Opposition to the Federalist program was slow to develop. Since the only alternative to the new national government seemed to be disunity and anarchy, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists were initially able to build their system without great difficulty. Besides, no one as yet could conceive of a legitimate opposition to government. Parties were considered a symptom of disease in the body politic, signs of partiality and self-interestedness in opposition to the general good. Republics, which were dedicated to the commonwealth, could have no place for an opposition party.1
During the first year of the new government (1789–1790), James Madison acted as congressional leader of those who were eager to counteract Anti-Federalist sentiment. For a time Madison seemed to be everywhere at once, speaking in the Congress, promoting legislation, and writing speeches for both the president and Congress. Because of his trust in Washington, he initially believed in a strong and independent executive. In the Congress he argued for the president’s exclusive power to remove executive officials and worked to create a Treasury Department with a single head rather than a board that some congressmen favored.2
Hamilton in January 1790 was ready to present his first report to Congress. Fearful of being overawed by Hamilton’s expertise, Congress requested that Hamilton’s Report on the Public Credit be submitted in writing.
Once congressmen began to grasp the implications of the report, opposition quickly arose, especially to Hamilton’s proposed handling of the domestic debt. Hamilton was not surprised. He knew that state and local interests would resist all efforts to strengthen national authority. But he was startled that his severest critic in the House of Representatives was his longtime ally James Madison. He and Madison had collaborated closely in the 1780s and had even written most of The Federalist together. Hamilton had thought that Madison desired a strong national government as much as he did. But now Madison seemed to be changing.
Madison had been a nationalist in the 1780s, but not, it was now becoming apparent, Hamilton’s kind of nationalist. Madison was not opposed to funding the debt. He even suggested to Hamilton several forms of taxation, including an excise on liquor distilleries and a land tax, to supply revenue for extinguishing the debt.3 But he had already emerged as a strong defender of the interests of Virginia and the South, often talking about the need for justice and equality among what he now referred to as a “Confederacy of States.”4 In settling the debt he wanted the government to discriminate somehow between the original and current holders of the government’s bonds. Many of his Virginia constituents had heard stories of Northern speculators buying up the government’s old securities at a fraction of their face value. They were angry that under Hamilton’s funding plan the original purchasers of the securities would receive no compensation at all.
Hamilton wanted nothing to do with any sort of discrimination between original and current bondholders. Not only would administering such a discrimination become a nightmare, but refusing to pay the present holders of the securities their full face value would be a breach of contract and would harm the securities’ capacity to serve as money. The secretary’s views prevailed. On February 22, 1790, Madison’s proposal was easily defeated in the House, thirty-six to thirteen.
The issue of the federal government’s assumption of the states’ debts, however, was not so easily disposed of. Only three states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and South Carolina—owed nearly half the total state debts and were desperately anxious for assumption. Although some states were indifferent, several states—Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia—had already paid off a large proportion of their own debt and could hardly welcome paying federal taxes to retire the debts of the other states. Debate went on for six months, with some congressmen threatening that without assumption of the state debts there could be no Union. On June 2, 1790, the House of Representatives accepted a funding bill without assumption. The Senate responded by incorporating the assumption of state debts into the House bill. The Congress was deadlocked.
THE DEADLOCK WAS EVENTUALLY BROKEN by a remarkable compromise. Congressman Richard Bland Lee of Virginia had previously hinted that assumption might be linked to the permanent location of the national capital.5
From the beginning the location of the federal government had been a problem. In 1776 no one had conceived that the Confederation Congress should have its own territory for its capital. During the Revolutionary War Congress had been forced repeatedly to migrate from place to place; in the 1780s it was still on the move, from Philadelphia to Princeton to Annapolis to Trenton and finally to New York. The Constitution had attempted to end the peripatetic existence of the new federal government by providing for the states to cede a district “not exceeding ten miles square” to be the permanent seat of the new national government. In this district Congress would have exclusive jurisdiction. Beyond that nothing else was specified.
The Southern states wanted the capital located on the Potomac; Washington was especially keen on having it near Alexandria and his plantation at Mount Vernon. The New England states and New York wanted to retain the capital in New York or someplace close by. Pennsylvania and the other middle states wanted it near Philadelphia or at least near the Susquehanna.
By June 1790 the Virginians were willing to support a temporary capital in Philadelphia in return for a permanent site being established on the Potomac. At the same time, Madison was becoming more fearful of the consequences of disunion and seemed reluctantly willing to accept the federal assumption of state debts. At a dinner arranged by Jefferson in late June 1790, Hamilton and Madison clinched a deal in which Southerners would accept the national assumption of state debts in return for having the permanent capital on the Potomac, the midpoint between Maine and Georgia. For ten years while that federal city was being built, Philadelphia was to be the temporary residence of the government.
The choice of a temporary residence was not surprising. After all, Philadelphia had been the meeting place of the First and Second Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. It was also the largest city in the country, although not the fastest growing. (By 1810 New York would surpass it.) Prior to the Revolution it had been the major American entry port for thousands of European immigrants, mostly German, Scotch-Irish, and Irish, and would continue to be so in the 1790s, including such immigrants as French planters and blacks fleeing the revolution in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), French refugees from the revolution in France, and British and Irish refugees from Britain’s counter-revolutionary crackdown.
In 1790 Philadelphia’s forty-five thousand diverse peoples lived in a giant triangle running two and a half miles along the Delaware River with the western tip of the triangle extending back about a mile on the High Street (renamed Market Street in 1790), which divided the city in two. In addition to being the site where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, Philadelphia was the commercial and cultural center of the United States. It housed the Bank of North America, the first bank in the country, and the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company, both of which had been established under Benjamin Franklin’s leadership. It also contained Charles Willson Peale’s Museum, which was the first popular museum of natural science and art in the nation. Philadelphia’s Quaker heritage was everywhere, especially in making the city the national center for humanitarian reform, including the first society in the country promoting the abolition of slavery.
So fitting was Philadelphia as the nation’s capital that some believed the government’s temporary residence might be a lot longer than ten years. George Mason figured that it might take at least a half century for Congress to escape from the “Whirlpool of Philadelphia.” Others thought the sectional cooperation expressed in the Compromise of 1790 could not last. “Southern and northern will often be the division of Congress,” noted one observer. “The thought is disagreeable, but the distinction is founded in nature, and will last as long as the Union.”6
THE COMPROMISE OF 1790—the location of the national capital in return for the federal assumption of state debts—showed that most congressmen were still willing to bargain for the sake of union. Nevertheless, some Southerners like James Monroe still had serious reservations about the compromise, believing that assumption would reduce “the necessity for State taxation” and thus would “undoubtedly leave the national government more at liberty to exercise its powers and increase the subjects on which it will act.” One of those subjects might be slavery.7
The compromise was no sooner worked out than a new controversy arose over Hamilton’s proposal in December 1790 to charter the Bank of the United States. With the Bank, opposition to the Federalist program assumed a more strident and ideological character. Not only did the provision that the Bank was to reside in Philadelphia for its twenty-year life appear to threaten the promised move of the capital to the Potomac in 1800, but, more important, the creation of a national bank seemed to suggest that the United States was becoming a different kind of place from what many Americans wanted. Many Southerners in particular saw no need for banks. In their agricultural world banks seemed to create an unreal kind of money that benefited only Northern speculators. Even Northerners like Senator William Maclay regarded the Bank as “an Aristocratic engine” that could easily become “a Machine for the Mischievous purposes of bad Ministers.”8 Everywhere there was a sense that the Bank represented a new and frightening step toward centralizing national authority and Anglicizing America’s government.
