The election of 1800 was the first time power was transferred from one political party to another. The first president, George Washington, and the second, John Adams, were both Federalists, so there was not much to transfer in the spring of 1797 when Washington retired to Mount Vernon for the last time. As the first U.S. vice president, Adams considered himself the “heir apparent,” as he put it in a private letter to his wife Abigail. He simply took over where Washington left off. In fact, out of a sense of respect and loyalty, Adams made the grave mistake of retaining Washington’s cabinet ministers, most of whom (hearkening to Alexander Hamilton rather than to their president) proved to be disloyal.
After a rocky and somewhat inept four-year term, Adams was retired by the American people in the election of 1800. He was defeated by his old friend and now enemy Thomas Jefferson, who employed what Adams (and historians) regard as some unscrupulous campaign methods to unseat the Massachusetts patriot and co-author of the Declaration of Independence. Nothing Jefferson did was illegal or even seriously unethical, but by encouraging the rascally journalist James Callender to write ugly broadsides against Adams, Jefferson broke the code of gentlemanly civility and the code of friendship. Callender declared, for example, that “the reign of Mr. Adams has, hitherto, been one of continued Tempest of malignant passions.” He called Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams would eventually forgive Jefferson for unleashing Callender on him, but Abigail and John Quincy (the sixth president) never fully did.
Putting Party Over Country
Jefferson clearly defeated John Adams in the fall of 1800, but he tied with his running mate Aaron Burr at 73 votes each in the cumbersome and imperfect Electoral College. That sent the election into the House of Representatives where lame-duck, bitter, sour grape Federalists attempted to unseat Jefferson by working out a political deal with the opportunistic Burr. Since the Constitution could not tell the difference between the presidential candidate (Jefferson) and the vice presidential candidate (Burr), the Federalists determined to exploit the technical ambiguity by entering into a corrupt bargain with Burr. This created America’s first constitutional crisis and though it is hard for us to believe 200 years later, the United States came close to civil war over the results of the election.
At some point in early January, Jefferson and Adams ran into each other on the street of the raw, muddy, and unfinished national capital to which the national government had moved from cosmopolitan Philadelphia in the spring of 1800. Adams was living — more like camping — in the unfinished White House, where 13 fires had to be kept roaring day and night to dry the plaster and keep away mildew. Jefferson, the lame-duck vice president, was bedding down at a boardinghouse not far from the Capitol called Conrad & McMunns. In spite of the primitiveness of Washington — a great city for “future habitation,” said the Federalist bon vivant Gouverneur Morris — these two revolutionaries would have been well dressed and would have carried themselves with 18th-century dignity as they met on the muddy streets.
They stopped to chat for a few minutes. Inevitably they discussed the balloting about to unfold in the House of Representatives. Jefferson hinted that Adams could put an end to the crisis by declaring for Jefferson. Adams said that Jefferson could put an end to the crisis by announcing that he would not purge the entire federal bureaucracy of Federalists, would not eliminate the Navy, and would not upend Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal system. Jefferson said he would never “come into the government by capitulation. I will not enter on it, but in perfect freedom to follow the dictates of my own judgment.” To which Adams, now angry, said, “Then things must take their course.” Jefferson later reported that “it was the first time in our lives we had ever parted with anything like dissatisfaction.”
They parted. It was not the last time they ever met, but very nearly so. Adams was soon to decamp for Quincy, Mass. Jefferson would survive the succession crisis of 1801, take the oath of office on March 4, deliver one of the greatest inaugural addresses in American history, and preside over the country quietly, but with enormous administrative mastery, for the next eight years. Jefferson would voluntarily retire in March 1809, having witnessed the inauguration of his closest friend and political collaborator James Madison as the fourth president.
He returned to his beloved Monticello trailing clouds of glory, having reduced the national debt by 37 percent, having doubled the size of the American republic with a single stroke of his pen, and having essentially extinguished the Federalist Party. By 1809, Jefferson was a political and historical celebrity sought out by sometimes impertinent visitors and a swarm of correspondents. Jefferson said a cabbage had a happier life than someone who had to write dozens of letters a day, often to people he never met. Adams lived in relative obscurity licking his wounds.
What Really Happened on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1801?
On Feb. 17, 1801, the Federalists in the House of Representatives finally, on the 36th ballot, gave up their quest to steal the presidency from Jefferson and certified his election. This left President-elect Jefferson just 15 days to put his administration together. It seems certain that he had already drafted his inaugural address — one of the three or four greatest in American history — and he knew going in that his principal adviser would be James Madison.
