The Mercury News
Why John Adams skipped the inauguration of 1801
Before daybreak on the morning of March 4, 1801, a defeated John Adams departed from the Capital City, now beginning to be called Washington, to return home to his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Several hours later, the new president-elect, Thomas Jefferson walked from his boardinghouse to the Capitol to be inaugurated as the third president of the United States.
For more than 200 years, historians and journalists have faulted Adams for slighting the oath-taking of his successor. The image of an angry, anguished and resentful past president creeping away from the ceremony that celebrated his erstwhile friend and now political rival is emblazoned in presidential history. Every four years that image surfaces as an example of the bad behavior of a much-maligned statesman. The full story, as history is wont to be, is more complicated. The election of 1800 stands out as unique, primarily because of the tie in the Electoral College between the top two candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and the subsequent 36 votes in Congress before a delegate from Delaware cast a blank ballot that awarded the election to Jefferson. That’s a sensational story. There had been three presidential elections in the new nation prior to 1800, two of which confirmed that he who was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” would occupy the role of chief executive. These elections went relatively uncontested. In the third, the office fell smoothly to his vice president, John Adams.
By 1800, however, for the first time in our constitutional history, the election was contested. Jefferson and Burr received 73 votes each in the Electoral College, and Adams came in third with 69. Adams recognized defeat, though he was pained. However, his departure from the capital at dawn did not violate a law, a precedent or a tradition. George Washington had attended Adams’ inauguration, but that’s an example of one, where the outgoing president was positively gleeful to be replaced.
If Adams was ambivalent about not being reelected, and he did express some relief at being freed from the burdens of office, he had simultaneously experienced another hurt, one painful at a personal level. He later called it “the greatest grief of my heart,” the death of his beloved son Charles from alcoholism. The news about Charles’ death arrived in early December, just as the news of the outcome of the Electoral College vote was announced. The Adamses were devastated. Soon, Abigail returned to Quincy.
Committed to his obligations, John Adams remained in the capital without his closest confidante. Isolated and overburdened, he coped with the consequences of his greatest accomplishment, the avoidance of a war with either France or England. The two superpowers were engaged in a major contest for imperial supremacy that had dangerous repercussions for the fragile new United States. Through diplomacy, Adams managed to bequeath that frail new nation intact to his successor.
He coped, as well, with political foes, an environment of journalistic vitriol toward him, and an administration, many inherited from his predecessor and disloyal to him, that he did not trust. All that and the Adamses, after spending a lifetime in public service, had scant financial resources on which to depend. They owned a working farm in Quincy, to which John happily returned to fulfill his youthful dream to become a farmer.
So much more could be said about Adams’ departure early that morning of March 4, 1801, a defeated patriot, statesman and public servant whom history derides for his flaws but overlooks as a savior in many respects of the fragile new nation that might have collapsed not only from foreign intrigue, but from within by those who would sabotage the democratic experiment.
Twice more in American history the nation has been so threatened, once by a catastrophic Civil War and now again by sabotage from within by a sitting president and his minions who refuse to acknowledge legitimate defeat both in the general election and the Electoral College. John Adams was fearful for the new nation, but he followed the constitutional mandate. He retreated in the early morning, because he had experienced too much hurt, both political and personal, and he felt obsolete. Besides, he was eager to get back to his farm and to Abigail.