The extraordinary conflict that divided American life in the 1790s centered on divergent understandings of the meaning of the American Revolution and how its legacy should be nurtured in the new nation. Arguments about that fundamental question probably would have been controversial under any circumstances, but were dramatically heightened by the explosive example of the French Revolution. The United States was still a fragile experiment in republican government. Its domestic events and attitudes would greatly be shaped by events in Europe.
The deep conflict of the 1790s stimulated a profound new development in American politics. During the Revolution patriots had expected, and even demanded, that all virtuous people support them in a cause they saw as the only real force for the public good. Even into the 1790s, most Americans believed that there could be only one legitimate position to take on political issues. This helps to explain the rabid opinions of the period that were set before the public by a remarkable growth in newspapers during the decade. These newspapers did not pretend to be objective in how they reported events. Instead, newspapers sold issues because of their intense commitment to a particular partisan view of the contentious events of the day.
Consider these diametrically opposed opinions about President Washington. A Federalist newspaper trumpeted, "Many a private person might make a great President; but will there ever be a President who will make so great a man as Washington?" Meanwhile, a Democratic-Republican paper condemned that same hero. "If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington. . . . Let the history of the federal government instruct mankind, that the mask of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people." As this newspaper suggests, most people believed that their political enemies would destroy the nation if allowed to hold power.
It was John Adams' misfortune to be elected president in these deeply divided times. A genuine patriot and man of deep principle, domestic and international controversies placed nearly impossible challenges before the second president. If even Washington suffered harsh public attack from opposition newspapers, imagine what they were prepared to say about the less imposing John Adams.
By 1798 Adams and the Federalist Congress passed a series of laws that severely limited American civil liberties. Acting upon their judgment that political critics were treasonous opponents of good government, Adams followed the lead of Congressional leaders and heightened domestic repression. Adams supported policies that have subsequently been widely viewed as unconstitutional. Nevertheless, he was a moderating influence in his own party and refused to use the threat of war as a tool to exploit patriotic fervor to his own advantage. The gulf that separates our political attitudes from those of Adams and his Federalist colleagues in the late 1790s reveals the fundamental transformation of American political thought during that decade.