Coming between the administrations of two presidents of immortal fame, the presidency of John Adams has been difficult for historians to evaluate and for posterity to appreciate. He had neither Washington's ability to inspire reverence nor Jefferson's understanding of democratic ideas. In his own view, his greatest achievement had been to make peace with France, but modern research has emphasized that Talleyrand and Napoleon neither wanted nor expected a military encounter with the United States and, therefore, that a stronger settlement with France might have been possible. He also took great pride in his elevation of John Marshall to the Supreme Court; yet in 1801 he could not have foreseen the strength that Marshall would infuse into the federal judiciary for the next three decades.
The contribution of the Adams presidency lay not so much in its specific accomplishments as in its strengthening the office at a critical time when it might easily have veered off the course set by Washington. Adams' conception of a strong, independent president who mediated between contending interests enabled him to withstand the violent political passions of the time, which threatened to tear apart the young republic.
Adams' view of the office and his detestation of parties and factions rendered him incapable of bridging the constitutional separation of powers through party leadership. But had he tried, he could not have succeeded, for the Federalists were not a party in the modern sense. As Adams expressed it, his party was "composed of the most heterogeneous ingredients that ever were put together." Only such an independent president as Adams could have prevented the various Federalist factions from further splintering the party and possibly the nation itself during the four years after the retirement of Washington. No one can be entirely certain of Hamilton's intentions in this period, but the available evidence strongly suggests that any president following his lead would have provoked civil war. Or had Jefferson been elected in 1796, when he fell short by only three electoral votes, he could scarcely have convinced the northern states that he was not a tool of France. In this respect, Jefferson owed far more to Adams than he seems to have realized. As Joseph Charles has pointed out, the four years under Adams provided the correct balance of motivation and time for Jeffersonian democracy to develop as a political movement and for the Republicans to gain experience, clarify their principles, and perfect the organization with which they were to govern the nation for the next twenty-eight years.
When, seven years after leaving Washington, John Adams expressed approval of his son John Quincy Adams' switching parties from Federalist to Republican, he provided testimony to the success of his own administration.