In the House of Representatives Madison launched a passionate attack against the bank proposal. He argued that the bank bill was a misguided imitation of England’s monarchical practice of concentrating wealth and influence in the metropolitan capital, and, more important, that it was an unconstitutional assertion of federal power. The Constitution, he claimed, did not expressly grant the federal government the authority to charter a bank. But in February 1791 the bank bill passed over the objections of Madison and other Southerners, and Washington was faced with the problem of signing or vetoing it.
The president respected Madison’s judgment and was deeply perplexed by the issue of constitutionality. He thus sought the advice of his fellow Virginians, Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Secretary of State Jefferson. Randolph offered a rambling argument against the bank bill’s constitutionality, contending that the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution left all powers not specifically delegated to the Congress to the states or the people. Jefferson in his brief response took a similar position. Faced with such advice, Washington considered vetoing the bank bill and even went so far as to ask Madison to prepare a veto message. But first he wanted the opinion of his secretary of the treasury, who had devised the Bank.
Hamilton, with Randolph’s and Jefferson’s opinions before him, spent a week working out what became one of his most masterful state papers. He carefully refuted the arguments of Randolph and Jefferson and made a powerful case for a broad construction of the Constitution that resounded through subsequent decades of American history. He argued that Congress’s authority to charter a bank was implied by the clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that gave Congress the right to make all laws “necessary and proper” to carry out its delegated powers. Without such implied powers, Hamilton wrote, “the United States would furnish the singular spectacle of a political society without sovereignty, or of a people governed without government .” That may have been Jefferson’s ideal, but it was not Washington’s. On February 25, 1791, the president signed the bank bill into law.9
This turn of events alarmed Madison and Jefferson. The Virginia legislature had already issued a series of resolutions protesting the federal assumption of state debts—protests that foreshadowed the state’s later historic resolutions of 1798 against the Alien and Sedition Acts. In declaring the assumption law unconstitutional, the state noted the “striking resemblance” between Hamilton’s financial system and the one that had been introduced in England in the early part of the eighteenth century. That English system, the Virginians declared, not only had “perpetuated upon the nation an enormous debt” but also had concentrated “in the hands of the executive, an unbounded influence, which pervading every branch of the government, bears down all opposition and daily threatens the destruction of everything that appertains to English liberty.” The lesson for Americans was obvious: “The same causes produce the same effects.” By creating “a large monied interest,” the assumption law threatened to prostrate agriculture at the feet of commerce and to change the form of the federal government in a manner “fatal to the existence of American liberty.”10
Hamilton saw at once the implications of these Virginia resolutions. He privately warned that they were “the first symptom of a spirit which must either be killed or will kill the constitution of the United States.”11 But his Federalist colleagues were confident that the prosperity the national government was bringing to the country would conquer all opposition.
YET OPPOSITION CONTINUED TO MOUNT. Indeed, Virginia’s stand at the end of 1790 became the first major step in the development of an organized opposition designed to protect Southern agricultural interests (including slavery) from Eastern commercial dominance. By early 1791 Jefferson was worried about the “heresies” that were being set forth in the press and began urging friends to support the agricultural interest and pure “republicanism” against the “stock-jobbers” in Congress. Soon Madison was describing the supporters of Hamilton’s program not only as “speculators” but also as “Tories,” a loaded term that evoked the opponents of the Revolution and the promoters of monarchy.12 Madison’s and Jefferson’s comments were private, but by early 1791 the press boiled with talk of the dangers of monarchy and monocrats—talk that resonated well beyond the world of the Southern planters concerned with slavery: many Northern middling sorts were also anxious about the dangers of monarchy and the kind of aristocratic society that accompanied it.
Because Vice-President John Adams had pushed for titles in the Senate in 1789, some had labeled him a monarchist. Adams laid new claim to the title, as did his editor, John Fenno, by publishing in the Gazette of the United States in 1790 a series of essays called “Discourses on Davila.” In these curious essays, ostensibly a commentary on the work of the seventeenth-century Italian historian Enrico Caterino Davila, Adams tried to justify his belief in the need for forms, titles, and distinctions in all societies, including republics.
Under these circumstances, with monarchy very much on people’s minds, Jefferson suddenly and inadvertently found himself thrust into public prominence as a controversial defender of republicanism. In April 1791 he passed on an English copy of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The Rights of Manto a Philadelphia printer. Jefferson made the mistake, however, of including a covering note privately expressing his pleasure that “something is at length to be publickly said against the political heresies which have sprung up among us,” by which he meant mainly Adams’s “Discourses on Davila.”13
When Jefferson’s note was widely quoted in newspapers throughout the nation, he was embarrassed. Whether he wanted it or not, Jefferson was being associated in the public mind with resistance to the Hamiltonian system and perceived as a friend of the rights of man. His holiday trip with Madison in late May and June 1791 up the Hudson Valley in New York certainly convinced Hamilton and other Federalists that Jefferson and Madison were concocting an organized opposition to the government. At the same time, Jefferson noted that Hamilton was trying to qualify, but not repudiate, remarks in which he said that “the present government is not that which will answer the ends of society, . . . and that it will probably be found expedient to go into the British form.”14 Both Jefferson and Madison were coming to realize that Hamilton and the Federalists had an image quite different from their own of what the United States ought to become.
JEFFERSON AND MADISON had been good friends since 1779. Their shared passion for religious freedom had brought them together, and in the 1780s they had collaborated in pushing a number of bills through the Virginia assembly. When Jefferson was minister to France, they had kept up a regular correspondence, often in code. Now, however, their friendship deepened, grew more intensely political, and became more consequential for the history of the early Republic.15 As John Quincy Adams once observed, “The mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world, and in which the sagacity of the future historian may discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.”16
It is not immediately obvious why the relationship was so intimate and long-lasting. The two men had markedly different temperaments. Jefferson was high-minded, optimistic, visionary, and often quick to grab hold of new and sometimes bizarre ideas. Although he could be a superb politician at times—acutely sensitive to what was possible and workable—he was also a radical utopian; he often dreamed of the future and was inspired by how things might be. Madison, by contrast, had a conservative strain that mingled with his own utopian thinking; he valued legitimacy and stability and was usually more willing than Jefferson to accept things as they were. He was often prudent and cold-eyed, if not pessimistic, analytical, and skeptical of radical schemes, especially if they might unleash popular passions. He never embraced an idea without questioning it, and he never possessed the kind of uncritical faith in the people that Jefferson had.
Both men were suspicious of governmental power, including the power of elected representative legislatures. But Jefferson’s suspicion was based on his fear of the unrepresentative character of the elected officials, that is, that the representatives might be too apt to drift away from the virtuous people who had elected them. Madison’s suspicion, by contrast, was based on his fear that the elected officials were only too representative, only too expressive of the passions of their constituents. Jefferson worried about the rights of the majority; Madison worried about the rights of the minority.17 As far as Jefferson was concerned, the people could do no wrong. When Madison was wringing his hands in the late 1780s over the turbulence of Shays’s Rebellion, Jefferson was writing blithely from France about the value of the spirit of popular resistance to government and the need to keep it alive. “I like a little rebellion now and then,” he said. Like a storm in the atmosphere, it cleared the air.18
In the 1780s the two men had had different ideas about politics and the character of the central government. Madison had been a fervent nationalist and had been eager to put down the states and create a strong central government. Jefferson, from his distant position in Paris, had not shared most of Madison’s misgivings about democratic politics in the separate states. Although he had accepted the need for a new federal government, he continued to think of the United States as more of a decentralized confederation than Madison. Give the national government control over foreign policy and foreign trade, he urged, but leave all domestic affairs, including taxation, with the states. “To make us one nation as to foreign concerns, and keep us distinct in Domestic ones,” he told Madison in 1786, “gives the outline of the proper division of powers between the general and particular governments.”19
By 1792 Jefferson had not changed his views at all, but Madison had. For reasons that are still disputed, by 1792 he had become fearful of the very government he had done so much to create. No doubt his nationalism had never been as strong as Hamilton’s, and no doubt his loyalty to Virginia had become more intense as he sensed a Northern bias in Hamilton’s banking and funding system. But most important in his change of thinking was his growing realization that the new national government that Hamilton and the Federalists were erecting did not at all resemble the adjudicatory state that he had imagined in 1787. It was not a judicial-like umpire they were creating but a modern European-type state with an elaborate bureaucracy, a standing army, perpetual debts, and a powerful independent executive—the very kind of monarch-like war-making state that radical Whigs in England had been warning about for generations. In his mind, as he recalled years later, he did not desert Hamilton, “Colonel Hamilton deserted me.” “In a word,” he told a young disciple, Nicholas Trist, near the end of his life, “the divergence between us took place—from his wishing to administration, or rather to administer the Government into what he thought it ought to be.”20
Madison’s growing realization that Hamilton held a different conception of the national government from his own was crucial in explaining his shift in thinking; but also important was his deep friendship with Jefferson. Although Madison was by far the more critical and questioning thinker, Jefferson, eight years Madison’s senior, displayed an intellectual power that impressed his younger colleague. Jefferson knew more about more things and had read more books than any other American leader (except perhaps for John Adams), and, unlike Madison, he had lived in Europe and knew firsthand the great enlightened world beyond America.
For a variety of reasons, therefore, Madison tended to defer to his older friend, ready “always,” he told him in 1794, to “receive your commands with pleasure.”21 Madison, however, was never so deferential as to avoid questioning some of the outlandish ideas that Jefferson was apt to put forward. In 1789, for example, Jefferson outlined for Madison his notion that no generation should be bound by the actions of its predecessors. Jefferson had picked up the idea during discussions in liberal Parisian circles and found it attractive, especially since he had become aware of how burdensome his own personal debts were. “One generation,” he told Madison, “is to another as one independent nation to another.” According to his elaborate but dubious calculations based on the demographic tables of the French naturalist the comte de Buffon, Jefferson deduced that a generation lasted about nineteen years. Therefore, he concluded, the “principle that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead” meant that all personal and national debts, all laws, even all constitutions ought to expire every nineteen years.
Madison’s reply to this odd notion was a model of tact. After first complimenting Jefferson on the “many interesting reflections” his idea of generational autonomy suggested, Madison went on gently to demolish it for being “not in all respects compatible with the course of human affairs.” He pointed out that some debts, like those created by the American Revolution, were actually incurred for the benefit of future generations. Moreover, to bring all constitutions and laws to an end every nineteen years would surely erode confidence between people and breed struggles over property that would unhinge the society. Still, he confessed that perhaps he had only the eye of an “ordinary Politician” that was unable to perceive “the sublime truths . . . seen thro’ the medium of Philosophy.”22
Madison knew his friend and knew that Jefferson’s fanciful and exaggerated opinions were usually offset by his very practical and cautious behavior. As Madison later remarked, Jefferson had a habit like “others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.”23 Indeed, it was often the difference between Jefferson’s impulsive opinions and his calculated behavior that led many critics to charge him with hypocrisy and inconsistency.
Perhaps it was the very innocence and impracticality of many of Jefferson’s opinions—their utopianism—that attracted the more sober-minded and skeptical Madison. Jefferson’s vision of a world free from coercion and war, free from the accumulated debts and regulations of the past, and free from corruption—this vision was an inspiring antidote to the prudential, mundane, and humdrum world of congressional politics that Madison often had to contend with. At any rate, Madison developed his own utopian views about the use of commercial restrictions in international relations and on this issue eventually became even more visionary than his mentor. But he was always the loyal protégé responsible for the dirty work in the collaboration. Since Jefferson did not like personal confrontations and polemical exchanges, he left it to Madison to write articles defending him in the press and to work out the details of their opposition to Hamilton’s program.
AS CRITICISM OF HAMILTON’S financial policies and their support by “stock-jobbers” and “speculators” increased during 1791, defenders of the government retaliated. John Fenno had begun his staunchly Federalist newspaper the Gazette of the United States in 1789 with the hope of its becoming the official paper of the national government with the mission of supporting the Constitution and the national administration. But soon the paper moved from simply celebrating the federal government to defending it from its critics. To those critics Fenno’s publishing of Adams’s “Discourses on Davila” was the last straw. The Gazette seemed to Jefferson to have become “a paper of pure Toryism, disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the influence of the people.”24
Jefferson and Madison were concerned enough with the spread of what they took to be the anti-republican opinions of the Gazette to enter into negotiations with the poet Philip Freneau to edit a rival Philadelphia newspaper. After being offered a position as translator in the State Department and other promises of support, Freneau finally agreed. The first issue of his National Gazette appeared at the end of October 1791.25 By early 1792Freneau’s newspaper was claiming that Hamilton’s plans were part of a grand design to subvert liberty and establish aristocracy and monarchy in America. At the same time, Jefferson was hailed as the illustrious patriot who was defending liberty against Hamilton’s system of corruption. Although there was no organized party as yet, something labeled the “republican interest” emerged in the Congress in 1791, with the Virginia delegation at its core.
Freneau and his newspaper were effectively altering the terms of the national debate. He portrayed the political conflict not as a contest between Federalists and Anti-Federalists but as a struggle between monocrats or aristocrats on one side and republicans on the other. As Hamilton recognized, these new terms were not at all favorable to the Federalists. It was one thing to cast the opponents of the Federalists as enemies of the Constitution and the Union; it was quite another to describe them as defenders of republicanism against monarchy and aristocracy. Yet to the Federalists’ chagrin, Freneau’s National Gazette could now openly declare that “the question in America is no longer between federalism and anti-federalism, but between republicanism and anti-republicanism.” Since the press rarely published authentically signed pieces—most were anonymous or written under a pseudonym—the charges thrown about in the newspapers showed little restraint. When Freneau’s paper bitterly attacked the Federalist government for slyly promoting monarchy and aristocracy and undermining republicanism, Hamilton eventually responded in Fenno’s Gazette of the United States by assailing Jefferson directly. He labeled the secretary of state an intriguing incendiary plotting to destroy the Constitution and the authority of the national government.26
This political division quickly spread beyond the press. Although Americans were universally hostile to the idea of parties, observers in 1792 for the first time began to speak of parties in the Congress, with what Madison called the “Republican party” representing the eighteenth-century radical Whig or “country-opposition” of the people against the corrupt influence of the Federalist “court.” Republicans began drawing on the libertarian ideas of the eighteenth-century British radical country-Whigs, ideas that had been integral to colonial American thinking in the years leading up to the Revolution.27
Jefferson was steeped in these ideas, but he found it difficult to lead an opposition. He was in an awkward position, to say the least. He had placed on the government’s payroll an enemy of the administration of which he was an important member. Early in 1792 the secretary of state informed Washington of his desire to leave the government at the end of the president’s first term. In the meantime, however, he sought to diminish Hamilton’s influence. In February 1792 he tried to convince Washington that the post office ought to be put in the Department of State rather than in the Treasury Department where it originally resided. The treasury, he warned the president in a conversation, “possessed already such an influence as to swallow up the whole Executive powers, and . . . even the future Presidents (not supported by the weight of character which himself possessed) would not be able to make head against this department.” He went on to accuse Hamilton of contriving “a system” of unproductive paper speculation that was poisoning the society and even the government itself.28
Indeed, even one of the chief perpetrators, Robert Morris, admitted that a “spirit of speculation infected all ranks” in the 1790s. Those speculative schemes involving the former assistant secretary of the treasury William Duer lent some support to the fears of corruption. Duer was a talented and energetic man, but, unlike Hamilton or Washington, he seemed to have little or no sense that his public responsibilities ought to precede his private interests. In the language of the age he appeared to have little or no virtue. Indeed, Duer epitomized the kind of gambling “stock-jobber” that Jefferson and Madison so feared. Although Duer departed the treasury after seven months, he presumably left with inside information that he tried to turn to his advantage by speculating in the federal debt and bank stock. Duer borrowed from a wide variety of people, promising them ever increasing returns. When the speculative bubble finally burst in March 1792, investors big and small were badly hurt.
