It throws an interesting, if not strange, light on the politics of the time that one of Adams' chief blunders was simply his fair and high-minded treatment of his political enemies. The era of the "spoils system" did not reward political integrity of the sort that refused to kick men out of office merely because they were performing their jobs ably. The Jacksonians and their Whig successors judged political appointees not so much by the quality of their public performance as by their loyalty to the man or the party in power. Adams had the quaint notion that appointments should go not to the politically friendly but to the worthy.
At the outset of his administration, Adams said that he was "determined to renominate every person against whom there was no complaint"—no complaint, that is, about his professional performance. And he lived up to his promise, despite being impor-tuned to serve his friends and reproved for overlooking them. He indeed would not—and did not—replace "able and faithful political opponents to provide for [his] own partisans." By Adams' old-fashioned standards, partisan appointments would have been a misuse of his presidential powers. He removed only twelve officeholders during his presidency and did so in each case on the grounds of the incumbent's "gross negligence." Clay and other of Adams' astute supporters bemoaned the president's unwillingness to remove John McLean, the postmaster general, and a host of lesser-known officials, all of them working behind the scenes to undermine the Adams administration. Adams brushed aside all evidence of the political disloyalty of these men as irrelevant: the only thing that mattered was whether they were performing their jobs ably. Of course, as Clay rightly argued, it mattered a great deal to Adams' chances for success in the 1828 presidential election that his administration was in effect filled with traitors to his cause, men working to bring about his downfall.
Adams was not unaware of the force of this argument, but he was too principled to let it affect his appointments policy. He appears to have contemplated his forthcoming political disaster reflectively, fortified by his conviction that the path he had taken was the moral one. Indeed it was and therein lay one of the chief causes of his subsequent undoing. That one of the Jacksonian leaders regaled the Senate with a thundering denunciation of Adams' allegedly partisan appointments policy only provides an example of the indifference of the president's enemies to the facts of the case.