Before Congress adjourned in July, President Adams also signed an act abrogating the 1778 treaties of alliance with France. To pay for the defense measures, Congress levied a direct property tax on houses and slaves and authorized the president to borrow in anticipation of these tax revenues. In this session Adams suffered an embarrassing personal defeat when the Senate refused to confirm his nomination of his son-in-law, Colonel William S. Smith, as adjutant general of the army. Smith's commendable record in the War of Independence had been clouded by his current reputation as a speculator and political opportunist. Even so, he might have been confirmed had not the Hamiltonians in the cabinet warned the senators of Smith's recent troubles.
Late in July 1798, President and Mrs. Adams left the oppressive heat of Philadelphia and headed for Quincy. Along the way he learned the full extent of his newfound popularity. Demonstrations of support repeatedly delayed their journey as town after town turned out to display for the president and First Lady the patriotism of its citizens. A popular new patriotic song, "Adams and Liberty," celebrated the president as the living symbol of the nation's determination to resist foreign intrigues against its liberty.
By the time they reached Quincy on 8 August, Abigail Adams had taken so seriously ill that for weeks she appeared near death. The president remained close to her bedside and conducted the business of his office by mail. His protracted absence from the capital gave the disloyal members of the cabinet a free hand but also afforded Adams time to reflect on the crisis with France. In September the British ambassador, Robert Liston, came to Quincy to offer an alliance against their common enemy. Adams expressed interest without making a commitment. He then learned from his son and from El-bridge Gerry, who had remained in France after the other commissioners had returned home, that the Directory did not desire war with the United States and was making conciliatory gestures. On 22 October he wrote to the secretary of war that "at present there is no more prospect of seeing a French army here, than there is in heaven."
Adams welcomed the softening of France's position. He knew that Hamilton no longer waited for French action to bring on a full-scale war; instead, the general now proposed that Great Britain and the United States join in stripping France's ally, Spain, of its American possessions. As additional reports of Talleyrand's peace overtures reached Quincy, it became apparent that the need for the enlarged army headed by Hamilton was rapidly vanishing. But in Trenton, New Jersey, where the federal capital was temporarily located to escape the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Hamilton and Pickering attempted to rally Federalists to support an enlargement of the conflict by maintaining that the news from France had been merely Talleyrand's scheme to deceive the United States into letting down its guard. Adams' friends urged him to return to the capital without delay.
Mrs. Adams had sufficiently recovered that the president could return to Philadelphia in late November.
In the next two months reports of France's peaceful intentions continued to reach the president. He received Washington's private endorsement of an honorable peace. In the middle of February he was handed solid evidence that France had repealed its decrees authorizing the seizure of American ships. This information came just as Congress empowered the president to raise an additional army of thirty thousand men. Meanwhile, the British navy so thoroughly enforced its government's policy of capturing American vessels trading with the French West Indies that doubts were raised as to which country was the more dangerous enemy.
Always in the background of the Franco-American crisis remained the unsettled points of contention with Great Britain. The former colonies had enjoyed friendlier relations with the mother country since Jay's Treaty, but irritations remained on questions of the impressment of American seamen, citizenship, and neutral rights in time of war. Republicans charged Federalists with sacrificing American interests out of favoritism for England with the same vigor that Federalists asserted the Republicans to be the advocates of French revolutionary radicalism.
When, in 1799, Adams turned over to the Royal Navy a mutineer who falsely claimed American citizenship, a Republican effort to censure the president failed in Congress. Preoccupied with the threat from France, Adams followed a middle-of-the-road policy that took advantage of Anglo-American friendship without subservience to British might. American privateers fitted out in English ports, the Royal Navy sometimes convoyed American merchantmen out of danger zones, and the ministry headed by William Pitt permitted the United States to purchase large quantities of naval and military equipment and supplies. At the same time, the ministry refused to recognize the right of neutral nations to trade with Britain's enemy. With a quarter century of diplomatic experience, Adams understood the limits of Great Britain's professed friendship in this struggle. He knew that a declared war with France would of necessity increase his country's dependence on English aid, with a resulting loss of American freedom of action.
On 18 February 1799, Adams notified the Senate that Talleyrand appeared willing to receive an envoy from the United States. Consequently, he nominated William Vans Murray, American minister at The Hague, to be minister plenipotentiary to France, with the provision that he not undertake the mission until the French government gave additional assurances of its readiness to enter serious negotiations. The High Federalists responded to this provisional nomination with shock and anger. Pickering was furious that he, the secretary of state, had not been consulted. Adams held out against strong pressure from several leading members of his party to withdraw the nomination, but he quickly accepted a compromise proposal by which two negotiators were joined with Murray. Refusing to add Hamiltonians, he named Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth and Patrick Henry, and they, along with Murray, were confirmed by the Senate before Congress adjourned on 3 March. The president soon left for Quincy to rejoin his wife and to await the reaction of both France and his own countrymen to his "master stroke of policy," as Abigail Adams described her husband's nomination of a peace commission.
