The French Revolution began in 1789 at the very moment that the new American national government was getting under way. When the meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789 was followed by the formation of the French National Assembly in June, the fall of the Bastille in July, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in August 1789, Americans could only conclude that France was well on its way to emulating their own revolution. Most Americans gratefully recalled how France had come to their aid during their revolutionary struggle with Great Britain. Now Americans were repaying that debt by spreading the spirit of liberty abroad. Indeed, they hoped that their revolutionary ideals would eventually extend throughout the entire world.
The liberal nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette, who in 1777 at the age of twenty had joined Washington’s army, certainly saw the insurrection of July 1789 as a response to American principles. After assuming leadership of the Paris National Guard in July 1789, Lafayette sent Washington the key to the Bastille as a token of his gratitude for having been taught what freedom was during his participation in the American Revolution. And it was right that he did so, declared Thomas Paine, for the idea “that the principles of America opened the Bastille is not to be doubted.”1 That France followed its Declaration of Rights with a written constitution in 1790 only convinced most Americans that they had become the instigator of an international liberal revolution.
At first, American enthusiasm for the French Revolution was almost unanimous. Federalists like John Jay and John Marshall were just as fervent in support of France’s liberal reforms in 1789 as future Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and William Maclay. Even most of the conservative New England clergy initially welcomed what was happening in France. “We were all strongly attached to France—scarcely any man more strongly than myself,” recalled John Marshall. “I sincerely believed human liberty to depend in a great measure on the success of the French Revolution.”2
During the July 1790 celebration in Paris of the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, John Paul Jones and Thomas Paine carried American flags symbolizing the connection between the two revolutions. Governor Harry Lee of Virginia was so excited by the French Revolution that he thought of emigrating to France and joining the cause; George Washington helped talk him out it. Even as the French Revolution became more radical, with the Revolutionary government launching a preemptive war against monarchical Europe in April 1792—a war that would not end until the peace of 1815—American support remained strong.
The European monarchies soon struck back. In August 1792 an Austrian and Prussian army together with some French aristocratic émigrés invaded France to put down the Revolution. When Americans learned that the French in September 1792 had stopped the Austrian and Prussian invaders at Valmy, one hundred miles east of Paris, and then had declared France a republic, they were thrilled. At last France had become a sister republic, joining America in a common struggle against the forces of monarchism.
Some Americans began wearing French tricolored cockades and singing French revolutionary songs. Revolutionary France reciprocated by bestowing honorary French citizenship on several Americans—George Washington, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—for courageously upholding the cause of liberty. Throughout the winter of 1792–1793 Americans celebrated the victory at Valmy up and down the continent with bells, illuminations, and parades; indeed, nearly everyone in the Western world, including Goethe, who was present at the battle, soon realized that the revolutionary enthusiasm of the French army at Valmy represented, in Goethe’s words, the beginning of “a new epoch in the history of the world.” The January 24, 1793, celebration in Boston, which was the center of conservative Federalism, was the most elaborate festival of all, involving thousands of citizens; in fact, it was the largest public celebration that had ever been held in North America.3
So popularly exuberant were these civic celebrations of “liberty and equality” in the winter of 1792–1793 that many Federalists became alarmed and began tempering their initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Actually, like Edmund Burke in England, some Federalists had expressed doubts at the outset about the course of the French Revolution and had pointed out its difference from the American Revolution. As early as 1790, members of the Senate, whose chamber was decorated with giant portraits of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, were reluctant to receive any communications at all from the French National Assembly. When the French had learned of the death of Benjamin Franklin in 1790, they, unlike Americans, were quick to eulogize the great scientist and diplomat. In addition to declaring three days of mourning—the first such honor paid a foreigner in French history—the French National Assembly proposed to the American government that the people of “the two nations connect themselves by a mutual affection” in the interests of liberty. Many Federalists, however, were not all that eager to honor Franklin, who had become identified with democratic principles and with France; and in the clumsy politics of mourning that followed his death, the Senate received the proposal of the French National Assembly with what Senator Maclay called amazing “Coldness.” Maclay could only wonder what the “French Patriots” would think “when they find that we, cold as Clay, care not a fig about them, Franklin, or Freedom.”4
In other words, some Federalists were already prepared by events in America to think the worst about what was happening in France. Since at least the 1780s many members of the elite had become increasingly anxious about the growth of popular power in America and the licentious tendencies of the American Revolution. Had not the Constitution of 1787 and the new national government been created in part at least to control these democratic tendencies? Now some Federalists began to see in France the terrifying possibilities of what might happen in America if popular power were allowed to run free. The rioting in Paris and elsewhere, the horrific massacres in September 1792 of over fourteen hundred prisoners charged with being enemies of the Revolution, the news that Lafayette had been deserted by his troops and his allies in the Assembly and had fled France—all these events convinced the Federalists that the French Revolution was sliding into popular anarchy.
American enthusiasm for the French Revolution seemed to be quite capable of dragging the United States into the same kind of popular anarchy. After describing the horrors and butchery taking place in Paris, Federalist George Cabot of Massachusetts asked anxiously, “Will not this, or something like it, be the wretched fate of our country?”5
When Americans learned that the thirty-eight-year-old king Louis XVI, the ruler who had helped them win their independence from the British a decade earlier, had been executed for treason on January 21, 1793, and that the French Republic had declared war on England on February 1, 1793, their division into Federalists and Republicans intensified. The meaning of the French Revolution now became entwined in the quarrel that Americans were having among themselves over the direction of their own revolution.
WHILE THE FEDERALISTS EXPRESSED HORROR at what was happening in France, Republicans everywhere applauded the abolition of the French monarchy, and some of them even welcomed the execution of America’s former benefactor Louis XVI. Jefferson had no qualms about the king’s trial and execution; Louis, he said, ought to be punished “like other criminals.” James Monroe dismissed the regicide as merely an incidental contribution “to a much greater cause.” The Republican National Gazette even joked about it—“Louis Capet has lost his Caput.”6
While Jefferson and the Republicans tied the fate of the American Revolution to the success of the French Revolution, the Federalists were determined to distinguish them from one another. “Would to Heaven that the comparison were just,” said Hamilton in May 1793. “Would to heaven that we could discern in the Mirror of French affairs, the same humanity, the same decorum, the same gravity, the same order, the same dignity, the same solemnity, which distinguished the course of the American Revolution.” But unfortunately, he said, there was no “real resemblance” between the two revolutions—their “difference is no less great than that between Liberty and Licentiousness.”7 For the remainder of the decade, if not for the next two centuries, it became impossible for Americans to think of one revolution without the other—if only to contrast what many Americans described as their sober and conservative Revolution with the radical and chaotic French Revolution.
