Refusing to recognize that he was the leader of a party, he could not command a loyal following. Under Adams the Federalist majorities in Congress were a loose combination of three groups: moderates with whom Adams was popular; independents, or "half-Federalists," who ran under the party banner but voted according to local interests; and the Hamiltonians, who took their lead from the former secretary of the treasury. Insofar as the Federalist party had a vigorous center, it was in the New York City law office of Alexander Hamilton.
At the outset of the new government in 1789, Adams had given full support to Hamilton's plan to establish the credit of the United States, but he soon developed serious doubts concerning the secretary's sponsorship of the Bank of the United States and other measures favoring commercial and manufacturing interests. He preferred a federal government that through frugality kept its credit high and its taxes low. In economic philosophy he stood between the commercialism of Hamilton and the agrarianism of Jefferson. Here, as on other issues, President Adams attempted to balance clashing interests. He retained a faint hope that he might be able to draw the moderate men of both parties toward a nonpartisan center and thus return the Republic to the course on which it had been launched by the framers of the Constitution.
By retaining Washington's cabinet, Adams made what some historians have considered to be the major mistake of his administration, but to him, the reasons for doing so were compelling. He believed that government officials should not be removed except for cause. To dismiss the cabinet he inherited might appear to be an affront to Washington and further split the Federalists. The salaries and prestige of these offices were so low that even Washington had experienced great difficulty in filling them during his second term. Though he lamented the decline in the quality of the secretaries since the resignations of Hamilton and Jefferson, Adams appears not to have considered forming his own cabinet.
Three of the four cabinet members proved dis-loyal to the president they served. Of these, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering caused Adams the most trouble. An unsuccessful lawyer turned zealous but honest bureaucrat, Pickering held this president in low esteem and did not hesitate to oppose him openly when they differed on domestic and foreign issues. The secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of Connecticut, ably administered his office and refused to oppose his chief openly but remained an intimate of Hamilton. As secretary of war, James McHenry was acknowledged to be incompetent even by Hamilton, whom he subserviently followed. Of the original cabinet, only the attorney general, Charles Lee, demonstrated any loyalty to the president. But this office was still only a part-time position, held by a lawyer who also engaged in private practice. With the creation of the Navy Department in 1798, Adams at last appointed a secretary of his own choosing. The lack of cabinet solidarity weakened the Adams administration, especially since the president was absent from the capital for long periods. It was typical of John Adams that he saw his duty in working with cabinet officers whose loyalty he suspected from the outset of his presidency.