There were no transition teams back then, because there was very little transition. Jefferson’s cabinet — such as it was — consisted only of a secretary of state (James Madison), secretary of the treasury (Albert Gallatin), secretary of war (Henry Dearborn), secretary of the Navy (Robert Smith), and attorney general (Levi Lincoln). The only one of these posts that was difficult to fill was the naval department, because everyone knew that Jefferson was intending to reduce the size of the Navy severely.
Jefferson hired a young family friend from Albemarle County, Meriwether Lewis, to be his private correspondence secretary and aide-de-camp, reckoning already that he was going to send an exploration party up the Missouri River during his tenure as president if he could get Congress to provide funding. Lewis and Jefferson lived alone in the White House (except for the slaves who handled all the domestic tasks), like two “mice in a church,” Jefferson wrote. Back in central Virginia, Jefferson’s daughter Maria dreaded the idea of her papa living and sleeping alone upstairs in that big drafty house far away.
Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis lived in the White House like two mice in a church.
Adams Takes the 4:30 A.M. Coach for Baltimore
John Adams determined not to remain in the new national capital to see his old friend inaugurated in his place. The outgoing president left the capital at dawn on the 4:30 a.m. public stage for Baltimore, a bounce of 10 grueling hours, merely the first leg of his journey to south Boston. There was no helicopter to sweep him away as on Aug. 8, 1974, when Richard Nixon gave his farewell salute and then was airlifted over the horizon into political exile. For two full brooding weeks, Adams made his slow journey home to Quincy, a distance of 447 excruciating 18th-century miles. When he at last arrived on March 18, his outstanding wife Abigail was waiting to ease him through the five stages of grief, not just for the political repudiation he had suffered at the hands of the fickle American people, but also for the death of his son Charles, who had died at the age of 30 in the midst of the chaotic election campaign.
Traveling by stagecoach: It looks more comfortable than it was.
Adams’ absence was noticed. A New England newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, wrote thoughtfully, “Sensible, moderate men of both parties would have been pleased had he tarried until after the installation of his successor. It certainly would have had a good effect,” but his friend James Bayard of Delaware said Adams had been “sufficiently humbled to be allowed to be absent.” Adams, who was all of his life a stickler for ceremony, protocol, and form, must have remembered that outgoing President George Washington had attended his inauguration on March 4, 1797. Perhaps he thought that that was proper protocol when the incoming administration was essentially a continuation of the previous one. Now that a different party of men had taken power, maybe the right thing to do was simply disappear. That motive cannot be ruled out.
No matter what Adams felt about his successor and the transfer of power, we know that he had other things on his mind on March 4, 1801. He needed to get home, assess his financial situation, and make some decisions about what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He was 65 years old and he would live for another quarter of a century. “The only question remaining with me,” he wrote, “is what shall I do with myself? Something I must do, or ennui will rain upon me in buckets.” In that republican era, former presidents received no pensions, no staff, no allowance for expenses. Adams could not, like his wealthy and illustrious predecessor, sit under his “vine and his fig tree” entertaining the steady press of well-wishers. First of all, nobody wanted to come visit Adams, who felt he was now a political pariah as lonely as Napoleon at St. Helena. Second, he and Abigail did not have the wealth that would have enabled them to entertain on a regular basis. Former presidents could not then join corporate boards or publish memoirs, or even travel the country giving speeches at up to $750,000 a pop.
The Problem of Post-Presidential Poverty
Most of America’s first presidents lived in genteel poverty after leaving office and several, like Thomas Jefferson, died hopelessly in debt. Although they lived simply, things went so badly for John and Abigail Adams at their modest farm near Boston that at one point their son John Quincy Adams had to intervene to protect them from bankruptcy. Adams was fat, out of shape, and mostly toothless at the time of his retirement, beginning to suffer from what he called a “palsy” or a “quiveration” that made it difficult for him to write letters or hold a book steady. He pressed his children and grandchildren into service as amanuenses to read to him and handle his correspondence.
John Adams was grieving on March 4, 1801, not for himself, but for his son Charles, who had died in New York City on Nov. 30, 1800, of a wide range of dissipations. After a promising beginning, Charles, Adams’ second son, had descended into a roistering life, characterized by shady financial transactions and a serious descent into acute alcoholism. He left his wife Sally and their children, consorted with disreputable individuals in New York, lost thousands of dollars loaned to him by his brother John Quincy, and refused to seek help. He was just 30 years old. John and Abigail Adams had tried in every possible way to help Charles get his life together. Eventually they had to give up on him, the hardest decision parents can ever make. In 1798, John Adams renounced his son and vowed never to see him again.
“Sally opened her Mind to me for the first time. I pitied her, I grieved, I mourned but could do no more. A Madman possessed of the Devil can alone express or represent—. I renounce him.—King Davids Absalom [sic] had some ambition and some Enterprize. Mine is a mere Rake, Buck, Blood & Beast.” Abigail was not so rigid, but when she ventured to New York to check on Charles she found him bedridden, unclean, ill, and close to death. After Charles died his father wrote, “Oh! that I had died for him if that would have relieved him from his faults as well as his disease.”
Jefferson’s Disgruntlement, Documented
If Jefferson was upset by Adams’ dawn departure from the federal capital, he never mentioned it even in correspondence with his closest friends and political allies. Delivering his own slight on the occasion, Jefferson failed to mention Adams in his famous first inaugural address, though he did find time to deliver a generous tribute to “our first and greatest revolutionary character [Washington], whose preeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country's love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history.” That would have bothered Adams had he been standing nearby in the unfinished U.S. Senate chamber.
What bothered Jefferson about the transition was not political theater but John Adams’ last-minute political maneuvers. When the results of the election were known to him, President Adams spent the last weeks of his one-term administration seeing the Judiciary Act of 1801 through Congress and nominating a large number of ardent Federalists to judicial posts, some of them conferring life tenure. Jefferson was deeply offended. The will of the people had spoken. For Adams to pack the courts with known enemies of Jefferson’s political program, including the naming of John Marshall to be chief justice of the United States, was an assault on the principles of a republic and a personal attack on Jefferson himself. As the clear-headed James Madison put it, “Instead of smoothing the path for his successor, he plays into the hands of those who are endeavoring to strew it with as many difficulties as possible.”
In a brief exchange of letters with Abigail Adams in 1804, Jefferson wrote, “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind…. It seemed but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice.” Abigail replied with a letter of her own so blistering that it is quite possible that Jefferson never received such a pointed rebuke in the whole course of his life. Among other things, Mrs. Adams reminded Jefferson that the Constitution made John Adams president of the United States right up to the moment his successor took the oath of office, and Adams was perfectly within his rights to use his full term to administer the country. Then she threw in the Sally Hemings story just for fun.
Adams did not cut off all communication with his successor. On Feb. 20, 1801, just after the House of Representatives had certified Jefferson’s victory, Adams wrote a short note to inform Jefferson that he would have access to seven White House horses and two carriages with the proper harness accoutrements, which were “property of the United States.” Adams sensed that Jefferson would not want to be associated with anything so aristocratic as presidential carriages, but he told his old friend that this transpiration outfit could save him “considerable Expense.”
A Return to Gentlemanly Civility and the Friendship in the End
Jefferson, meanwhile, forwarded to Adams in Massachusetts an unopened private letter that had come to the White House after his hurried departure. Jefferson recognized that it had something to do with the death of Charles Adams, so he simply forwarded it “without opening a single paper within” to its proper recipient. That was March 8, 1801, four days into Jefferson’s presidency. Adams replied two weeks later. “Had you read the Papers [something Jefferson would never under any circumstances have done]. . . they might have given you a moment of Melancholy or at least of Sympathy with a mourning Father,” he wrote. “They relate wholly to the Funeral of a Son who was once the delight of my Eyes and a darling of my heart, cut off in the flower of his days, amidst very flattering Prospects by causes which have been the greatest Grief of my heart and the deepest affliction of my Life.” This is John Adams at his finest — frank, open, vulnerable, raw, unself-protective, and deeply authentic. And then he finished the letter with an even greater illustration of his character: “This part of the Union is in a state of perfect Tranquility and I See nothing to obscure your prospect of a quiet and prosperous Administration, which I heartily wish you. With great respect I have the honor to be Sir your most obedient and very humble Servant.”
This was the last letter between John Adams and Jefferson for the next 12 years. They only resumed their soon-to-be-famous correspondence on New Year’s Day 1812, after their mutual friend Dr. Benjamin Rush spent several years talking each of them down from their sense of embittered indignation. What followed between 1812 and 1826 was one of the finest exchanges of letters in American history.
The two old patriarchs died on the same day, July 4, 1826, one in Massachusetts, the other in Virginia, one 91, the other 83, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. By then all that political stuff was long since forgiven. John Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book Repairing Jefferson's America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship is available on Amazon.com.