Most Federalists were convinced that the radical popular and egalitarian principles of the French Revolution threatened to corrupt American society and turn it into a wild and licentious democracy. They charged that the theories of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Condorcet and atheistic Jacobinical thinking were infecting the moral and religious culture of Americans. The principles of the French Revolution, they warned, would “destroy us as a society” and were “more to be dreaded in a moral view than a thousand yellow fevers in a physical.” Better that the United States be “erased from existence than infected with French principles,” declared a rather hysterical young Oliver Wolcott Jr.8 For many frightened Federalists, Revolutionary France became a scapegoat for all that they found wrong with America.
Yet some of the more insightful Federalists knew better. Some realized that France was not actually the source of America’s democratic troubles; the real source, they knew, lay within America itself. Although these Federalists could scarcely comprehend the extent to which their revolution had accelerated powerful underlying demographic and economic forces, they realized only too well that the democracy and equality that were afflicting America were the consequences of the American Revolution, not the French Revolution. Like the young lawyer Joseph Dennie, who would eventually become editor of the Port Folio, one of the most genteel magazines in America, the Federalists respected the “old whigs of 1775,” but they also realized that these Whigs had unleashed dynamic popular movements that were spreading everywhere. It was the principles of the American Revolution, and not French influence, Dennie told his parents early in 1793, that “gave Tars and Tailors a civic feast and taught the rabble that they were viceroys.”9
The parading, huzzahing, and rioting by the lower orders that had long been part of Anglo-American life in the 1790s took on a new, more alarming character. To Federalists anxious about the weakness of the new national government, the ever more frequent popular celebrations and festivals on behalf of liberty and equality seemed to be agencies of the emerging Republican party and thus a threat to public order.
This sense of threat was new. During most of the eighteenth century most elites had condescendingly dismissed these popular rites and rituals as the rabble simply letting off steam. Usually these popular celebrations had tended to reinforce the existing structures of authority even as they sometimes defied them. In fact, it was the awesomeness of personal and social authority in earlier times that had compelled common people to resort to mock ceremonies and rituals as a means of dealing with their humiliations and resentments. Such brief saturnalian transgressions of the society’s rules had momentarily allowed humble people to release in a controlled fashion their pent-up anger. Consequently, the use of effigies and role reversals, in which boys, apprentices, and servants became kings for a day, often had worked not to undermine but to reaffirm the existing hierarchy of society.
But Federalist elites could not be as complacent about these popular rites and rituals as their eighteenth-century colonial predecessors had been. The lower orders were not as lowly as they used to be; they were now composed of tens of thousands of those who referred to themselves as “middling sorts”—artisans, small farmers, shopkeepers, petty merchants, all those who made up the bulk of the Northern Republican party. And the Republicans seemed not at all interested in reaffirming the existing structure of authority; they meant to destroy it and bring down all of the “aristocrats” who hitherto had dominated it. This linked them with their fellow revolutionaries across the Atlantic.
The theater became a favorite site for expressing popular feelings on behalf of the French and against the English. When an actor appeared on the stage in Philadelphia in the 1790s wearing a British uniform, he was roundly booed and hissed by the middling and lower social ranks in the gallery. In vain did the actor protest that he was merely playing the part of a coward and bully. Audiences in Philadelphia, especially those in the gallery, demanded under threat of violence that the orchestras play the popular French revolutionary song “Ça Ira.” Sometimes the passion for the French spilled over into actual violence. A Boston audience, for example, concluded that the portrayal of a comic French character in a British play was “a libel on the character of the whole French nation” and took out its anger by demolishing the theater. Theater managers elsewhere knew enough to alter lines that might be offensive to Francophiles in the audience.10
The French Revolution seemed to be speaking for angry and aggrieved peoples everywhere. Its assault on aristocracy only confirmed that the Republicans’ struggle against Federalist monarchism and aristocracy had worldwide implications. And no Republican was a more ardent supporter of the French Revolution than the party’s emergent leader, Thomas Jefferson.
As minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson had been involved in the French Revolution from the outset. As early as 1788 he was convinced that the French nation, as he told Washington, had been “awakened by our Revolution.” Throughout the period of 1787–1789 he remained close to Lafayette and the other liberal aristocrats who were eager to reform the French monarchy. He sometimes met with them in his own house and advised them on constitutional politics and procedures; he even drew up a charter that might be presented to the king, and he revised Lafayette’s draft of a declaration of rights. He was not disturbed by the fall of the Bastille in July 1789; he still recognized, as he had said in response to Shays’s Rebellion in 1787, that the tree of liberty had to be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots. Before he returned from France in the early fall of 1789, he expressed his confidence in the course of the French Revolution, a confidence he never entirely lost. He was a thorough Francophile. In his Philadelphia house in the early 1790s he sought to re-create his Paris residence of the 1780s, with a French housekeeper, a French coachman, French wine, French food, French paintings, and French furniture—all of which was bound to seem sinister to Federalists.11 As a British dinner partner observed in 1792, Jefferson in conversation was “a vigorous stickler for revolutions and for the downfall of an aristocracy.. . . In fact, like his friend T. Payne, he cannot live but in a revolution, and all events in Europe are only considered by him in the relation they bear to the probability of a revolution to be produced by them.”12
For Jefferson the stakes involved in the French Revolution could not have been higher. Not only did Jefferson believe that the success of the French Revolution would determine the fate of America’s own Revolution, but if the French Revolution succeeded, he said, “it would spread sooner or later all over Europe.” But if it failed, America was very apt to retreat “to that kind of Halfway-house, the English constitution,” and the “revival of liberty” everywhere in the world would be seriously set back.13
Jefferson, to be sure, deplored the loss of the tens of thousands of people guillotined and killed in France’s revolutionary frenzy, 85 percent of whom were commoners; nevertheless, he believed that these executions and killings were necessary. “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest,” he said in January 1793, “and.. . . rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it is now.”14 He grew warm whenever he thought about all those European tyrants, those “scoundrels,” who were attacking France and resisting the spread of the French Revolution; he could only hope that France’s eventual triumph would “bring at length kings, nobles and priests to the scaffolds which they have been so long deluging with human blood.” Extreme as these sentiments may seem, they were, Jefferson believed, “really those of 99 in an hundred of our citizens.”15
By 1795 he was looking forward to an imminent French invasion of England. So sure was he of French success that he was tempted, he said, to leave Monticello and travel to London the following year in order to dine there with the victorious French general and “hail the dawn of liberty and republicanism in that island.”16
Even after the Revolution had turned into a Napoleonic dictatorship, Jefferson never lost faith that it might eventually result in the establishment of a free French republic. Bad as Napoleon might be, the Bourbon and Hanoverian kings were worse. Throughout his public life, his affection for France and his hatred of England never dimmed. France, he said, was the Americans’ “true mother country, since she has assured to them their liberty and independence.” The British, on the other hand, were “our natural enemies, and . . . the only nation on earth who wished us ill from the bottom of their souls.” That nation, Great Britain, he said in 1789, “has moved heaven, earth and hell to exterminate us in war, has insulted us in all her councils in peace, shut her doors to us in every port where her interests would admit it, libeled us in foreign nations, [and] endeavored to poison them against the reception of our most precious commodities.”17
Jefferson seems to have generated his identity as an American from his hatred of England—understandably so, since the Americans and the English had once been one people but were now presumably two. Indeed, the fact that America’s sense of itself as a nation was created and sustained by its antagonism to Great Britain decisively affected both the country’s unity and its relation to the rest of the world over the coming decades.
FRANCE’S DECLARATION OF WAR against England on February 1, 1793, seemed to compel Americans to choose sides.
Jefferson and his Republican followers were naturally sympathetic to “our younger sister,” the new French republic.18 The position of Hamilton and the Federalists was more complicated. Certainly, many of the Federalists and especially Hamilton admired Great Britain and its institutions, and the increasing radicalism of the French Revolution made them even more fervent supporters of England as a bastion of stability in a world that was going mad. In addition, Hamilton in 1793 was still largely concerned with maintaining good commercial relations with Britain, since the duties from that trade were necessary for the success of his financial program. Ultimately, however, for all their differing sympathies for the two belligerents, both Jefferson and Hamilton remained convinced that the United States had to remain neutral in the European war.
How to maintain this neutrality? What were the nation’s obligations under the French treaties of 1778? Did the alliance with France require the United States to defend the French West Indies? Should the United States recognize the new French republic and receive its minister, Citizen Edmond Charles Genet, already en route to Philadelphia? Although Hamilton argued that the terms of the French treaties should be “temporarily and provisionally suspended” on the grounds that the outcome of the French civil war was still in doubt, Washington decided that the treaties were still in effect and that Genet would be received, which would make the United States the first nation in the world to recognize the new French republic. But Jefferson, like Hamilton, did not want the United States to be bound by the French treaties in any way that would endanger the nation’s security. Thus both advisors recommended that the president issue a proclamation of neutrality, which he did on April 22, 1793. The proclamation did not use the word “neutrality,” but it did urge Americans to “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial towards the belligerent powers.” Jefferson had not realized that Edmund Randolph had slipped the word “impartial” into the final draft.19
Despite his desire to avoid a war, Jefferson was aware that such a policy of “fair neutrality,” as he told Madison in April 1793, “will prove a disagreeable pill to our friends, tho’ necessary to keep us out of the calamities of a war.”20 With his Republican followers enthusiastic in support of France, Jefferson was embarrassed by the policy of neutrality that he had supported, especially since France and the United States had an alliance dating from 1778; consequently he immediately began to distance himself from the proclamation. Jefferson, who, as one British observer noted, had “a degree of finesse about him, which at first is not discernable,” took great pains to tell his friends that he had not written the proclamation, explaining that at least he had been able to have the word “neutrality” omitted from it.21 Yet this Jeffersonian nicety scarcely satisfied the most avid Republicans.
Although most Republicans had no desire to go to war, they were not at all willing to remain impartial. “The cause of France is the cause of man,” declared Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Republican leader of western Pennsylvania, “and neutrality is desertion.” Other Republicans agreed; everywhere they held public dinners and civic feasts to celebrate French victories in Europe.22 Some Republicans even rejected the aristocratic queues, knee britches, and silver-buckled shoes of the Federalists and began adopting the cropped hairstyle and sans-culotte dress of the French revolutionaries.23 The Republican press heatedly condemned the proclamation and declared that the great mass of the people was outraged at the ingratitude shown to America’s former revolutionary ally.
Although Madison was not given to outbursts of emotion, even he thought the proclamation was “a most unfortunate error” that wounded the national honor by seeming to disregard America’s obligations to France and provoked “popular feelings by a seeming indifference to the cause of liberty.” Madison was as much of a liberal enthusiast for the French Revolution as his friend Jefferson. He had no qualms about accepting honorary French citizenship and did so with a hearty cosmopolitan declamation against “those prejudices which have perverted the artificial boundaries of nations into exclusions of the philanthropy which ought to cement the whole into one great family.” He went on to tell Jefferson that the president’s issuing of the proclamation not only usurped the prerogative of the Congress in violation of the Constitution but also had “the appearance of being copied from a Monarchical model.” Still, Madison was very cautious in criticizing Washington himself, suggesting that the president “may not be sufficiently aware of the snares that may be laid for his good intentions by men whose politics at bottom are very different from his own.” He told Jefferson, however, that if the president continued to conduct himself in the same manner, he would suffer more criticism that would permanently harm his reputation and that of the government.24
In an effort to win support for the proclamation, Hamilton in the summer of 1793 wrote seven powerfully argued newspaper essays under the name “Pacificus.” These became the classic constitutional justification of the president’s inherent authority over foreign affairs. Hamilton contended that not only did the United States have the right to declare its neutrality, but the president was the proper official to make such a declaration, since the executive department was the “organ of intercourse between the Nation and foreign Nations.” Moreover, the United States had no obligation under the 1778 treaties to come to the aid of France, since those treaties provided for only a defensive alliance and France was engaged in an offensive war. Besides, said Hamilton, the great contrast between the situation of France and that of the United States by itself rendered foolish any obligation to go to France’s aid.
“The United States,” wrote Hamilton, “are a young nation.” (Note the use of the plural verb, which remained common usage until after the Civil War.) Hamilton went on to express the basic assumption of relative American weakness that lay behind all his policies. “Their population though rapidly increasing, still small—their resources, though growing, not great; without armies, without fleets—capable from the nature of their country and the spirit of its inhabitants of immense efforts for self-defense, but little capable of those external efforts which could materially serve the cause of France.” Finally, Hamilton dismissed the idea that gratitude should dictate America’s helping France. Gratitude, he said, should have no bearing on relations between states; national interest ought to be the only consideration. France, after all, came to America’s aid in 1778 only out of its own national interest in defeating Britain.25
Jefferson, believing that American neutrality was coming to mean “a mere English neutrality,” was alarmed at the influence Hamilton’s writings were having.26 “Nobody answers him,” he warned Madison, “and his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed. For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public. There is nobody else who can and will enter the lists with him.”27
Madison with great reluctance agreed to reply, unsure that he could match the secretary of the treasury in knowledge or energy. He found the task, he confessed, “the most grating one I ever experienced.”28 And the resultant “Helvidius” essays, published in August and September 1793, revealed his difficulty. Madison knew he would have to set forth some intricate details, but he assumed, as most essayists of the 1790s did, that “none but intelligent readers will enter into such a controversy, and to their minds it ought principally to be accommodated.” He avoided the larger questions involving America’s neutrality and focused instead on the constitutional limits of executive power, thus contributing further to what would become the peculiar American tendency to discuss political issues in constitutional terms—a tendency that had the effect of turning quarrels over policy into contests over basic principles. In an uncharacteristically long-winded argument Madison concluded that “Pacificus” could only have borrowed his peculiar notions of executive power from “royal prerogatives in the British government.”29 Each of the two American parties was now unambiguously identified with one or the other of the two great belligerents.
THE ACTIVITIES IN AMERICA of the twenty-nine-year-old French minister Citizen Edmond Charles Genet further excited public opinion—his title a sign of the new egalitarian order in France. No one could have been more ill suited for his diplomatic mission. As the minister of one of the two most powerful nations in the world, Genet was cocky, impulsive, and headstrong, with little or no understanding of the American government he was supposed to deal with. He landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1793, and in his monthlong journey north to Philadelphia he was everywhere greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. Americans sang the “Marseillaise,” waved the French revolutionary flag, and passed liberty caps around. Some Federalists thought the French Revolution was being brought to America. Late in his life John Adams still vividly recalled the frenzied atmosphere of “Terrorism, excited by Genet,” that ran through the nation’s capital in the late spring of 1793. “Ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House and effect a Revolution in the Government, or compel it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England.”30
Genet was instructed to get the Americans to recognize their treaty obligations and allow the outfitting of French privateers in American ports. He was also to seek American assistance in the conquest of Spanish and British possessions in America and help to expand what the French revolutionary government called the “Empire de la Liberté.”31 When he was in Charleston, he began organizing filibustering expeditions against the Spanish in the Southwest. He even told his government that he planned to “excite the Canadians to free themselves from the yoke of England.” He persuaded the French immigrant and naturalist André Michaux to abandon his plans to travel overland to the Pacific, which had been supported by Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society, and instead aid his native France by joining up with George Rogers Clark and Benjamin Logan in Kentucky and using soldiers they recruited to attack the Spanish in Louisiana. If this impetuous French minister had his way, America would soon be at war with both Great Britain and Spain.32
Seeing himself as a revolutionary agent on behalf of the international cause of liberty, Genet mistook the enthusiastic welcome he received in America as a license to promote the French Revolution in any way he could; indeed, initially Jefferson seems to have encouraged Genet in his ambitious plans to gather armies on American soil in order to attack Spanish possessions in the West and Florida. When Michaux changed his plans in order to rendezvous with Clark and the Kentuckian soldiers, Jefferson more or less supported him, but he informed Genet that Michaux had to travel as a private citizen and not as a French consul, as Genet wanted. The secretary of state warned Genet that if Michaux and the Kentucky soldiers were caught taking up arms against a friendly country, they might be hanged. “Leaving out that article,” he blithely told Genet, he “did not care what insurrection should be excited in Louisiana.”33
Genet met with some of the nascent Democratic-Republican Societies and was rumored to have been appointed president of one of them. At the same time, the brash young minister began recruiting American seamen, commissioning and arming American ships as privateers, and setting up prize courts in American ports—all to the increasing discomfort of Secretary of State Jefferson. Genet even outfitted a captured British ship, the Little Sarah, in an American port and, in deliberate defiance of Washington’s request, sent it to sea as a French privateer—the Petite Democrate. The French minister threatened to appeal directly to the people if the government protested.34
Ignoring Washington’s instructions not to allow the captured ship to sail was one thing; suggesting that he might go over the head of the president to the American people was quite another. When Washington learned of Genet’s actions and plans, he became furious. “Is the Minister of the French Republic to set the Acts of this Government at defiance, with impunity? and then threaten the Executive with an appeal to the People?” the president asked in astonishment. “What must the world think of such conduct, and of the Government of the U. States in submitting to it?”35
In the end Genet undid himself. Those Federalists opposed to the French Revolution, led by Hamilton, John Jay, and Rufus King, exploited the French minister’s diplomatic blunders both to win support for the government’s policy of neutrality and to discredit and weaken the Republican opposition. By spreading rumors of Genet’s actions, the Federalists aroused public opinion and succeeded in transforming a diplomatic incident into a major public controversy. In meetings in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, the Federalists sponsored resolutions condemning Genet and defending the president.
All these Federalist efforts to weaken public sympathy for the French Revolution alarmed the Republican leaders. Such efforts seemed further evidence of the Hamiltonian march toward monarchism. Madison thought the Federalists were trying to use “public veneration for the President” to promote “an animosity between America & France” in order to dissolve “their political & commercial union.” This, said Madison, would be followed by a “connection” with Great Britain, and “under her auspices” the United States would move “in a gradual approximation towards her Form of Government.”36
In response to these fears the Republicans began organizing their own party meetings. In some of their celebrations the Republicans even toasted the radical Jacobins, who had taken over the French government, and they displayed models of the guillotine that the Jacobins were using to eliminate their enemies; indeed, in Paris it was on average cutting off more than two heads a minute. In the face of all the revolutionary bloodshed, Jefferson remained supportive of the French revolutionary cause, believing that it was all that kept America from undoing its own revolution.
As a member of the government that was being subverted by the French minister, Jefferson was in an increasingly awkward position. He kept trying to draw nice distinctions between his being the secretary of state while at the same time being the behind-the-scenes leader of the Republican opposition. When told by Genet of plans to arm the Canadians and the Kentuckians for expeditions against British and Spanish territories in the New World, he confided to his diary that Genet had “communicated these things to me not as Secy. of state, but as Mr. Jeff.”37 When he had to, Jefferson knew how to split hairs.
To influence public opinion effectively, the Republican leaders eventually came to realize that they would have to concede much of the Federalist position. They saw that the president was universally respected, that neutrality was overwhelmingly desired, and that Genet had to go.38“He will sink the republican interest if they do not abandon him,” Jefferson warned Madison in August 1793. The Republicans had to approve the policy of neutrality “unequivocally,” he said, and had to stop caviling about who constitutionally was to declare it. “In this way we shall keep the people on our side by keeping ourselves in the right.” This was one of the many times Jefferson had a shrewder sense of public opinion than did his colleague Madison.39
Jefferson’s acute political sensitivity to the will of the people revealed in this incident kept his personal animosities and revolutionary passions from getting out of hand. Perhaps even more crucial in dampening the extreme partisanship of both the Federalist and Republican leaders was Washington. The president used his immense prestige and good judgment repeatedly to restrain fears, limit intrigues, and stymie opposition that otherwise might have escalated into violence. Despite the intense partisan feelings that existed throughout the country, Washington never entirely lost the respect of all the party leaders, and this respect allowed him to reconcile, resolve, and balance the clashing interests. Jefferson scarcely foresaw the half of Washington’s influence when he remarked as early as 1784 that “the moderation and virtue of a single character has probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”40
THE DISMISSAL OF GENET did not end the international problems facing the United States. During the Revolution the United States had strenuously promoted the most liberal principles concerning commerce on the high seas in wartime—namely, that free ships made free goods and that neutrals had the right to carry non-contraband goods into ports of belligerents. These principles, which were to plague Anglo-American relations for the next two decades, were very much a part of the American Revolution.
Just as liberal Americans in 1776 had sought a new kind of domestic politics that would end tyranny, so too had they sought a new kind of international politics that would promote peace among nations and, indeed, might even see an end to war itself. The American Revolution had been centrally concerned with power—not only power within a government but power among governments in their international relations. Throughout the eighteenth century liberal intellectuals had looked forward to a newly enlightened world in which corrupt monarchical diplomacy, secret alliances, dynastic rivalries, and balances of power would be eliminated. In short, they had hoped for nothing less than the abolition of war and the beginning of a new era of peaceful relations among nations.
Monarchy and war were thought to be intimately related. Indeed, as young Benjamin Lincoln Jr., declared, “Kings owe their origin to war.”41 The internal needs of monarchies—the requirements of their bloated bureaucracies, their standing armies, their marriage alliances, their restless dynastic ambitions—lay behind the prevalence of war. Eliminate monarchy and all its accouterments, many Americans believed, and war itself would be eliminated. A world of republican states would encourage a new, peace-loving diplomacy—one based on the natural concert of the commercial interests of the people of the various nations. If the world’s peoples were left alone to exchange goods freely among themselves—without the corrupting interference of selfish monarchical courts, irrational dynastic rivalries, and the secret double-dealing diplomacy of the past—then, it was hoped, international politics would become republi canized, pacified, and ruled by commerce alone. Old-fashioned diplomats might no longer be necessary. This was the enlightened dream of liberals everywhere, from Thomas Jefferson to Immanuel Kant.
Suddenly in 1776, with the United States isolated and outside the European mercantile empires, Americans had both an opportunity and a need to put into practice these liberal ideas about international relations and the free exchange of goods. Thus commercial interest and revolutionary idealism blended to form a basis for American thinking about foreign affairs that has lasted even to the present.
“Our plan is commerce,” Thomas Paine had told Americans in 1776, “and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port.” There was no need for America to form any partial political connections with any part of Europe. Such traditional military alliances were the legacies of monarchical governments, and they only led to war. “It is the true interest of America,” said Paine, “to steer clear of European contentions.” Trade between peoples alone would be enough. Indeed, for Paine and other enlightened liberals, peaceful trade among the people of the various nations became the counterpart in the international sphere to the sociability of people in the domestic sphere. Just as enlightened thinkers like Paine and Jefferson foresaw republican society held together solely by the natural affection of individuals one to another, so too did they envision a world of these republican societies held together by the natural interest of nations in trading with one another. In both the national and international spheres monarchy and its intrusive institutions and monopolistic ways were what prevented a natural harmony of people’s feelings and interests.42
Americans had first expressed these “Liberal Sentiments,” as John Adams called them, during discussions over the proposed treaty with France at the time of Independence. There was a hope then, Adams said in 1785, that “the increasing liberality of sentiments among philosophers and men of letters, in various nations,” might lead to “a reformation, a kind of protestantism, in the commercial system of the world.”43 Many in the Continental Congress in 1776 had attempted to implement these hopes by devising a model treaty that would be applied to France and eventually to other nations—a treaty that would avoid the traditional kinds of political and military commitments and focus instead exclusively on commercial connections.44 The model treaty, drafted mainly by John Adams in July 1776, promised the greatest amount of commercial freedom and equality possible, which, if widely achieved, would eliminate the tensions and conflicts of world politics. Were the principles of the model treaty “once really established and honestly observed,” John Adams later recalled, “it would put an end forever to all maritime war, and render all military navies useless.”45
Absolute reciprocity in trade was the guiding principle of the treaty. In duties and trade restrictions foreign merchants would be treated as one’s own nationals were treated. Even in wartime trade was to be kept flowing. Indeed, a major idea of the treaty was to lessen the impact of war on civilians. Neutral nations would have the right to trade with and carry the goods of the belligerent nations—the right expressed in the phrase “free ships make free goods.”
In retrospect the naïveté of the Revolutionary Americans seems astonishing. They were desperate for an alliance with France, yet they were willing to offer Louis XVI’s government very little in return. Since political and military cooperation with France was to be avoided at all costs, the model treaty promised only that in case the commercial alliance between the United States and France led to a French war with Great Britain, then the United States would not assist Britain in the war!
In the end the Americans’ dream was not fully realized. Although they did sign a commercial treaty with France that contained the free trade principles they had wanted, they also had to agree to a traditional political and military alliance with France that obligated the United States to guarantee “from the present time and forever . . . the present Possessions of the Crown of France in America as well as those it may acquire by the future Treaty of peace.”46 Many Americans, including John Adams, came out of their experience with European diplomacy with their enlightened ideas very much in doubt. “No facts are believed but decisive military conquests,” Adams warned in 1780; “no arguments are seriously attended to in Europe but force.” Given this reality, a balance of power might be useful after all.47
Despite these doses of realism, however, the Americans’ enlightened dream of a new world order based on commerce was not lost, and the signing of a peace treaty with Britain in 1783 seemed to make possible the revival of the dream. In 1784 the United States authorized a diplomatic commission composed of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin to negotiate commercial treaties with sixteen European states based on the liberal principles of a revised model treaty. The hope was to have America, in the commissioners’ words, lead the way to an “object so valuable to mankind as the total emancipation of commerce and the bringing together all nations for a free intercommunication of happiness.”48
Only three states, however—Sweden, Prussia, and Morocco, peripheral powers with little overseas trade—agreed to sign liberal treaties with the United States. Most European states were indifferent to the Americans’ ideas. They simply were ignorant of the importance of American commerce, said Jefferson, who had been instrumental in drawing up the new model treaty. Even someone as hardheaded as Washington reflected “with pleasure on the probable influence that commerce may hereafter have on human manners and society in general,” even leading perhaps to an end of “the devastation and horrors of war.”49
But it was Jefferson and Madison, among the Revolutionary leaders, who clung longest to the belief in the power of American trade to bring about changes in international behavior, indeed, to make commercial sanctions a substitute for the use of military force. This confidence in American commerce, which harked back to the non-importation policies against Britain in the 1760s and 1770s, became the basic premise of the Republican party’s approach to international politics. It underlay Republican policies and thinking about the world well into the early decades of the nineteenth century. Jefferson and Madison never lost hope that the United States might be able to bring about a world in which war itself would no longer be necessary.
SINCE THE PRINCIPAL OBSTACLE to their hopes was Great Britain, the Republican leaders aimed to use the power of American commerce to convince Britain to change its policies. Yet Jefferson and Madison were not merely interested in opening up British ports to American trade. For the Republicans the economics of America’s relationship with Britain was always less important than the politics of it. What they really wanted was to destroy Britain’s commercial hegemony in the world and end America’s commercial, and hence political, dependence on the former mother country; and they were willing to compromise America’s commercial prosperity to bring about this crucial end.
In 1789 Madison had sought unsuccessfully to levy discriminatory tariffs on British imports in order to force Britain to open its ports in the West Indies and Canada to American shipping. Although the British West Indies remained legally closed, American merchants continued to trade illegally with them. Indeed, American commerce with Britain was flourishing; three-quarters of all American exports and imports were exchanged with the former mother country.50 Precisely because of all this trade, the Republican leaders thought the British were susceptible to American pressure; the time seemed ripe for using trade restrictions to break up Britain’s navigation system. Relying on the arguments set forth by Jefferson in his December 1793 report to Congress on the state of America’s foreign commerce, Madison in January 1794 introduced resolutions in the House calling for commercial reciprocity with all nations with which the United States did not have commercial treaties, the only important one, of course, being Great Britain. If that reciprocity were not forthcoming, the United States would retaliate with tariffs and trade restrictions against a nation that had already showed its hostility toward the United States by refusing to vacate American territory.
Although trade with America constituted only one-sixth of Britain’s total commerce, the Republican leaders nevertheless assumed that American trade was absolutely vital to Great Britain. If Americans ceased buying luxuries from Britain, British manufacturers would be thrown out of work, riots would follow, and the British government would be compelled to capitulate. The Republican leaders did not expect their commercial retaliation to result in war. “If it does,” said Jefferson, “we will meet it like men: but it may not bring on war, and then the experiment will have been a happy one.” And America will have given “the world still another useful lesson, by shewing to them other modes of punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the punisher as the sufferer.”51
Naturally, the Federalists opposed these measures, which would have unsettled the economy and undermined Hamilton’s entire financial program. Financing the funded national debt depended on the customs duties levied on foreign imports, most of which were British. Indeed, it was the extraordinary growth of federal customs revenue in the 1790s that enabled the state governments to lower their taxes, which of course enhanced the reputation of the Washington government.
In the Congress William Loughton Smith of South Carolina and Fisher Ames of Massachusetts took the lead in exposing the harmful consequences of destroying trade with Great Britain. American producers and consumers would suffer far more than the British from these proposed trade restrictions. No American merchant, no trading state in the Union, favored Madison’s measures, said Ames in the Congress. We are asked “to engage in a contest of self-denial. For what?” In a letter in January 1794 Ames went on to inform his friend Christopher Gore of the progress of the debate and the strange nature of the Republicans’ thinking. “The ground is avowedly changed,” he told Gore. “Madison & Co. now avow that the political wrongs are the wrongs to be cured by commercial restrictions.” In other words, “in plain English,” the Republicans “set out with a tale of restrictions and injuries on our commerce.” When that was “refuted solidly,” and they were “pressed for a pretext,” they declared “that we will make war, not for our commerce, but with it; not to make our commerce better, but to make it nothing, in order to reach the tender sides of our enemy, which are not to be wounded in any other way.”52
In his response to the Federalists’ arguments the best that Madison could do was emphasize the great political danger that America’s extraordinary dependence on British trade and capital posed for the fledgling republic. That dependence, he told the Congress in January 1794, created an “influence that may be conveyed into the public councils . . .and the effect that may finally ensue on our taste, our manners, and our form of Government itself.” In Republican eyes the Revolution against the British monarchy was far from over: a decade after the treaty of peace, England and English ways still seemed capable of destroying the young Republic.53
British actions certainly appeared to support this Republican view of a deep-seated monarchical antagonism toward the United States. Before the debate over trade restrictions could be resumed in March 1794, news arrived of the new British policy to seize all American ships trading with the French West Indies. Not only had over 250 American ships already been seized and American sailors mistreated, but also rumor spread that Sir Guy Carleton, the governor-general of Canada, had made an inflammatory speech inciting the Indians in the Northwest against the Americans.
