John Adams - Preparations for war

Even without a declaration of war, the XYZ crisis moved Congress in the spring and early summer of 1798 to pass a long series of defense measures. Since 1789, protracted debate over the need for a navy had pitted legislators from the commercial and agrarian sections against each other. In 1794, Congress had authorized the building of six frigates, only three of which had been started, and they were still unfinished when Washington retired. At the request of President Adams, Congress in 1797 had voted to complete the three frigates. Then, in his 19 March 1798 message, Adams announced that he had authorized the arming of private merchantmen. The Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to curb the president's power to take such offensive measures against France by introducing three resolutions, known as the Sprigg Resolutions. After Republican opposition was crushed by the XYZ revelations, Congress promptly voted to procure additional vessels, to arm private merchant ships, to establish the Marine Corps, and to permit the seizure of French armed vessels in any ocean. To take naval affairs out of the overburdened and inefficient hands of the secretary of war, the Department of the Navy was created on 30 April. Adams appointed a capable secretary of the navy, Benjamin Stoddert of Maryland, who quickly became the president's chief ally in the cabinet.

By the end of 1798, the United States Navy had undertaken the protection of American shipping on its side of the Atlantic. In his messages to Congress and his replies to the patriotic addresses, Adams had consistently urged that the "wooden walls" of the navy be the nation's first line of defense. Mrs. Adams fondly thought of her husband as the father of the American navy. He perhaps deserved the honor as much as any single individual, although other major voices had also been raised in the long naval debate and the actual policy had been worked out by the Federalist majority in Congress. More important than any attribution of credit, the United States for the first time had a navy.

This momentous second session of the Fifth Congress also created a large paper army. Late in May a bill was passed giving the president temporary authority to raise a provisional army in case France declared war or threatened invasion. In June he was directed to appoint officers for the eighty thousand militiamen requested of the states the previous year. Before Congress adjourned in July, it passed legislation to bring the regular army up to full strength and to add ten thousand men to it. These forces appeared to fulfill Adams' request for land defenses made in his 16 May 1797 message. It took him only a few weeks, however, to realize that Congress had presented him with a political rather than a military force.

The crisis intensified Adams' conviction that the president should hold himself above party politics. He had in mind a nonpartisan army headed by Washington and staffed by high-ranking officers drawn from both parties. The former president reluctantly agreed to assume nominal command, provided that he did not have to take the field until the fighting started. In accepting this condition, Adams did not seem at first to understand that Washington would have the choice of his second in command, the general given the responsibility for organizing and training the army. With the full support of Hamilton's followers in the cabinet, Washington not only refused to have any "Jacobin" generals from the ranks of the Republicans but made as a condition of his service Hamilton's appointment as second in command.

In asking Washington to emerge from retirement, Adams had placed himself in the hands of the one public figure in the United States of whom he stood in awe. Never fully able to suppress his jealousy of Washington's primacy in war and peace, Adams had nevertheless understood perfectly the symbolic importance to the Republic of its revered revolutionary hero and first president. He was so troubled by being commander in chief without any military experience that he seems briefly to have regretted that there was no constitutional way to let Washington resume the presidency. Thus, once Washington had stated his terms, Adams could do nothing but surrender on the question of military appointments. As a result, when the issue was finally resolved in October 1798, the president had to place the enlarging army under the de facto command of his Federalist rival, a man whose ambition he had come to fear. Mrs. Adams likely expressed her husband's thoughts when she wrote that Hamilton would "make an able and active officer" but was capable of turning into the American Bonaparte. At the head of the army, he, like Napoleon, could use military force to overpower the government and launch an invasion of neighboring lands to establish an empire. The president's already slight enthusiasm for land defenses began to weaken rapidly.

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