The collapse of Duer’s schemes precipitated a financial panic—the first of its kind in American history—that some believed was so serious that it affected “private Credit from Georgia to New Hampshire.” Suddenly, construction projects were halted, men were thrown out of work, and prices fell. One observer thought that the “revolution of property” was unprecedented.29 Jefferson, who had little understanding of high finance, was convinced that “all that stuff called script, of whatever description, was folly or roguery.”30 Hamilton took a tough line in protecting the credit of the United States during the financial crisis, and Duer ended up in prison. Jefferson and Madison assumed, wrongly it turned out, that Hamilton himself was likewise involved in corruption, and they and their followers in the Congress tried to force the treasury secretary to resign.
By now Hamilton had come to realize that his former collaborator had joined with Jefferson to oppose all of his programs. By May 1792 he was convinced “that Mr. Madison cooperating with Mr. Jefferson is at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and actuated by views in my judgment subversive of the principles of good government and dangerous to the union, peace and happiness of the Country.”31 Hamilton was horrified to learn that many congressmen wanted to undermine his funding system and even to repudiate the government’s contracts of debt. He believed that Madison and especially Jefferson, whom he accused of wanting to become president, had attempted to make the national government so odious that they ran the risk of destroying the Union. In the opinion of Hamilton and other Federalists the future of the national government was in doubt. If all the states were as small as Maryland, New Jersey, or Connecticut, there would be little to fear. But, he thought, with a state as large and powerful as Virginia in opposition, could the government of the United States maintain itself? Hamilton insisted, perhaps too much so, that he was “affectionately attached to the Republican theory,” meaning, as he said, that he had no vested interest in hereditary distinctions or the deprivation of equal political rights. That was true enough, but his idea of republicanism was certainly different from that of Madison and Jefferson.32
At the same time, Jefferson himself was becoming increasingly alarmed at the direction of the federal government. In May 1792 he spelled out to Washington more fully than he had earlier his objections to Hamilton’s paper schemes and the influence of his “corrupt squadron” in the Congress. The “ultimate object” of Hamilton’s system, Jefferson wrote, was “to prepare the way for a change from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy, of which the English constitution is to be the model.” If the great mass of the people did not rise up and support “the republican party,” Jefferson warned, the Union itself might break apart. Although Jefferson wrote this in order to convince Washington that “the crisis” was so severe as to require the great man to stay on for a second term as president, he nevertheless sincerely believed what he wrote. This fear that the “Monarchical federalists” were using the new government “simply as a stepping stone to monarchy” became the basis of all his thinking in the 1790s and the central theme of the emerging Republican party.33
Washington tried to assure Jefferson that there was no design to create a monarchy. Instead, the president blamed most of the disturbances in the country on Freneau’s paper. Yet, without revealing the source, Washington did ask Hamilton to respond to Jefferson’s objections to the government’s financial system.
In August 1792 in a fourteen-thousand-word document Hamilton answered Jefferson’s arguments one by one and demonstrated his exceptional understanding of financial matters. He could not help assuming the exasperated tone of the sophisticated Wall Street lawyer explaining the intricacies of banks and credit to country bumpkins. He first pointed out that the debt was created not by the Federalist administration but by the Revolutionary War. If the opponents of the debt wanted it paid off, he said, then they ought to stop misrepresenting the measures of the government and depriving it of its ability to do just that. Hamilton went on to deny the charge that congressmen were corrupt because they were public creditors; indeed, he said, “it is a strange perversion of ideas, and as novel as it is extraordinary, that men should be deemed corrupt & criminal for becoming proprietors in the funds of their Country.” He denied too that there was a conspiracy to transform America into a monarchy. He certainly was somewhat disingenuous in declaring that no one, as far as he knew, “contemplated the introducing into this country of a monarchy.” But he did go on to ridicule the various fears of plots that the two different parties had—one fearing monarchy and the other fearing the overturning of the general government. “Both sides,” he said, “may be equally wrong & their mutual jealousies may be materially causes of the appearances which mutually disturb them, and sharpen them against each other.”
Unfortunately, as Jefferson had pointed out, the division was assuming a sectional cast. “In the South,” said Hamilton, “it is supposed that more government than is expedient is desired by the North. In the North, it is believed, that the prejudices of the South are incompatible with the necessary degree of Government and with the attainment of the essential ends of National Union.” But happily, he said, most people in both sections favored “their true interest, UNION.” Of course, Hamilton assumed that the Southern position was based on mere “theoretical prejudices,” while the Northern position was based on “great and substantial national objects.”34
To Washington’s dismay, cabinet meetings had become increasingly acrimonious. As Jefferson later recalled, he and Hamilton were “daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.”35 At the end of August 1792 Washington wrote to both secretaries, urging “more charity for the opinions and acts of one another.” He assumed that the differences between the two men were still merely personal, “for I cannot prevail on myself to believe that these measures are, as yet, the deliberate acts of a determined party.” He appealed to his two cabinet officials to be less suspicious and more tolerant of one another. If “one pulls this way and another that,” then the government “must inevitably be torn asunder,” and “the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man, will be lost—perhaps for ever!”36
Both men replied to Washington the same day. Each outlined his grievances against the other in order to justify his actions. Hamilton admitted that he had retaliated in the press against Jefferson. Indeed, his articles published during the latter half of 1792 in the Gazette of the United Statesactually attacked Jefferson by name and thus may have had the unintended effect of elevating Jefferson to leadership of the Republican opposition. One Federalist even labeled Jefferson the “Generalissimo” of the Republican armies, with Madison being relegated to the title of a mere “General.”37
Hamilton believed that he had every justification for attacking Jefferson in the press. Jefferson from the beginning had formed a party “bent upon my subversion” and had created a newspaper with Philip Freneau as his agent in order “to render me and all the measures connected with my department as odious as possible.” Undermining the nation’s honor and credit, as Jefferson and his followers intended, would “bring the Government into contempt with that description of Men, who are in every society the only firm supporters of government.”38 Hamilton could not avoid thinking of society in a traditional hierarchical manner, with the proprietary gentry at the top being crucial to social order.
Jefferson replied with even more venom and self-pity than Hamilton. Although he had vowed never to interfere with the Congress, he had violated his resolution one time in the case of the assumption of state debts. He had been duped into it by Hamilton “and made a tool for forwarding his schemes, not then sufficiently understood by me.” It was, he said, the biggest mistake of his political life. Jefferson then went on to describe his differences with Hamilton, differences that were not merely personal. “His system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and abolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.” Congressmen, Jefferson said, no longer spoke for the people; they were simply enriching themselves. The debt was a crucial point of difference between him and Hamilton. “I would wish the debt paid tomorrow; he wishes it never to be paid, but always to be a thing wherewith to corrupt and manage the legislature.” Indeed, using influence was his mode of operation. How many sons, relatives, and friends of the legislators, asked Jefferson, had Hamilton provided for out of the thousand offices he had at his disposal? And he had the nerve, said Jefferson, to question the hiring of the newspaper editor Philip Freneau as a translator in the State Department. (Actually hiring Freneau had come to embarrass Jefferson, and he spent an inordinate amount of his letter justifying it.)
Jefferson’s letter was more than three times as long as Hamilton’s and was far more wide-ranging in its indictment of his enemy. He lashed out at Hamilton in every direction, charging that the treasury secretary’s broad construction of the Constitution and his reliance on the general welfare clause were all part of his scheme of “subverting step by step the principles of the Constitution.” Somewhat disingenuously, Jefferson claimed that he had done nothing to oppose Hamilton’s schemes except to express dissent. Hamilton, he charged, had not been so innocent. The secretary of the treasury had continually interfered with Jefferson’s department, discussing foreign affairs with the ministers of Britain and France, and had written hateful pieces against Jefferson in the press. Did this not, Jefferson asked, harm “the dignity and even the decency of government”?
Rarely did Jefferson express as much anger in a letter as he did in this one. He promised to retire soon from his office, but he would not promise to give up the fight on behalf of the cause of republican freedom. “I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment when history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head.” Jefferson could not help but think of Hamilton, the bastard immigrant from the West Indies, as a parvenu who was something less than a native American. He never hated anyone more.39
THE ONE THING the two cabinet officers agreed upon was that Washington had to stay on as president. Washington wanted to retire in 1792. He felt old and tired, and he continued to worry about what people would think about his continuing in office when he had promised way back in 1783 to retire from public life. But everyone urged him to stay. Some Federalists like Robert Morris privately thought that four years was much too short a term for the president. They preferred a life term, and if not that, at least a twenty-one-year term.40
Even the Republicans wanted Washington to continue in office. Jefferson told him that he was the only man in the country thought to be above party.41 Hamilton even used the ultimate argument on a man who was always anxious about his reputation—that retirement when he was so much needed would be “critically hazardous to your own reputation.”42
Washington kept postponing a decision and thus tacitly agreed to stand for election for another term. When the electoral votes were counted in February 1793, Washington had once again received every electoral vote, the only president in American history to be so honored. John Adams received seventy-seven votes to fifty for Governor George Clinton of New York, and thus he remained as vice-president. Hamilton thought that Adams was far from perfect, but he was preferable to Clinton, who he said was “a man of narrow and perverse politics” and “opposed to national principles.” Adams himself was outraged that Clinton should have received only twenty-seven votes fewer than he did. “Damn’em, damn ’em, damn ’em,” he exclaimed to John Langdon of New Hampshire. “You see that an elective government will not do.” No wonder people suspected Adams of monarchism.43
Aaron Burr, the senator from New York, apparently had canvassed for the vice-presidency but had received only one electoral vote—from South Carolina. Hamilton was not yet sure about Burr’s character, but what he had heard suggested that “he is a man whose only political principle is, to mount at all events to the highest legal honours of the Nation and as much further as circumstances will carry him.” Hamilton’s biggest worry during the election had been that Adams, Clinton, and Burr would divide the votes of the North and allow Jefferson to sneak in as vice-president, which would have been “a serious misfortune.” Jefferson, he said, was “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination—entertaining & propagating notions inconsistent with dignified and orderly Government.”44
For their part Jefferson and Madison had sought to dampen Burr’s candidacy, arguing that he was too inexperienced for the position. Although the Virginians praised Burr effusively, their opposition to his ambition never sat well with Burr, and he seethed over it.45
Washington hoped for less partisanship and more harmony in the government, but the worst was yet to come. By the end of 1792 Jefferson and most of his fellow Virginians in the House had become convinced that Hamilton was deep in corruption. In January 1793 they sponsored five resolutions calling for an accounting of the Treasury Department’s affairs. They believed that Hamilton would never be able to answer them before the Congress adjourned in March, and thus the charges would fester for the rest of the year until Congress reconvened. But Hamilton outdid himself in answering his critics, and when the Virginia delegation, perhaps under the influence of Jefferson, pressed the House to censure Hamilton, the representatives refused by large majorities. At the same time, the congressional elections of 1792 suggested that many more of those dedicated to the Republican cause would sit in the Third Congress that would convene at the end of 1793.
YET THIS WAS NOT YET modern party politics. Politics in the 1790s retained much of its eighteenth-century character. It was still very much a personal and elitist business—resting on friendship, private alliances, personal conversations, letter-writing, and intrigue. Such politics was regarded as the prerogative of notable gentry who presumably had sufficient reputations to gather supporters and followers. Because in America would-be aristocrats and gentlemen lacked any legal titles, their rank had to rest on reputation, on opinion, on having their claim to gentility accepted by the world. This was why eighteenth-century gentlemen, especially those who sought political leadership, so jealously guarded their reputations, or what they more commonly called their honor.
Honor was the value genteel society placed on a gentleman and the value that a gentleman placed on himself. Honor suggested a public drama in which men played roles for which they were either praised or blamed. It subsumed self-esteem, pride, and dignity and was akin to glory and fame. Gentlemen acted or avoided acting for the sake of their honor. Honor was exclusive, heroic, and aristocratic, and it presumed a hierarchical world different from the one that was emerging in America. Indeed, the eighteenth-century French philosopher Montesquieu, in his Spirit of the Laws(1748), had argued that honor was the animating principle of monarchy.
Since politics was still an aristocratic matter of individual loyalties and enmities, men had a hard time distinguishing between their status as gentlemen and their position as political leaders. Consequently, political struggles over policy often became personal struggles over reputation. Because reputation was a matter of public opinion, influencing that opinion became an essential aspect of politics. Hence personal insults, calumnies, and gossip were common weapons in these political battles over reputation. Gossip, said Fisher Ames, was an unfortunate fact of political life. “It is provoking,” he lamented, “that a life of virtue and eminent usefulness should be embittered by calumny—but it is the ordinary event of the political drama.”46
To deal with this sort of personal politics, gentlemen worked out sets of rituals and rules of conduct based on the importance they placed on their reputations. In defense against insult they resorted to a variety of measures: public posting in newspapers, the spreading of counter-gossip, and the writing of pamphlets or newspaper diatribes. Although the most extreme defense of one’s reputation was to challenge the opponent to a duel, physical combat was not the most likely outcome in these ritualized struggles over honor. But the possibility that a political contest could end in an exchange of fire between two men gave an anxious edge to politics.
Because the United States was still without firmly established institutions and structures of political behavior, this kind of personal gossip-laden politics meant that private relationships necessarily became intermingled with public affairs and vice versa. To attack a government policy was to attack a politician, which immediately called into question his reputation and honor. As William Plumer of New Hampshire complained, “It is impossible to censure measures without condemning men.” This sort of politics based on personal alliances and animosities was difficult to manage and accounts for much of the volatility and passion of political life in the 1790s.47 Although traditional gentry like John Jay continued to assume that “men may be hostile to each other in politics and yet be incapable of such conduct” in private, it was becoming increasingly difficult to behave magnanimously when so much seemed at stake.48
In this intimate world of competing gentlemen, political parties in any modern sense were slow to emerge. Because there were as yet no elaborate mechanisms for selecting candidates, raising money, and conducting campaigns, notable gentry used their personal reputations to gather supporters and followers. If a member of Congress found himself unable to be present in his district at election time, he might, as Madison did in 1790, write letters to influential friends or relatives and ask them to look after his interest. Gentlemen generally stood, not ran, for election, and canvassing for an office, as Burr was said to have done for the vice-presidency in 1792, was widely thought to be improper. Any interference with the right of each citizen to think and vote independently was anathema. A Connecticut congressman boasted that no one in his state had ever “solicited the suffrages of the freeman, for a place in the legislature.” If anyone was ever foolish enough to try, “he may be assured of meeting with the general contempt and indignation of the people.”49
With little competition for office, voter turnouts were often very low, sometimes fewer than 5 percent of the eligible electorate.50 Gentlemen put great value on impartiality and disliked and feared parties as factious and self-seeking. “If I could not go to heaven but with a party,” declared Jefferson in 1789, “I would not go there at all.”51 Given this deep-seated hostility to parties, it is not surprising that men found it difficult to draw up tickets of candidates and organize elections in any modern manner.
