John Adams’s Most Important Presidential Precedent
A critical cabinet moment that came toward the end of Adams’s administration and created one of the most important precedents in presidential history. On May 12, 1800, Adams fired a department secretary — the first time the president had forcefully removed a cabinet member.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of the Adams administration to explain how we got there. Washington’s retirement in early 1797 and Adams’s accession to high office was a momentous, historic event. It’s easy to play down the drama of the moment from our perch in 2020. After all, almost all elections since have been accompanied by a peaceful transfer of power. We have come to expect it. But in 1797, Washington, Adams, and most Americans looked around the globe and saw transfers of power brought on my death, the guillotine, or revolution. A peaceful transfer of power was just not done.
With that context in mind, their anxiety and Adams’s eagerness to provide some stability is understandable. He also wanted to foster the development of institutional knowledge, which is another admirable goal. These factors convinced Adams to keep Washington’s secretaries in office.
This decision quickly proved to be a mistake. Adams understood his reputation would never match up against Washington’s, and he knew that he didn’t have close, personal relationships with most of the secretaries. But he had faith that they would remain loyal to the office of the presidency, if not the president himself. Instead, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of War James McHenry, and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. were loyal to Alexander Hamilton and fellow High Federalists in Congress.
Over the next few years, they tried to sabotage Adams’s foreign policy, thwarted his efforts to keep the country out of war, and undermined his reelection campaign. Why Adams kept them in office for so long, I’m not sure, but by May 1800, he was done. He had secured the Federalist presidential nomination and was spoiling for a fight.
On May 5, McHenry visited Adams at the President’s House to discuss potential nominees for open government positions. After dealing with that business, Adams turned to the upcoming election and accused Hamilton of trying to destroy his election chances. Years of…