The President of the United States has a few jobs, and one of the most important is his role as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces. Another part of the job is knowing when to delegate authority to someone who is just as much, if not more qualified than the President in a certain area.
For President John Adams, looking down the barrel of a possible French invasion, that meant asking the previous President to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces again.
Every time you think you're out, they pull you back in.
It was John Adams who suggested to the Continental Congress in 1775 that George Washington be named Commander-In-Chief to lead the new Continental Army. In 1798, Adams was doing it again. The first challenge of the Adams Presidency was not just being the second president after a war hero like Washington; it was a looming war with revolutionary France.
The United States refused to pay its Revolutionary War debt to France after the French Revolution toppled the Bourbon monarchy that had helped the Americans separate from England. What's more, is the U.S. further angered the French by actively seeking the British as a trading partner. France began to authorize its privateers to attack American merchants, and the United States retaliated in kind. Battles raged at sea, and the only reason it was called the "Quasi-War" is that it was undeclared.
Like our Quasi-War in Afghanistan.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Joseph Chenelly)
While the U.S. Navy, though young, was holding its own at sea, led by legendary sailors like William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur, the land forces of the United States were still found to be wanting. At this time, the defense of the U.S. relied heavily on state militias, raised locally, and sent into federal service by the state's governor. And until this point, the President who was expected to be Commander-In-Chief of these forces was a battle-hardened veteran of at least two wars. President Washington even led a 13,000-strong U.S. Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
John Adams was a smart guy and realized he just didn't have the chops for something like that, especially if the French invaded. Luckily, Adams and Washington were on the same page in two very important ways.
John Adams knew when to delegate.
The first point was that the U.S. should remain neutral in the war between England and France. The second point was that John Adams didn't have the skills required to lead a young country – and likely its actual army – in a war. So he appealed to George Washington's military prowess once again and was able to name him Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, despite the fact that Washington was no longer president.
If the United States was ever in danger of actually being invaded from French forces isn't known. They were certainly near the young United States, but with a government in such a state of upheaval as Revolutionary France's was and the number of troops and ships the French could have brought to bear, it was probably wise for Adams not to take any chances. If the French had any notion of invading the U.S., they probably thought better of it once the man who'd beaten the mighty British Empire took command.