Nevertheless, a Republican party of opposition was emerging, and men struggled to explain and justify what was happening. As one of the leaders of the Republican opposition, Madison had become convinced by September 1792 that a division into parties, “being natural to most political societies, is likely to be of some duration in ours.” One party, he wrote publicly in 1792, was composed of those who “are more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society; and having debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves, it follows with them, of course, that government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments and the terror of military force.” These Federalists, or members of what Madison called “the antire-publican party,” expected the government to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many and hoped that it would “be narrowed into fewer hands, and approximated to an hereditary form.” Members of the other party, “the Republican party, as it may be termed,” were those who believed “that mankind are capable of governing themselves” and hated “hereditary power as an insult to the reason and an outrage to the rights of man.”52
In this essay, entitled “A Candid State of Parties,” published in the National Gazette on September 26, 1792, Madison meant by parties not organized vehicles for recruiting candidates and winning elections but rather rough divisions of opinion manifested in Congress. In the face of the continual emphasis on the single interest of the public, men were reluctant to admit they might be members of a party. As late as 1794 the Virginia Republican congressman Nathaniel Macon wrote home, “It is said there are two parties in Congress, but the fact I do not positively know. If there are, I know that I do not belong to one.”53
In these circumstances, of course, the emerging political division between the Federalists and the Republicans bore no resemblance to the party competition of modern American politics or to the politics of the antebellum period. Neither party accepted the legitimacy or existence of the other. Indeed, each believed that the other was out to destroy the country. The Federalists, whom John Adams defined in 1792 as “the Friends of the Constitution, order and good government,” thought of themselves not as a party but as the legitimate administration that represented the whole people and the general good.54 Only their Republican opponents were willing to describe themselves as a party, and they did so out of necessity, just as the colonists had created the Whig party to combat monarchical tyranny during the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s.
Even so, some Republicans objected to the term “party”; they said they were better described as “a band of patriots,” because they were looking after the good of the whole nation, not a part.55 Because there was no legitimacy for organized opposition to the government, only the most appalling circumstances could justify the resort to a party as a means of collecting the will of the people. And that party had to be a temporary one; it would exist only as long as the threat from the dire circumstances persisted.
The organizers of the Republican party saw themselves in just such awful circumstances, indeed, in a situation resembling the 1760s and 1770s. They believed that monarchism was once again threatening liberty, and their party was justified as a means of arousing the people into resistance. If parties were divided “merely by a greediness for office, as in England,” said Jefferson, then to participate in a party “would be unworthy of a reasonable or moral man.” But where the difference was one “between the republicans and Monocrats of our country,” then the only honorable course was to refrain from pursuing a middle line and “to take a firm and decided part,” as any honest man would take against rogues.56
The Republican party began with the activities of notables at the center of government. Voting patterns in the First and Second Congresses (1789–1792) revealed shifting sectional splits that only gradually formed regular party divisions. Only in 1793 did consistent voting blocs in the Congress clearly emerge.57
But identification with the Republican cause involved more than the gentleman leaders in the Congress. In localities throughout much of the country, many ordinary people opposed to the established leadership or to the direction of affairs began organizing themselves and voicing their dissent. The sudden mushrooming of these Democratic-Republican Societies outside of the regular institutions of government frightened many people. Their seeming connection with the French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion and President Washington’s criticism doomed them to a brief two-year existence.
The organizing of these Democratic-Republican Societies began in April 1793, sparked by growing popular enthusiasm for the revolutionary ideas of France. Some Germans in Philadelphia formed a Democratic-Republican Society in order to urge citizens to be vigilant in watching over their government. This group inspired the creation of the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania, which in turn sent a circular letter calling for the formation of similar societies throughout the country. By the end of 1794 no fewer than thirty-five and perhaps many more of these popular organizations had been created, scattered from Maine to South Carolina. They were often composed of self-made entrepreneurs, mechanics and manufacturers, small-time merchants, farmers, and other middling people, angry at the aristocratic pretensions of many of the Federalist gentry. The organizations issued resolutions and addresses; they denounced the Federalists and supported Republican candidates and causes everywhere; and they communicated with one another in the way the committees of correspondence of the 1760s and 1770s had.58
These societies were more radical and outspoken than elite leaders like Jefferson and Madison, who tended to keep well clear of them. They represented a democratic future that few American leaders could yet accept or even envision. They challenged the older world of deferential political leadership and called for the people’s participation in the affairs of government beyond merely periodically casting their votes. They told the people to shed their habitual awe of their so-called betters and to think and act for themselves. They adopted the French Revolutionary address of “Citizen” and resolved no longer to address their correspondents as “Sir” or use the phrase “Your humble servant” to close their letters. They took the notion of the sovereignty of the people literally and believed that the people had a continual right to organize and protest against even the actions of their own elected representatives.
But these Democratic-Republican Societies also met widespread resistance. Most American political leaders continued to abhor such extra-legal activity, for it seemed to undermine the very idea of a legal representative government. “Undoubtedly the people is sovereign,” opponents of the Democratic-Republican Societies declared, “but this sovereignty is in the whole people, and not in any separate part, and cannot be exercised, but by the Representatives of the whole nation.”59 Although Jefferson and other Republican leaders were reluctant to endorse these popular societies openly for fear of being thought seditious, the societies themselves had no such reluctance in endorsing the Republican leaders. “May the patriots of ’76 step forward with Jefferson at their head and cleanse the country of degeneracy and corruption,” went one Kentucky toast in 1795.60Although these societies did not generally manage elections, nominate tickets, or seek control of offices, they did set forth ideas that made people of different areas and different social groups feel they were part of a common Republican cause. Thus, even though they became associated in many people’s minds with the Whiskey Rebellion and disappeared as quickly as they had arisen, they foreshadowed the democratic world that was coming and contributed greatly to what held the Republican party together.
THE EMERGING REPUBLICAN PARTY comprised a wide variety of social groups. Foremost were the Southern landowners who were becoming conscious of the distinctiveness of their section and increasingly estranged from the commercial and banking world that Hamilton’s system seemed to be promoting. They were surprised by the promotion of Hamilton’s system, for they had expected to have greater control over the fate of the country than the Federalist program seemed to allow. At the outset of the new national government, they had had every reason to believe that the future belonged to them.
In 1789 the South dominated the nation. Close to half the population of the United States lived in the five states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. With a population of nearly seven hundred thousand, Virginia was by far the most populous state in the Union, almost double the size of its nearest competitor, Pennsylvania; in fact, by itself Virginia constituted a fifth of the nation. It was, as Patrick Henry declared in 1788, “the most mighty State in the Union.” It surpassed every other state, he said, not only “in number of inhabitants” but “in extent of territory, felicity of position, and affluence and wealth.”61
The population of nearly all of the Southern states was growing rapidly. Since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the white population had tripled in North Carolina and quadrupled in South Carolina and Georgia. Nearly everyone in the country in 1789 assumed that Southern migrants would be the principal settlers of the new lands of the West.
