In an era of peace, a president with Adams' view of the office might have enjoyed a tranquil four years. He did not regard his election by a margin of three votes as a mandate from the American people but only as a duty to be performed. He had no program for the nation other than the "continuance in all its energy" of the government under the Constitution. "What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?" he queried in his short inaugural address, which stressed his dedication to the principles upon which the American governments were founded. But the presidency of John Adams was dominated not by tranquillity but by a single issue that threatened to destroy the Union before the end of its first decade. It was fortunate for the nation—and for Adams' claim to presidential great-ness—that this single issue concerned foreign policy, the area in which the president had the most independent authority and the one for which Adams was best prepared by experience.
The course of the French Revolution since 1789 had plunged Europe into war. Despite President Washington's policy of official neutrality, Americans increasingly divided over whether to remain loyal to their ally in the War of Independence or to support the British effort to prevent French domination of all Europe. The leaders of republican France saw in the treaty that John Jay had negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 not only shameful ingratitude for their country's aid to the struggling colonies during the American Revolution but also a de facto alliance with Great Britain that repudiated the Franco-American alliance of 1778. The treaty became the main issue in the election of 1796 as the Republicans generally denounced it. On the eve of the election, the French minister to the United States, Pierre Auguste Adet, openly acknowledged his government's support for Jefferson. At his inauguration Adams declared his "personal esteem for the French nation" and his determination to maintain "neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe." But already the Directory, the five-man executive of the French republic, had interpreted Adams' succession to the presidency as another act of hostility toward France.
Since 1795, French armed ships preying on American shipping, particularly in the West Indies, had captured hundreds of vessels flying the flag of the United States. On 2 March 1797, two days before the inauguration, the Directory stepped up the maritime war by a decree that legitimized nearly any seizure of an American ship and fell just short of a declaration of war. Furthermore, the Directory had in effect broken off diplomatic relations with the United States by refusing to accept Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney as the replacement for James Monroe, the American minister to France recalled by Washington for his opposition to Jay's Treaty.
As Adams took office, he had to pick up the pieces of Washington's shattered neutrality policy. The first president was fortunate, thought Jefferson, to have retired "just as the bubble is bursting." Following three weeks of deliberation, Adams called a special session of Congress for the middle of May. In a message to Congress on 16 May, he denounced the Directory's slighting of Pinckney and honoring of the departing Monroe as an attempt to "separate the people of the United States" from their freely elected government. It was time to convince France and the world that Americans could not be "humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and inferiority." He pledged a "fresh attempt at negotiations" and a willingness to correct any real wrong done France. But in the meantime the nation must look to "effectual measures of defense." He recommended the building of a navy as the first line of defense and the expansion of the armed forces to protect the long coastline against French raiding parties.
This address ended the brief period of political peace enjoyed by the president. His inaugural address had been praised by even some Republican leaders and editors, but now Jefferson concluded that Adams had been captured by a circle of Federalists pushing for a war against France and close ties with Great Britain. The Republican press generally denounced the "gasconading speech" for exaggerating the danger of war in order to achieve such sinister goals as deceiving the nation into accepting a standing army that could be used to institute an American monarchy. Yet even Hamilton favored another attempt at reconciliation and so instructed his followers in the cabinet. Pickering, Wolcott, and McHenry, more inclined to war than negotiation, gave way to Hamilton on the sending of a peace commission but rejected his advice that it should include a friend of France.
Adams, too, wanted to send a bipartisan commission to France. Ideally, he thought, it should include either Jefferson or Madison. But both refused, and there was growing opposition in the cabinet and among other Federalists to sending any Republican. Finally, on 31 May 1797, the president nominated a geographically balanced commission of Pinckney, Francis Dana, and John Marshall. When Dana declined because of health, Adams defied his cabinet by replacing Dana with Elbridge Gerry, a close Massachusetts friend and a political independent. Following weeks of heated debate, the special session adjourned on 8 July, after approving the commission and passing some feeble defense measures.
Marshall and Gerry soon sailed to join Pinckney and attempted to open negotiations, but no word could be expected from them for many months. The president and Mrs. Adams left the capital in July for their home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and did not return until November. Meanwhile the debate raged in the press. Republican publications described in detail a conspiracy of warmongers, while Federalist editors attacked the cowardly American Jacobins for quivering in fear before insults to the nation's honor by French atheists. The president's annual message to Congress on 23 November added fuel to the flames. He held out little hope of an immediate peace. Defense measures, he insisted, were now more essential than before and should be supported as much as possible by taxation rather than by loans.
With instructions that asked for much and gave little, the commissioners had feeble bargaining power in France. They faced the new French foreign minister, the wily Talleyrand, who, although more inclined to peace than the Directory, saw the negotiations as an opportunity for personal gain. Working through confidential agents, Talleyrand demanded, as preconditions for negotiating, a bribe of £50,000 for himself and the assumption by the United States of all American claims against France. Pinckney answered the demand for a bribe with an emphatic "No, no, not a sixpence." Meanwhile, Adams' speech of 16 May 1797 had increased the Directory's anger over Jay's Treaty, and an apology was demanded.
The commissioners continued in unofficial negotiations for another five months. Their first report reached Adams on 4 March 1798. A shocked president sent the one uncoded letter to Congress the next day, and his anger rose as the others were deciphered. He asked his cabinet if he should lay all the dispatches before Congress and then request a declaration of war. Deciding not to go that far, on the nineteenth he informed the legislature that the mission was hopeless and called for strong defense measures.
Skeptical of the president's "warmongering," Republicans demanded to see the dispatches and in so doing fell into a trap of their own making. After a formal request from the House, the president released the papers on 3 April, substituting the letters W , X , Y , Z for the names of the agents who had delivered the request for a bribe. News of the XYZ affair, as it became known, quickly spread throughout the nation and aroused patriots to turn Pinckney's "No, no, not a sixpence" into the toast "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" Suddenly John Adams became, as his wife proudly noticed, "wonderfully popular." She wrote her son John Quincy Adams, the American minister to the court of Berlin, that the supporters of France had received a "death wound."
President Adams judged that a declaration of war was inevitable, but he was in no hurry to ask Congress for it. While some extreme, or High, Federalists pressed for an immediate declaration, the majority in Congress preferred to wait until further provocation from France united an overwhelming majority of Americans behind a declared war. For several months addresses and resolutions of support from communities and societies all over the nation poured into the president's house. He gave much of his time to answering each address in fervid language, calling for patriotic sacrifice and reproaching the American friends of France. Published in the newspapers and in part as A Selection of the Patriotic Addresses, to the President of the United States , these addresses and replies inflamed the passion for war. Federalists now flaunted the black cockade of the American Revolution to shame those Republicans who sometimes wore the tricolor cockade of the French revolutionaries. From pulpit and press, rabid Federalists spread the fear of a worldwide conspiracy, hatched in France, against Christianity and political freedom. Rumors of impending French raids and even a full-scale invasion alarmed the unprotected coastal towns.