Is the US still at war? Fighting as vague a conflict as the war on terror is hard, polarising citizens and rendering difficult Washington's decisions about civil liberties at home. Washington is also preoccupied with sustaining its alliance with London. The US is aware that Britain may eventually opt for the Eurosphere over the Anglosphere. But these tensions are not new, as James Grant points out in a new biography of John Adams,* America's second president. Compare the Adams presidency to the current one and several truths emerge.
The first is that quasi-wars split electorates more sharply than traditional wars. Napoleon Bonaparte was not about to sail into Boston harbour. Still, in the late 1790s, France's Directoire- the latest in a series of increasingly extreme regimes - was granting privateers licence to attack foreign ships. In 1797 French corsairs intercepted more than 300 American merchant vessels. At what point, the young US debated, do such acts of violence become war? Like President George W. Bush, who created the Department of Homeland Security, President Adams created a government department to handle the new brand of conflict: a Department of the Navy.
The uncertain status of the Franco-American relationship polarised America's two big parties. Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans refused to vilify the French, whom they knew, after all, as fellow revolutionaries. Adams and his Federalists viewed the pro-French Republicans as reckless- much in the same way that Realpolitiker view the Bush administration's nation-building as reckless. Sounding for all the world like Henry Kissinger, Adams wrote of the Jeffersonians that by "their King-killing toasts" as well as "their everlasting brutal cry of tyranny, despots and combinations against liberty"the Jeffersonians might "involve us in a war with all the world". Adams feared the US might go the way of France. To forestall another revolution, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Acts curtailed US freedoms in ways that make the Homeland Security Measures look risible. Under the Sedition Act the president might unilaterally imprison or deport anyone he deemed dangerous. The Jeffersonians charged that the laws were designed to put Jefferson and his allies down- true. Anti-Adams newspapermen were jailed for libel. Then, as today, both parties lost their cool. In words worthy of Michael Moore, Jefferson called the measures "an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution".
Still, to say the nation endured a Federalist Reign of Terror is to exaggerate. Adams expelled no one. There was no guillotining.
The second truth that emerges when we glance back at the Adams presidency is equally relevant. It is that, when the cause is a moral one, the US usually wants Britain for a partner. Adams, recall, had been a revolutionary: he led the struggle to spare the people of Massachusetts from the "serpentine wiles" of Britain's colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Yet he also loved the rule of law. In 1766, a Falmouth, Massachusetts man named Richard King defended the British on the Stamp Act; a crowd burst into his home and destroyed it. Adams defended King, writing to his wife Abigail that "these private mobs, I do and will detest".
In Adams' view, the godless French revolution shared "not a single principle" with the American one, the latter in its essence a Protestant event. Equally off-putting to Adams was the cynical fashion in which the French monetized diplomacy. (They in turn regarded him as naive.) Foreign minister Talleyrand's demand that US emissaries pay £50,000 for face time with him disgusted Adams. That disgust had something in common with the American disgust at the UN oil-for-food scandal of today.
By 1785 Adams found himself in a room with George III, arguing that Britain join the US in restoring "the old good Humour between People who, though separated by an Ocean and under different Governments, have the same Language, a similar religion, and Kindred Blood".
The US, through Adams, reconnected with Britain- and that connection was to a good measure a religious and moral one. Their common culture was born in absolutism: the Puritans who were Adams' forefathers hanged Quakers. But that same culture evolved to include religious tolerance. After the revolution Adams helped to consecrate the first American bishops of the Episcopal Church.
Within a generation Britain and the US would be at war again - the war of 1812 - but in retrospect that conflict seems an interlude in a long conversation about government and morality. The most important outcome of that relationship was the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Britain's abolitionist salons made a deep impression on Adams' New England.
The point here is not that the US and France are always at odds, or that war policy is all we should remember Adams for. Bond traders will find the fact that he saved his insolvent government by promoting its junk bonds in Europe more relevant. The point is that our modern diplomatic strains are part of a pattern. Foam-mouthed politicians, uncertain wars, France-hating, US courtship of Britain: as Adams' life makes clear, we have been here before.
* John Adams: Party of One, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
© Copyright 2005 Financial Times
Available for order: