Foreign Policy Under John Adams

An 1828 portrait of John Adams, second President of the U.S.

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John Adams, a Federalist and America's second president, conducted a foreign policy that was at once cautious, underrated, and paranoid. He sought to maintain Washington's neutral foreign policy stance, but increasingly found himself grappling with France in the so-called "Quasi-War" during his only term in office, from 1797 to 1801.

Adams, who had significant diplomatic experience as ambassador to England before the adoption of the Constitution, inherited bad blood with France when he took over the presidency from George Washington. His foreign policy responses rank from good to poor; while he kept the U.S. out of the full-blown war, he fatally hurt the Federalist party.


France, which had helped the U.S. win independence from England in the American Revolution, expected the US to help militarily when France entered another war with England in the 1790s. Washington, fearing dire consequence for the young country, refused to help, opting instead for a policy of neutrality.

Adams pursued that neutrality, but France began raiding American merchant ships. Jay's Treaty of 1795 had normalized trade between the US and Great Britain, and France considered American commerce with England not only in violation of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778 but also lending aid to its enemy.

Adams sought negotiations, but France's insistence on $250,000 in bribe money (the XYZ Affair) derailed diplomatic attempts. Adams and the Federalists began building up both the US Army and Navy. Higher tax levies paid for the buildup.

While neither side ever declared war, the US and French navies fought several battles in the so-called Quasi-War. Between 1798 and 1800, France captured more than 300 US merchant ships and killed or wounded some 60 American sailors; the US Navy captured more than 90 French merchant ships.

In 1799, Adams authorized William Murray to make a diplomatic mission to France. Treating with Napoleon, Murray crafted a policy that both ended the Quasi-War and dissolved the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Adams considered this resolution to the French conflict one of the finest moments of his presidency.

Alien and Sedition Acts

Adams' and the Federalists' brush with France, however, left them afraid that French revolutionaries might immigrate to the U.S., link up with the pro-French Democrat-Republicans, and stage a coup that would oust Adams, install Thomas Jefferson as president, and end Federalist domination in the US government. Jefferson, leader of the Democrat-Republicans, was Adams' vice-president; however, they hated each other over their polarized governmental views. While they became friends later, they rarely spoke during Adams' presidency.

This paranoia prompted Congress to pass and Adams to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. The acts included:

  • The Alien Act: enabled the president to deport any resident alien he believed to be dangerous to the U.S.
  • The Alien Enemies Act: enabled the president to arrest and deport any alien whose home country was at war with the US (an act aimed directly at France)
  • The Naturalization Act: extended the length of residency required for an alien to become a US citizen from five to 14 years and prevented immigrants from voting against incumbent Federalist office-holders
  • The Sedition Act: made it illegal to publish false, scandalous, or malicious material against the government; the president and justice department had such wide latitude to define those terms that this act nearly violated the First Amendment

Adams lost the presidency to his rival Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. American voters could see through the politically driven Alien and Sedition Acts, and news of the diplomatic end to the Quasi-War arrived too late to mitigate their influence. In response, Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.

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Jones, Steve. "Foreign Policy Under John Adams." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Jones, Steve. (2020, August 29). Foreign Policy Under John Adams. Retrieved from Jones, Steve. "Foreign Policy Under John Adams." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).

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