Although the entire Republic remained rural and still primarily devoted to agriculture, nowhere was it more rural and agricultural than in the South. Nearly the whole population of the South was engaged in growing staple crops for international markets, with relatively few people being involved in the internal trade and manufacturing that were rapidly emerging in the Northern states. Planters in Virginia and Maryland still produced many hogsheads of tobacco for sale abroad, though not as many as they had in the colonial period. Since tobacco was not a very perishable crop and had direct markets abroad in Glasgow and Liverpool, there had been no need for processing and distribution centers, and consequently the colonial Chesapeake had developed no towns or cities to speak of.62 But tobacco was a crop that depleted the soil, and in the late colonial period many farmers in the Upper South, including Washington, had begun turning to wheat, corn, and livestock for export or for local consumption. Because wheat and other foodstuffs were perishable and required diverse markets, they needed central facilities for sorting and distributing, which on the eve of the Revolution contributed to the rapid growth of towns such as Norfolk, Baltimore, Alexandria, and Fredericksburg. In the Lower South rice and indigo for the dying of textiles were the principal staples; in 1789 cotton was not as yet a major crop.
Most important in distinguishing the Southern states from the rest of the country was the overwhelming presence of African slaves. In 1790 black slaves constituted 30 percent of the population of Maryland and North Carolina, 40 percent of that of Virginia, and nearly 60 percent of that of South Carolina. The Southern states held well over 90 percent of the country’s slaves. They served their masters’ every need, from making hogsheads and horseshoes to caring for gardens and children. The planters’ reliance on the labor of their slaves inhibited the growth of large middling groups of white artisans, who were increasingly emerging in the Northern states.
Although most Southern planters were becoming more conscious of their distinctiveness, mostly because of their slaveholding, some Virginians did not as yet think of themselves as Southerners. Washington, for example, in the late 1780s regarded Virginia as one of “the middle states” and referred to South Carolina and Georgia as the “Southern states.”63 But other Americans were already aware of the sectional differences. In June 1776 John Adams had believed that the South was too aristocratic for the kind of popular republican government he had advocated in his Thoughts on Government, but he was relieved to see “the pride of the haughty” brought down “a little” by the Revolution.64 An English traveler likewise thought that the Virginia planters were “haughty”; in addition, they were “jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controuled by any superior power.” By 1785 Stephen Higginson, Boston merchant and one of the Federalist leaders of Massachusetts, had become convinced that “in their habits, manners and commercial Interests, the southern and northern States are not only very dissimilar, but in many instances directly opposed.”65
Jefferson agreed, and in 1785 he outlined to a French friend his sense of the differences between the people of the two sections, which, following the intellectual fashion of the age, he attributed mostly to differences of climate. The Northerners were “cool, sober, laborious, preserving, independent, jealous of their own liberties, and just to those of others, interested, chicaning, superstitious and hypocritical in their religion.” By contrast, said Jefferson, the Southerners were “fiery, voluptuary, indolent, unsteady, independent, zealous for their own liberties but trampling on those of others, generous, candid, without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart.” Jefferson thought that these characteristics grew “weaker and weaker by gradation from North to South and South to North,” with Pennsylvania being the place where “the two characters seem to meet and blend, and form a people free from the extremes both of vice and virtue.” Despite his sensitivity to the differences, however, Jefferson and most other planters scarcely foresaw how dissimilar the two sections would become over the next several decades.66
At first the new Republican party seemed to be exclusively a Southern party, with most of its leaders, including Jefferson and Madison, being members of the slaveholding aristocracy. Indeed, some historians have contended that the Republican party was designed mainly to protect slavery from an overweening federal government.67 Certainly, there were some Southerners, especially by the second decade of the nineteenth century, who feared the power of the federal government precisely because of what it might do to the institution of slavery.
Yet paradoxically these slaveholding aristocratic leaders of the Republican party were the most fervent supporters of liberty, equality, and popular republican government in the nation. They condemned the privileges of rich speculators and moneyed men and celebrated the character of ordinary yeoman farmers, who were independent and incorruptible and “the surest support of a healthy nation.” Unlike many Federalist gentry in the North, these Southern gentry retained the earlier Whig confidence in what Jefferson called the “honest heart” of the common man.68
Part of the faith in democratic politics that Jefferson and his Southern colleagues shared came from their relative isolation from it. With the increasing questioning of black slavery in the North and throughout the world, many white yeoman small farmers in the South found a common solidarity with large plantation owners. They tended more or less faithfully to support the leadership of the great slaveholding planters. As a result, the great Southern planters never felt threatened by the democratic electoral politics that was undermining people’s deference to the “the better sort” in the North. The more established the leadership, in other words, the less reason the Southern leaders had to doubt republican principles or the power of the people.69
In the North, especially in the rapidly growing middle states, ambitious individuals and new groups without political connections were finding that the Republican party was the best means for challenging entrenched leaders who were more often than not Federalists. Therefore the Republican party in the North differed sharply from its Southern branch, which made the national party an unstable and incongruous coalition from the outset. In the South the Republican opposition to the Federalist program was largely the response of rural slaveholding gentry who were committed to a nostalgic image of independent free-holding farmers and fearful of anti-slavery sentiments and new financial and commercial interests emerging in the North.
In the North, however, the Republican party was the political expression of new egalitarian-minded social forces released and intensified by the Revolution. Of course, individuals had a variety of motives for joining the Republican party or voting for Republican candidates. Often those attracted to the Republican cause were minority groups, like the Baptists in Massachusetts and Connecticut who were eager to challenge the Federalist-dominated Congregational religious establishment. Many others, such as those of Scots-Irish or German heritage, sympathized with the Republicans simply because they did not like the kind of Anglophiles who were Federalists. But most supportive of the Republican party in the North were those enterprising and rapidly increasing middling people resentful of the pretensions and privileges of the entrenched Federalist elites. These included ambitious commercial farmers, artisans, manufacturers, tradesmen, and second-and third-level merchants, especially those involved in newer or marginal trading areas. As the headstrong Massachusetts Federalist the Reverend Jedidiah Morse pointed out, these Northern Republicans were those who “most bitterly denounce as aristocrats all who do not think as they do.”70 “Aristocrat” indeed had become the pejorative term that best described the enemy of the Northern Republicans. These middling sorts had every reason to support the party that favored minimal government, low taxes, and hostility to monarchical England.
In May 1793 Jefferson offered his own description of the Federalists and Republicans. On the Federalist side, rife with “old tories,” were the “fashionable circles” in the major port cities, merchants trading on British capital, and paper speculators. On the other Republican side, he said, were merchants trading on their own capital, Irish merchants, and “tradesmen, mechanics, farmers, and every other possible description of our citizens.”71 Jefferson’s description can hardly explain the extent of popular support from ordinary folk that the Federalists commanded in the 1790s, but it does suggest the aspiring and upwardly mobile character of the Republican cause in the North.72
Because wealthy Federalist merchants dominated the lucrative imported dry goods trade with Great Britain, less well established merchants were forced to find trade partners wherever they could—the European continent, the West Indies, or elsewhere. When the arriviste merchant John Swanwick of Philadelphia was denied access both to the highest social circles of the city and to the established British trade routes, he knew how to get back at his Federalist tormentors. He found prosper ous markets in China, India, Germany, France, and parts of southern Europe and became an enthusiastic member of the Pennsylvania Republican party. His defeat of an ultra-Federalist in the 1792 election to the Pennsylvania assembly was viewed as a setback for “the aristocrats” of the state and a victory for middling export merchants and rising entrepreneurs. Swanwick’s election to Congress in 1794 as the first Republican congressman from Philadelphia was even more stunning. His victory convinced Madison that the tide was turning toward the Republicans in the North.73
Even Federalist-dominated New England had its share of “Republican-merchants.” Many, like the Crowninshields of Salem, found a niche in trade with the French empire and the Far East and naturally resented the Federalist mercantile elite that commanded the profitable trade with Great Britain.74 Elsewhere in New England those whose profits depended on trade with France, and not England, challenged Federalist control of the maritime towns. But in the 1790s these challengers were generally weak and marginal. There was, for example, only one Democratic-Republican Society of any importance in New England in 1794.75 Federalist gentry and mercantile elites involved in the British import trade dominated New England to an extent not duplicated in other sections of the nation, which made New England the center of Federalism.
