Is Bush Up to History’s Challenge?

Between December 2006 and January 2007, George Bush may reconsider America’s short-term and long-term role in Iraq, though it is looking more and more unlikely that he will choose peace anytime soon. Still, there are similarly situated presidents in our past who have opted for peace. Between November 1798 and February 1799, John Adams faced the question of declaring war on France. He was ready to do it, but some help from unlikely sources led him to rethink his position.

The French Revolution gave birth first to a horrifying but strictly internal war, then to a regime that thought its survival depended on spreading the flames of democratic revolution throughout all of Europe. England was France’s main opponent in a widening European war.

The conflict between England and France helped create the first quasi-party system in the United States. In broad terms, the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, sympathized with the French, and they wanted the United States to stay out of this conflict. They hoped to avoid a war that would entangle the U.S. in the messy politics of Europe. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported Great Britain, thinking that an alliance with England would better help the United States expand its economy.

Both England and France committed acts of war against the United States. They both impressed sailors and took Americans prisoners. They both disrupted American commerce. America’s nascent parties used the bellicose actions of the nation they opposed to garner support for the side they favored.

The Federalist Party, in particular, was dominated by the 1790s version of the War Party. This party effectively exploited the misdeeds of the French navy to make Americans suspicious of immigrants, potential spies (for the French, not the English), and fratricidal French Jacobins. The Federalists used these fears to run up the budget in military preparations for a war against France. Hamilton and his friends even began assembling their own armies in hopes of winning themselves and the young nation glory and riches.

President Adams initially accepted the claims of the Federalists. Adams had a distaste for the French Revolution. He respected revolutions that broadened human freedom, but the French had gone too far in adopting ideas that led to bloodshed. The Federalists had also helped foster public worries of French terrorists coming to American soil. Adams feared a violent spirit would overtake the public life of the United States.

Thus Adams’ readiness to approve such draconian measures as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he signed into law on July 14, 1798. These laws made it easier for the United States to kick out unwanted immigrants and imprison potential spies and terrorists.

As December 1798 approached, war seemed on the horizon. The French had imprisoned some American sailors. America had broken off diplomatic relations with the French. Adams’ friends and enemies thought he would seek a declaration of war from Congress. The War Party had convinced many Americans that war with France was necessary and inevitable. Adams made military preparations, resigned to the fact that war was coming; Jefferson was sure that Adams would declare war. The French themselves wanted peace, but their private correspondence reveals that they thought the U.S. wanted war.

Adams fooled them all. A number of unlikely events brought about a happy conclusion to this affair. First, Adams received news from Elbridge Gerry that the French were not interested in a war with the United States, but instead wanted to restore diplomatic relations with the United States. In November 1798, Gerry had returned from what some Federalists called a traitorous trip to France to discover French intentions. He obtained word from Talleyrand that the French wanted peace.

Gerry’s trip to France led Adams to delay war and give diplomatic relations a chance. He decided to nurture public opinion to accept peace. He sent a diplomatic team to Paris, led by Dr. George Logan. This team obtained the release of some American prisoners as a goodwill gesture and to encourage the United States to send a diplomatic mission to France. George Washington sent Aadms a letter convincing him that the French wanted peace on terms honorable to the United States. Adams’ own son, John Quincy, from his post in Berlin also counseled him against war.

By December 1798, Adams had begun to seriously reevaluate the war option. He realized that peace was the best choice for the public good. If this could be obtained while saving the honor of America, it should be done. He noticed that the people as a whole were losing their ardor for conflict. He saw that war measures, rather than uniting the country, were leading to more disunity. War preparations strained the budget and increased tax burdens. They also made it easier for unscrupulous oligarchs to more easily seize control of political and economic life.

In addition to the help from Gerry, Logan, and Washington, the actions of the War Party itself made Adams increasingly suspicious about the benefits of war. Adams began to sense that the motivation of the most radical elements of the War Party was a desire for power.

As the Federalists in Congress argued for a declaration of war, Adams sent messengers to inform them that he was going to give peace a chance. This created a backlash within the party. It led to a series of meetings in which the War Party attempted to get Adams to change his stance.

Toward the end of the crisis, when Hamilton saw his designs for war fading, he confronted Adams in a Cabinet meeting, giving a long monologue in which he worked himself into a state of "frenzied excitement, speaking in a loud, agitated tone." Adams thought he had fallen into a "paroxysm." Hamilton’s last effort, to no avail, was to try to convince Adams that if the United States did not declare war on France, Great Britain would declare war on the United States.

By spring 1799, the War Party’s efforts were in vain. The actions of American statesmen, the words of valued friends, and the deplorable behavior of the members of his own party led Adams to seek an alternative to war.

The War Party, which had been built on opposition to France, then turned on its leader. Adams had killed his own chance of being elected to a second term. But he had also killed the designs of the War Party.

All historical comparisons fall short, and the purpose of this one is not to suggest that our time is exactly like the 1790s. It is to suggest that choosing peace – in this case, ending our military involvement in the Middle East – would be in the nation’s best interests.

It is worth noting that Bush, like Adams, has chosen the same time of year to deliberate on the course of the country’s future. Now, however, there are elements within both parties who, like the Federalist elites, are interested in escalating hostilities.

Americans have once again lost their ardor for war. Though he might not be up to the task, let us hope that George Bush can learn from John Adams and act with the same virtue and selflessness in seeking peace and the public good.