In response, Congress immediately passed a thirty-day embargo on all shipping. War with Britain seemed inevitable. Even many Federalists were angry at English arrogance; Hamilton himself was ready to fight if necessary. “To be in a condition to defend ourselves, and annoy any who may attack us,” he told the president, “will be the best method of securing our peace.”54
The Federalists’ approach to the crisis with Britain was to arm in preparation for war while attempting to negotiate peace. This policy grew out of their basic understanding of the world and the United States’ role in it. Hamilton and most Federalists never accepted the premise of the most utopian Republican thinking—that once the European monarchies were eliminated and republics established, peace and the free flow of commerce would reign throughout the world. Hamilton saw the world made up of competing nation-states, with republics being no more peace-loving than monarchies. The sources of war, he said, did not lie in the needs of funding systems, bureaucracies, and standing armies, as the Republicans assumed; they lay in the natural ambitions and avarice of all human beings. “The seeds of war,” he wrote in 1795, “are sown thickly in the human breast.”55 Although in such a hostile world commerce admittedly had a “softening and humanizing influence,” the only real way for a nation to guarantee peace was to prepare for war.56
Unfortunately, said Hamilton, the United States, though growing, was not yet strong enough to assert itself as an equal in international affairs. But give the country time, perhaps as much as forty or fifty years, and it would be as powerful as any nation in the world. In the meantime the United States needed to maintain its credit and prosperity through trade with Great Britain. When British actions threatened that relationship in the spring of 1794, the Federalists prepared for war but, conscious of American weakness, hoped for negotiations.
The Federalists proposed raising between fifteen and twenty thousand troops, fortifying harbor defenses, and establishing a naval force. The Republicans were bitterly opposed to these military measures, which seemed to be part of a Federalist plot to build up the executive at the expense of the people’s liberty. Had not Madison warned in his “Helvidius” essays that war was “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement”? “In war,” he had said, “the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.”57
Fear of the way war could transform a republican government was fundamental to Republican thinking. James Monroe believed that the Federalist military measures were designed to create a military establishment that would suppress the Republican opposition to the government and were thus a far greater danger to the public liberty “than any now menac’d from Britain.”58 If America had to fight, the Republicans preferred to do it with privateers and militia.
News that Britain had changed its policy and had ceased its wholesale seizure of American shipping to the West Indies eased the crisis and gave the Federalists an opportunity to try negotiations. Washington took advantage of the apparent change in British attitude to name Chief Justice John Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain in order to head off war. It was one of Washington’s most courageous actions as president.
The Republicans were outraged at Jay’s appointment and the possibility of a negotiated treaty. They believed that the Federalists were conspiring to deny the popular will of the House of Representatives by using the treaty-making powers of the president and Senate to settle the British crisis. But they predicted that the Federalists would not get away with this ploy. Not only were “the Democratic Societies . . . beginning to open their batteries upon it,” but, Madison told Jefferson on May 11, 1794, most Americans were furious as well. Indeed, the response to Jay’s appointment, he said, was “the most powerful blow ever suffered by the popularity of the President.”59
Yet scarcely two weeks later Madison was moaning to Jefferson, who had retired as secretary of state at the end of 1793, that all the Republicans’ attempts to attack Britain “thro’ her commerce” were defeated and that the president’s policy “to supplicate for peace and, under the uncertainty of success, to prepare for war by taxes & troops” was carrying the day. In fact, Madison now saw more clearly than ever before that the presidency was the principal source of governmental power. “The influence of the Executive on events, the use made of them, and public confidence in the President,” he told Jefferson, “are an overmatch for all the efforts Republicanism can make.” All his Republican colleagues in the Congress were confused and dismayed.60
The outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion in the summer of 1794 only aggravated these Republican fears of enhanced executive power. Madison said the talk in Philadelphia was running “high for a standing army to enforce the laws.” He had “no doubt that such an innovation will be attempted in earnest during the session [of Congress], if circumstances should be favorable.” But he admitted that the president would probably not take such a step.61
If the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion strengthened the popularity of the Washington administration, the treaty that Jay brought back to the United States in 1795 had the opposite effect. It invigorated the Republican party and initially turned much of the country against the Federalists. In the treaty Britain finally agreed to evacuate the Northwest posts, to open the British West Indies to some American trade in ships of small tonnage that could not easily or profitably sail the Atlantic (but at the price of forbidding American re-export of some tropical produce, including cotton), and to set up joint arbitration commissions to settle the unresolved issues of pre-war debts, boundaries, and compensation for illegal naval seizures of goods.
Although the treaty did not explicitly compel Americans to abandon their principles of freedom of the seas and neutral rights that they had supported since 1776—the idea of free ships, free goods, and the narrow definition of contraband—it did so implicitly. (Jay agreed, for example, to allow the English seizure of enemy food as contraband.) Although the treaty declared that none of its provisions should violate previously established treaties, its abandonment of long-standing liberal principles of neutral rights seemed to betray the Franco-American alliance of 1778, which had specifically recognized these liberal principles. Not only did the treaty tacitly accept British notions of neutral rights, but it also forbade the United States from discriminating against British trade for ten years, thus surrendering the one great weapon the Republicans were counting on to weaken the former mother country’s hold on American commerce and society.
The Republicans were opposed to the treaty even before they learned of its terms. The very idea of the United States arranging any sort of friendly connection with Great Britain was detestable to the Republicans, who believed anything that favored the British monarchy necessarily undermined the French revolutionary cause. Some Republicans even suggested that the more favorable the treaty, the worse it might be for the Republican party.
The terms of the treaty were kept secret for months while the Senate considered it. After throwing out the article that limited American trade to the British West Indies (with the expectation that it could be renegotiated), the Senate on June 24, 1795, finally ratified the treaty by the barest two-thirds majority required. Acceptance was now left up to Washington.
When the terms of the treaty were prematurely leaked to the press, the country went wild. Jay was burned in effigy in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Lexington, Kentucky; in Charleston the public hangman burned copies of the treaty. Hamilton was stoned in New York when he tried to speak in favor of the treaty. Petitions and resolutions from every state inundated the president, all begging and even demanding that he refuse to sign the treaty. When resolutions from some states even threatened secession, Washington expressed concern over the possibility “of a separation of the Union into Northern & Southern.”62 Although the Federalists attempted to match the Republicans in organizing meetings and petitions, they were most effective in the press, Hamilton himself becoming what Jefferson described as a “host within himself” and “a colossus to the anti republican party.”63
Washington regarded the growing popular opposition as all the more reason to sign the treaty and put an end to these threats to his government. In light of the Whiskey Rebellion, the spread of the Democratic-Republican Societies, and the increasing attacks on him personally, Washington could only conclude that more was involved than just the treaty with Britain. The future of an ordered society in the United States seemed at stake. When he learned that his new secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, who had replaced Jefferson, had communicated indiscreetly with the French minister Joseph Fauchet, he abruptly decided to accept the treaty without the further delay that Randolph had advocated.
