The entire duration of John Adams’ presidency was complicated by the threat of war with France. No one was sure how things would turn out as the Jacobins battled the old aristocracy and Bonaparte for control. The French were capturing U.S. merchants vessels and behaving as if the U.S. were only a transient entity on the world-stage. In the U.S. politicians, the media, and the people had divided themselves into two camps: the Federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton), who pushed for war with France to establish the U.S. as a power and to push attain vengeance for prior bad acts by the French; and the Republicans (mainly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) who pushed for reconciliation and almost capitulation to the desires of France.
In the middle stood John Adams. He tried to balance his desire for peace with his obligation for protecting his country. The Federalists pushed and pushed for a declaration of war; Adams sent treaty negotiators to France. The Republicans criticized Adams for organizing a navy and preparing for organization of an army in the case of war; Adams continued with his plans for defense. After multiple failures of diplomacy with France (and further negotiation teams) and attempts by both Hamilton and Jefferson (Adams’ vice president) to undermine his credibility and effectiveness, Adams lost the election of 1800. If he had taken a side, either for war or for capitulation (but especially for war), he likely would have maintained his office. Within a few days after the election, news came from France that indeed, peace had been won with France: they would treat with the U.S. as equals. Adams, until his death, considered his greatest accomplishment keeping the young U.S. out of war and making peace with France.
Fast-forward. This week, John McCain essentially hung himself politically. By taking the correct stand about the treatment of prisoners (he having been one himself) and criticizing the Bush administrations policies and plans for re-interpreting the Geneva Convention to make torture legal, McCain almost surely alienated the conservative base of the Republican party. However, if he is successful (together with other “dissident” Republicans like Lindsey Graham, John Warner, and Colin Powell), he will like Adams, probably consider this act as one of his most important contributions to the U.S. that he loves and has served for 40 years.
One last thought in this context…If Bush had responded to attacks and threats as Adams did (with diplomacy and defense), much more consistent with the Christian ideals that the U.S. claims to be founded on and that the conservative faction of the Republican party proclaims so loudly (without following them), our current situation would possibly be more secure, and we would be much truer to our founding principles. The only mistake Adams made in dealing with the crisis of French threats and influence was to sign into effect the Alien and Sedition Acts, which correlate very closely with the way the U.S. is heading with the administration’s policies on wiretapping and treatment of “suspicious foreigners.”
History has so much to teach us. Unfortunately, we seem to only want to learn the lessons that bring more power and money and influence, instead of the lessons that will help us to behave with principle and compassion and morality.