Adams-Jefferson II: Getting Nastier

Story Stream
recent articles

Part 2 of a series. See complete list of series here.

This spring, a small cadre of Williams College students is participating in an experimental history course on the American Presidents. Instead of producing papers, as is the norm in most history classes, the students will create video campaign ads for the presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln. 

There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.  

RealClearHistory has agreed to partner with our class. Every week or so, RealClearHistory will display the best videos the students produce.  

We began with John Adams’ 1796 election and we will continue through Abraham Lincoln, stopping at all the major, transformative elections. This week, we witness the rematch between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In 1800, they pulled no punches.


Adams vs. Jefferson

The Final Round

John Adams, a hermaphrodite who is secretly trying to marry the American Presidency to the British Crown? Thomas Jefferson, an atheist and anarchist who supports incest?  These are just some of the attacks hurled in the election of 1800. You didn’t think the early republic was some golden age of political decorum, did you?  

Things didn’t look that bad when Adams took the reins from Washington in 1797. He inherited an expanding and stable economy. Prosperity seemed to alleviate concerns people had with the national bank and the debt. Instead, European affairs took center stage in Adams’ administration. On the European Continent, the French Revolution had turned aggressive. French legions began invading and conquering neighboring countries, trying to spread revolutionary fervor through arms. Britain viewed the offensive actions as a direct threat to their security and feared French acquisitions would upset the balance of power in Europe. Soon, these two countries were at war.  

Adams was not interested in war with either the French or British, so he tried to maintain American neutrality. Neutrality was not just smart politics; it made economic sense too. The strife in Europe resulted in a boom for American farmers who fed the war-torn Continent and for merchant ships carrying cargo. Unfortunately, both Great Britain and France began seizing American ships, ignoring U.S. claims to neutral rights. The French, in particular, pushed Adams’ attempted neutrality to the brink when they stepped up raids on merchant ships in retaliation for the Jay Treaty of 1796, which they saw as cementing an American-British alliance.  

John Adams was well equipped to handle this diplomatic crisis. He had spent several years in Europe as an American ambassador, including stints in France and Great Britain. Adams decided early in his term to reach out to the French through a diplomatic mission.  

Thus began the XYZ Affair, the first in a series of events that would define Adams’ term and fuel the fiery rhetoric of the ensuing elections. In the XYZ Affair, the French required a bribe from the American emissaries in order to begin formal negotiations. The request seemed an insult to American honor. The American public united in their outrage, quelling party divisions, at least for a short time.  

The Federalists in Congress embraced their newfound support and, as is often the case, overstepped their mandate. Fearful of French intrigue from abroad and of faction from within, they passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which aimed to suppress the partisan presses and limit foreigners' influence on American politics. Instead of creating the harmony Federalists sought, the act revived party divisions. 

In the election of 1800, the parties seemed to agree about only one thing: the other side was unprincipled. Both parties believed that there were nefarious plotters in the country who sought to end American independence; they disagreed on who was part of this plot, though, with each side seeing their adversary as the conspirator. Their vitriol also showed that both parties cared deeply for their country and its future. They just believed the other side didn’t share that patriotism. Sound familiar?  

The Federalists insisted that Jefferson, the Republican’s leader, was an atheist who lacked a moral core. If elected, American society would descend into anarchy and immorality, just like the French Revolution – or even worse, Jefferson would join the American republic to the French.  

Once again, Republicans linked Adams to the monarchy and aristocracy of Great Britain. Adams acted, they claimed, out of his secret desire to rejoin the British Empire. As one ad below shows, some believed he sent his son to London as a way to court King George’s daughter and recreate a royal line in America. Having served in the office of president, Republicans also added a new line of attack. Adams proved an incompetent, weak, and dangerous President.  

(Adams and Jefferson campaign ads videos on Page 2)

The videos for this week capture the depth of this political divide. Charlie Gephardt’s video “Infidel” attacks Thomas Jefferson’s morals – or lack thereof. Jefferson, Federalists argued in terms even more heated than the previous election, was an atheist and Francophile. A Jefferson presidency would produce anarchy and foster societal degeneracy. To paraphrase one of the quotes Charlie uses to great effect, Americans would be taught to commit incest under a Jefferson administration. There are a lot of other accusations like that in the video.

If Jefferson’s amorality should strike fear in the public, Katy Carrigan’s video “A Hideous and Hermaphroditical Character” argues that Adams’ indecisiveness should concern voters. Republicans claimed Adams was a hermaphrodite, metaphorically speaking, of course. They argued that he lacked the strength and decisiveness that came with virility and the compassion and sensitivity linked to femininity. A weak-kneed, unsympathetic vacillator, he did not possess the attributes necessary to lead. And that’s just how the ad opens. Combined, Charlie’s and Katy’s ads both show how sexual politics played a central role in American politics even in the early republic. 

Phil McGovern’s “A Firm and Enlightened Patriot” takes these accusations head-on. He argues that Adams is a strong leader. He took a firm stance against France, supported the expansion of the American military, and, ultimately, avoided open war. Quoting a newspaper from the time, he says Adams is “a firm and enlightened patriot.”  

Tyler Cole’s “His Merits” makes a stirring case for Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson is the only true patriot in this election. He begins by linking Jefferson to the Declaration of Independence. He intends this opening to do two things: remind the viewer of Jefferson’s revolutionary service and imply that, in 1800, it is time for a change of governments once again. He goes on to list Jefferson’s “enumerate” qualifications for office.

Tyler’s argument carried the day. The 1800 election turned out to be a wave election, the first of its kind. The Republicans captured the House from the Federalists. Jefferson also secured the Presidency, though that election was a lot closer, at least in the Electoral College. Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 electoral votes, throwing the decision to the House of Representative. It took 35 ballots, but eventually the House declared Jefferson President. In March, the nation experienced its first peaceful transfer of power. We’ll stop next in 1808, when the nation seemed poised for war.

Patrick Spero is Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and History at Williams College. He may be reached at

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles