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The 1798 midterms: XYZ downs the Democrats

A British cartoon lampooning Franco-American relations during the XYZ Affair
A British cartoon lampooning Franco-American relations during the XYZ Affair

Parties controlling the White House generally lose seats in midterm elections. However, John Adams managed gains in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in 1798. The XYZ Affair played prominently in the campaign. The Democratic-Republicans attacked Adams for exaggerating the international situation with France. The president released diplomatic documents on the incident and made the opposition look terrible. The situation with France combined with a strong economy led to Federalist victory.

France and Europe went to war in 1792. The French hoped to expand their revolution across the continent. President Washington proclaimed neutrality. However, the British and French ignored American intentions and raided neutral shipping. The U.S. negotiated a treaty with the British, which angered the French. France believed America should join the fight against monarchism. In response, France increased its predations and President Adams sent a delegation to negotiate with the revolutionaries. The French demanded a bribe just to talk and the Americans refused.

As a result of French arrogance, President Adams began to strengthen America’s military. He recruited a large army, increased ship building, and heightened shoreline defenses. The opposition complained that Adams was manufacturing a crisis and accused him of warmongering. They demanded the diplomatic dispatches from France. Adams released the papers, which concealed the French agents’ names. They were known as W, X, Y, and Z. The incident became the XYZ Affair and the documents proved French duplicity. The Democratic-Republicans looked foolish and had been outmaneuvered by Adams.

In addition to the international crisis and Democratic bumbling, the economy remained strong under Adams. Federalist policies had set the United States on firm economic footing. By the midterm elections, manufacturing and trade boomed. However, France threatened the trade with their illegalities on the high seas. As a result, the economy proved vulnerable to European predations.

The voters rallied to the president at the polls. The House of Representatives remained in Federalist hands. The majority garnered nearly 57% of the vote in house elections. They added three seats to increase their advantage to 60-46 over the Democratic-Republicans. The minority performed well in the Middle States where they gained six seats. They also gained a Maryland district. However, the Federalist offset those losses with 9 gains in the south and one in Massachusetts.

The Federalists gained one senate seat to go along with the house pickups. Voters did not elect senators directly. Instead, state legislatures voted for the senate. As a result, the legislatures were less apt to be persuaded by passions or fads. The Federalist majority entering the sixth congress was 22-9 with one vacancy. The vacancy was later filled by a Democratic-Republican in a special election held in December 1799.

The Democratic-Republicans gave voters no reason to vote against the Federalists. In fact, they looked dimwitted compared to President Adams. The French violated American honor and grew aggressive against the young republic. Adams simply moved to counter the threat. The opposition party looked weak and anti-American in their protestations. On top of this, Federalist policies helped economic growth. In the end, Adams won a clear victory.

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