Even the artisans in New England, who in other places became Republicans, remained bound to the Federalist cause. From 1793 to 1807 New England’s interests and prosperity were almost entirely absorbed in overseas trade. Indeed, investors put five to six times more money into mercantile enterprises than they did into industrial businesses. Consequently, the New England artisans often found themselves too closely tied into patronage-client relationships with the import merchants to develop as sharp a sense of their separate interests as that possessed by artisans and craftsmen elsewhere in the country. Since many of these New England-ers were involved in the building of ships and maritime equipment used in overseas trade, they inevitably became especially supportive of Hamilton’s program and its reliance on the British import trade. As a consequence, the Republicans discovered that they were less able to recruit artisans and other middling sorts in the urban ports of New England than they were elsewhere. In the eyes of many people in the 1790s the Federalist party, such as it was, seemed to be mostly confined to New England.76
Outside of New England the situation was different. In the Mid-Atlantic States most artisans and manufacturers became Republicans. This development was unexpected. At the outset of the 1790s it seemed evident that most artisans throughout the country would be firm supporters of the Federalists. After all, during the debate over the Constitution in 1787–1788 artisans and manufacturers up and down the continent had been ardent Federalists. They had strongly favored the new Constitution and had looked forward to a strong national government that could levy tariffs and protect them from competitive British manufactured imports. Congress’s first tariff act of 1789 listed a number of goods for protection, including beer, carriages, cordage, shoes, sugars, snuff, and tobacco products. Yet most of the manufacturers soon became dissatisfied with the government’s measures, believing that the duties levied on foreign imports were too low and not sufficiently protective of their businesses. Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton seemed more interested in producing revenue to finance the federal debt than in offering protection to mechanics and manufacturers. Hamilton, of course, did not foresee the future any better than the other Founders; but by not supporting artisans and manufacturers, who were the budding businessmen of the future, he made his biggest political mistake. It cost the Federalists dearly.
Not only did the Federalists refuse to levy heavy protective tariffs, but they began taxing the artisans’ products directly. When in 1794 Hamilton and the Washington administration resorted to placing excise taxes on American goods, artisans and manufacturers, especially in the Mid-Atlantic States, became alarmed. The federal government initially taxed snuff, refined sugar, and carriages, and implied that excise taxes on other goods might follow. In Philadelphia, large-scale manufacturers of tobacco and sugar organized a protest of hundreds of artisans and tradesmen against the excise taxes in May 1794. The federal excise taxes directly affected 15 percent of the manufacturers in the city and indirectly affected many more. Spokesmen for the manufacturers argued that these “infant industries” needed the “fostering care of government” and condemned the excise taxes as unrepublican. Instead of taxing industry and the new kind of entrepreneurial property that was emerging, the government, they argued, ought to be taxing landed and proprietary wealth.
But the Federalists, concentrating on the support of established gentry and of merchants involved in importing goods from abroad, ignored the pleas of the artisans and tradesmen. Despite his report on manufacturing, Hamilton thought that Americans were, “and must be for years, rather an Agricultural than a manufacturing people.” Other Federalists agreed. The rich New England merchant and devout Federalist Stephen Higginson dismissed all American manufacturing as “of no consequence” and did all he could to stifle the efforts of artisans to organize. Although many Federalist gentlemen regarded these protesting Philadelphia artisans and mechanics as “the lower class of people” who were “ignorant but harmless,” some of the manufacturers were in fact very wealthy, their incomes nearly equaling those of the richest gentlemen in the city.77 Overall, of course, the Republicans in the North tended to have less wealth than the Federalists; during the 1790s the Republican candidates in Philadelphia, for example, possessed about half the mean wealth of the Federalist candidates.78 But they were not the poor, and they were anything but inconsequential.
The Northern Republicans were thus supported by a variety of social interests, ranging from fairly wealthy manufacturers and entrepreneurs to journeymen-employees and common laborers. During the 1790s these mostly middling sorts increasingly came together in angry reaction to the contempt in which they were held by the Federalist gentry. The Federalists resisted every attempt by Northern artisans to organize, lest their success, as one Federalist writer put it, “excite similar attempts among all other descriptions of persons who live by manual labor.”79
These rising Northern workers and entrepreneurs were in fact the principal contributors to the capitalist world that the Southern Republicans were coming to fear. Hamilton and the few stockjobbers, speculators, and wealthy merchants who supported his financial program could never by themselves have created the middling commercial world that was emerging in the Northern states. To be sure, it was the Federalists’ stable political structure and Hamilton’s financial program that made economic development possible; but ultimately it was ordinary business-minded artisans and commercial farmers in the North who most fully exploited that political structure and that financial program to create the burgeoning capitalist economy of the early Republic. Although many of these Northern artisans and farmers became supporters of the Republican party, the Southern leaders of that party, Jefferson and Madison, scarcely understood the diverse social and sectional character of their followers.
What held these diverse and ultimately incompatible sectional and social elements together was a comprehensive and common ideology. This Republican ideology, involving a deep hatred of overgrown central power and a fear of the political and financial mechanisms that sustained such power—inflated executive authority, high taxes, standing armies, and perpetual debts—had been inherited from the English radical Whig “country-opposition” tradition that had been sharpened and Americanized during the Revolution. In the 1790s this ideology was given heightened relevance by the monarchical-like policies of the Federalist administration.
To those steeped in this radical Whig ideology, Hamilton’s system threatened to re-create the kind of government and society that many Americans thought they had destroyed in 1776. Such a hierarchical society, based on patronage connections and artificial privilege and supported by a bloated executive bureaucracy and a standing army, would in time, the Republicans believed, destroy the integrity and independence of the republican citizenry. Hamilton’s federal program, including funding the Revolutionary debt, assuming the state debts, adopting excise taxes, establishing a standing army, and creating a national bank, seemed to be reminiscent of what Sir Robert Walpole and other ministers had done in England earlier in the century. Hamilton appeared to be using his new economic system to create a swelling phalanx of what Jefferson called “stock-jobbers and king-jobbers” in order to corrupt Congress and build up executive power at the expense of the people in the way eighteenth-century British ministers had done.
Once the Republicans grasped this ideological pattern, all the Federalist measures fell into place. The elaborate pageantry of the “court,” the aristocratic talk of titles, the enlargement of the military, the growth of taxes, especially excise taxes, the reliance on the monarchical president and an aristocratic Senate—all these pointed toward a systematic plan, as Caroline County of Virginia declared in 1793, of “assimilating the American government to the form and spirit of the British monarchy.” Most basic and dangerous of all was the Federalist creation of a huge perpetual federal debt, which, as New York governor George Clinton explained, not only would poison the morals of the people through speculation but would also “add an artificial support to the administration, and by a species of bribery enlist the monied men of the community on the side of the measures of the government. . . . Look to Great Britain.” In the eyes of the Republicans it was the struggle against the corrupt monarchism of the 1760s and 1770s all over again.80