Adams had correctly interpreted the mood of the country. A declaration of war soon after the XYZ revelations might have rallied a majority of citizens to the flag. Now only the High Federalists wanted military action against France. The direct tax, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the recruitment of soldiers proved more and more irritating in all sections. Before leaving the capital, Adams had issued a proclamation against a tax rebellion among the German communities of eastern Pennsylvania and ordered federal troops to assist the militia in restoring order and seizing the ringleaders. The rebellion was easily suppressed, with twenty-nine persons arrested and brought to trial. Of these, the major leader, John Fries, and his two principal subordinates were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged. Adams would eventually pardon this trio and recommend clemency for the others. Nonetheless, the Fries Rebellion publicized the burden of the "window tax," as the direct tax was popularly known because it was in part based on the number and size of the windows in a house. The suppression of this minor uprising by federal troops struck fear into the hearts of many at the prospect of an army led by Hamilton wiping out all opposition to the policies of the High Federalists.
Despite his tacit approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams only halfheartedly carried out his duty to enforce these measures. He signed a few alien warrants that were never executed, but he refused to give Pickering signed blank warrants to be used in the president's absence or to apply the acts against French consuls still on American soil. And he overruled Pickering's desire to deport Joseph Priestley, the English scientist and political radical, of whom the Adamses had been fond during their stay in England.
The Sedition Act was of more consequence to the Adams administration. By accepting it as a temporary war measure, the president appeared to side with those Federalist newspaper editors whose vitriolic language denounced in every issue the Republican papers as instruments of foreign subversion. Adams approved of at least two prosecutions of opposition editors, and he made no effort to halt the trials or to grant the petitions for pardon of the convicted. Particularly conspicuous was his rejection of the petition of several thousand Vermonters asking a pardon for Congressman Matthew Lyon, who had been convicted of sedition but reelected to Congress while in jail.
In keeping with his independence, Adams expressed a desire to charge some of the most outrageous Federalist editors with sedition. His main culpability lay in turning over enforcement of the Sedition Act to Pickering and permitting him to interpret the law as broadly as possible. Pickering's zeal resulted in at least fourteen indictments under the act in addition to three under common law. The secretary's attempt to wipe out criticism of the Federalist regime ensured that the Sedition Act would be a major issue in the next presidential election and actually increased the number of opposition newspapers. Criticism of the government could not be suppressed among a people who had fought for freedom of speech and press for a century before the First Amendment was written into the Constitution.
The Republican response to the Alien and Sedition Acts included the Kentucky Resolutions (drafted by Jefferson) and the Virginia Resolutions (drafted by Madison). Challenging the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, these resolutions implied the natural right of a state to nullify the enforcement of such an act within its boundaries. In reply the High Federalists raised the specter of disunion, and Hamilton expressed his willingness to march his army south to test Virginia's resistance. In the middle stood John Adams, increasingly more trusted by some Republicans than by the anti-French element in his own party.
Recovered from his defeat on the question of Hamilton's military rank, Adams by 1799 was using his power as commander in chief in the interests of peace. The provisional army, intended only as a temporary emergency measure, had not been brought into existence by the time its authorization expired in December 1798. The president was left with authority to increase the regular army, raise militia forces, and accept the services of voluntary military companies. While deliberately slowing the recruitment of enlisted men, Adams saw political advantage in appointing moderate men from both parties to be officers in an army that he never expected to take the field. High Federalists charged him with obstructing preparedness for war, while Republicans pointed to the slowly growing army as a threat to civil liberties. Once again Adams stood in the middle and attempted to draw others to him.
In Adams' mind the navy remained the first line of defense, but the army was now necessary only to exert diplomatic pressure on France. Following the president's orders, the navy since early in 1799 had been assisting Toussaint L'Ouverture in extending his control over St. Domingue (Hispaniola) after the slaves on that West Indian island had driven out most of their French masters and repelled a British invasion. The continued success of the Constellation, one of the recently completed frigates, against French naval vessels in the West Indies confirmed the president's faith in the "wooden walls" of the navy.
In October 1799, John Adams rode out of Quincy and headed back to Trenton, which was again the temporary capital. During the seven months the president had been away, the three cabinet members loyal to Hamilton would have welcomed the creation of a ministerial government to wrest power from the absent and, in their opinion, incompetent chief executive. But there was no constitutional way to turn the president into a figurehead. Adams knew it and rejected several pleas that he return to the seat of government. In August he had received the additional assurances he sought from France that the American envoys would be well received. Consequently, he ordered Pickering to prepare the instructions for the peace commission. The secretary reluctantly obeyed without ceasing his efforts to block the mission. A change in the French government appeared to strengthen Pickering's hand. Stoddert and Lee finally convinced the president that he must hasten to the capital to take personal charge of dispatching the commissioners.
When Adams reached Trenton, he found Hamilton there to join Pickering, McHenry, and Wolcott in demanding that he not send the peace mission. They argued that a treaty with France would bring retaliation from Great Britain and would stain America's national honor. But Adams stood his ground. On 16 October 1799, without advance notice to the cabinet, he ordered Ellsworth and William Richardson Davie to join Murray in Europe. The following March the three met in Paris and opened negotiations with the French government, now headed by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.
Adams' peaceful gestures had temporarily revived the popularity of the Federalist party and enabled it to make significant gains in the House and Senate elections of 1799. Then the dispatch of the commissioners irreparably split the party between the aggressive minority headed by Hamilton and the more politically obscure majority supporting Adams. The president's third annual message to Congress on 3 December struck hard at the program of the High Federalists. He called for a "just execution of the laws" to ensure that "individuals should be guarded from oppression," for peace with honor, and for economy in government without inordinate expenditures for defense. The death of Washington on 14 December further weakened the Hamiltonians, who had hoped to secure his endorsement of their military objectives. This great man's death, Hamilton wrote, had removed a "control" on the "perverseness and capriciousness" of the president.