March 4, 1797 is one of those barely recognized dates – but it is a pivotal one.
The Lonely Inaugural of John Adams
Inaugurals today are times of celebration: parades, parties, balls. People come from all over the globe to attend. It is hard to believe that poor John Adams had very little personal support to celebrate with him on the day he rose to the highest office in the land. It was essentially a lonely day for the Second President.
He was in Philadelphia. Washington, DC was still under construction. His devoted wife and loving companion Abigail was home in Massachusetts. John’s aged mother, was failing rapidly, and Abigail had returned to nurse the elderly woman, who would die a few weeks later.
John Quincy Adams, his eldest son, was in Europe. The thirty-year-old man was a new bridegroom, on his way to becoming one of our foremost foreign diplomats. The President’s youngest son, Thomas Adams, was also abroad, serving as his brother’s secretary.
John’s daughter Abigail Smith, called Nabby by everyone, and his middle son Charles, were in New York, too far away to make the journey. Neither were prospering in their lives, and would cause John and Abigail Adams considerable anxiety and grief during the next four years.
But John Adams, lonely or not, put on his best gray broadcloth suit, glanced through his carefully worded speech, and prepared to take the oath of office as it was written in the Constitution.
George Washington: The Main Attraction
John Adams had never been a particularly popular man. At sixty-two, he was short, pudgy, balding and well known for his irascible disposition. He was admired and respected to be sure, but hardly beloved.
The beloved one was George Washington. At sixty-five, he was still tall, stately and every inch the man of the hour befitting the many statues that would be erected in his honor. Now he was finally retiring to Mount Vernon, more than happy to return to his vine and fig tree. His wife Martha did not attend the inauguration either. She had gone home some weeks earlier to prepare the estate for her husband’s arrival.
The outgoing president was the best known and most popular man in the country. George Washington had been on the national scene for a quarter century, as a legislator, a great general, and finally as President of the United States for two terms. Both his elections had been unanimous. The throngs of people gathered at the Philadelphia State House that March 4th, were to say farewell and pay their respects to George Washington, the greatest man of their time. They were not there to see John Adams.
Adams knew this. He also knew he had a hard act to follow. His election was not unanimous.
The Election of John Adams
John Adams had been Vice President for eight years under President Washington – a thankless and inconsequential position, according to John, “The most insignificant office ever devised by the mind of man.” This time around, there was a rival for the office, the man who would now become his Vice President: Thomas Jefferson.
The constitution of the still very new United States of America had not been established with political parties in mind. Indeed, the thought of political factions filled many of its founders with grave trepidations. Parties were strongly discouraged.
The original idea was that the President would be the one who received the most votes; the Vice Presidency would go to the runner-up. The country was already beginning to suspect that this was not a good or effective process. But Adams and Jefferson had been good friends for more than twenty years. They might not always agree on everything, but they certainly could work together. So they believed.
The Legacy of 1797
John Adams was right to believe that the event was not so much about him as it was about the outgoing George Washington. But in a way, it was one of the country’s most important inaugurals.
Prior to 1789, there had never been an elected government. For thousands of years, there had only been monarchies or quasi-monarchies. A government-by-law and election had been untried. George Washington could have been made king had he wished. He did not wish. But there was no one else in the fledgling nation who enjoyed the level of Washington’s prestige and regard, so he agreed to serve, and after his two unanimous terms, the presidency would be contested from that time forward.
On March 4, 1797, George Washington voluntarily stepped down. He would be fairly out, John Adams would be fairly in. They had known each other for decades. While they were not close personal friends, they had always enjoyed an amicable relationship, and they regarded each other with sincere respect. When the two men shook hands at the end of the ceremonies, it was heartfelt and with good will.
It was orderly.
There was no uprising. There was no coup d’etat. There were no armies, no soldiers, no protesters jamming the streets seeking to undermine the lawful transfer of power.
There was no plot to overthrow the lawfully established government.
The Constitution had worked. The system was validated. It was a seminal moment.
Both George Washington and John Adams knew it. And they both knew the enormity of what it all meant.
- Ellis, Joseph J. – Passionate Sage – W.W. Norton Co., 1993
- McCullough, David – John Adams – Simon & Schuster, 2001
- Shepard, Jack – The Adams Chronicles – Little Brown, 1975