by Rhonda Barlow, Adams Papers Research Associate
John Adams famously described the vice presidency as “the most insignificant Office” ever devised. Less well known is why he said this or that there came a day when he revealed that the office actually mattered a great deal.
As vice president, Adams spent his days in the Senate, sitting in a chair, reading the proposed legislation, and listening to the senators’ debate. It was tiresome, boring work for a man of thought and action. “This Confinement will injure my health,” he wrote to his eldest son, John Quincy, in April 1790. After France became a republic and declared war on Great Britain, Americans, caught in the cross-fire, disagreed over the Washington administration’s official policy of neutrality. Writing to Abigail Adams on 19 Dec. 1793, John explained his role in foreign affairs as vice president:
“I am very apprehensive that a desperate Antifœderal Party, will provoke all Europe by their Insolence. But my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived: and as I can do neither good nor Evil, I must be born away by Others and meet the common Fate.”
During his tenure as the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James’s in the mid-1780s, Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain. But the former mother country, able to trade freely with the disunited States, had no need for a formal agreement. By early 1794, John Jay was about to undertake a special mission to finally negotiate a treaty with Britain, but Democratic-Republicans in Congress were still pushing anti-British legislation to restrict trade. John confided to Abigail on 3 April 1794, “The Times are so critical and Parties so nearly ballanced that I cannot in honour, nor consistently with my Duty abandon my Post. There are so many wild Projects and Motions and so many to support them, that I am become of more importance than Usual.” Twelve days later, he wrote, “The Senate will now be called upon to show their Independence, and perhaps your Friend to shew his Weakness or his Strength.”
A bill to prohibit British imports passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 59 to 34. In the Senate, the vote was as close as could be: 13 for and 13 against. It was up to the vice president to break the tie. On 28 April, John Adams blocked the bill, and cleared the way for Jay to sail to England and into history, successfully negotiating the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, commonly known as the Jay Treaty.
On 24 June 1795, John Adams once again sat in his chair in the Senate, and recorded the votes as the senators gave their advice and consent to the Jay Treaty by the required two-thirds majority. This new treaty not only improved relations with Great Britain, but demonstrated American independence from France. You can read more the Jay Treaty and about the ways John Adams shaped the vice presidency in the Adams Papers editorial project’s forthcoming volume 21 of The Papers of John Adams.
The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.