Washington’s signature in August 1795, however, did not end the public clamor. Most Republicans remained adamant in opposition. They criticized Washington as never before, charging him with violating the spirit of republicanism and promoting English-style corruption. Detractors accused Washington of being “the head of a British faction,” an embezzler of public funds, a military incompetent, a “usurper with dark schemes of ambition,” and even a traitor who had actually “labored to prevent our independence.”64 Some hotheads called for the president’s impeachment. Jefferson dismissed the treaty out of hand and remained confident that the popular branch of the government, the House of Representatives, which controlled the appropriation of funds needed to implement the treaty, “will oppose it as constitutionally void . . . and thus rid us of this infamous act, which is really nothing more than a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislature & people of the United States.”65
When in March 1796 the House called on the president to send it all the papers involved in the treaty negotiations, Washington refused, saying that treaties duly ratified by the Senate and signed by the president were the supreme law of the land. Recognition of any role for the House not only “would be to establish a dangerous precedent” but also would be unconstitutional. The Constitutional Convention over which he had presided, he said, had “explicitly rejected” the House’s role in treaty-making.66 Nevertheless, Madison and the Republicans in the Congress refused to back down and pushed to destroy the treaty once and for all. With both parties caucusing and disciplining their members, partisanship was at an all-time high.
Eventually, however, growing support for the treaty in the nation at large began to make itself felt, and following a stirring speech by a very ill Fisher Ames in April 1796 the Republicans were unable to muster a majority for their cause. This was a stunning defeat for Madison, who contemplated retiring from the House and returning to Virginia. His earlier friendship with the president was over. Washington never forgave him for his attempts to undermine the treaty and never consulted him again.
Already, a series of developments throughout the country were reinforcing support for the Federalists and their policies. With the appearance of the first part of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1794 Protestant ministers and other conservatives, who had initially welcomed the French Revolution, became increasingly alarmed at the threats that the upheaval in France had come to pose for revealed religion. Paine’s book, which went through eight American editions in 1794, seven in 1795, and two in 1796 (making it the most widely published religious work in eighteenth-century America), attacked the scriptural truth of the Bible and all organized religion. Its publication set off a flood of similar radical anti-religious works, including Baron Holbach’s Christianity Unveiled and Common Sense; or, Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural, Count Volney’s Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolution of Empires, William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, the first edition in translation of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, and the second part of Paine’s Age of Reason, in which Paine declared that “of all the systems of religion that were ever invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”
Paine’s inexpensive work sold widely—Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of his namesake and virulent foe of the Federalists, sold fifteen thousand copies of the second part of the Age of Reason in his Philadelphia bookstore—and it was read by huge numbers and discussed in taverns and on street corners everywhere. College students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, infected with what was recalled as an “infidel and irreligious spirit,” especially liked Paine’s work and enjoyed throwing its heresies in the faces of their bewildered clerical teachers.67
Since no one known to Americans was more identified with the turmoil in France than Thomas Paine, his “blasphemous” ideas were seen as the by-products of the French Revolution and what Noah Webster called its “atheistic attacks on Christianity.” The orthodox Christian clergy suddenly lost their earlier enthusiasm for the French Revolution and in 1794–1796 turned on Paine, the Revolution, and the Republican party with a vengeance. All at once the Federalist leaders discovered that they had acquired important clerical allies in their struggle with the revolutionary-minded Republicans. “Tom Paine,” Fisher Ames noted, “has kindly cured our clergy of their prejudices.”68
MORE LAY BEHIND THE REVIVAL of the Federalists than the support given them by frightened clergymen. Circumstances everywhere in America were better, and the pursuit of happiness for more people had never seemed more promising. By 1795–1796, with General Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Indians in August 1794 and the imminent British return of the Northwest posts, Americans were ready and eager to exploit the territory north of the Ohio River. Towns were sprouting up all over Kentucky, and wagonloads of consumer goods from the East were pouring over the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio Valley.69
At the same time, the situation in the Southwest was dramatically transformed. In 1791 the ideals of liberty and equality coming out of the French Revolution had spread across the Atlantic to the rich French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue and inspired a bloody slave revolt, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, that lasted a dozen years. Before this rebellion ended in 1804 with the establishment of the republic of Haiti, thousands of refugees, whites and free and enslaved blacks alike, had fled to other Caribbean islands and to cities in North America, including New Orleans. Spanish officials became increasingly apprehensive that revolutionary sentiments might spread to Louisiana. After all, most of the six thousand people in New Orleans were French, France having owned Louisiana until 1763, and Spanish military authority in the colony was notoriously weak.
Indeed, the Spanish authorities in Louisiana were so feeble and so fearful of American filibustering activities, especially those threatened by George Rogers Clark of Kentucky, that they thought they had better come to terms with the United States in the West or else lose everything. When it seemed possible that the Federalist government might even ally with Britain and threaten the entire Spanish Empire, the Spanish government finally decided to reverse a decade’s opposition to American demands in the Southwest. Suddenly Spain was willing to settle the boundary of its territories of Florida and Louisiana at the 31st parallel, forsaking the Yazoo lands, and to open up the Mississippi to American navigation.
In October 1795 the newly appointed American ambassador to Spain, Thomas Pinckney, former governor of South Carolina and cousin of Charles Pinckney, who had attacked Jay’s plans in 1786 to sell out the Westerners, signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo that gave the Americans pretty much all they had wanted. When news of Pinckney’s Treaty reached Kentucky, people were ecstatic. The Federalist administration had achieved a great diplomatic success and had immediately made the West far more attractive to both settlers and land speculators. Navigation of the Mississippi, observed Robert Morris, who always had his eye out for a good deal, “doubles or trebles the value of lands bordering upon the Western Waters of the Ohio.”70
But most important in stimulating support for Federalism in the mid-1790s was the increasing growth of American prosperity. Hamilton’s financial program was working wonders. The federal government’s assumption of the states’ war debts had indeed reduced the states’ need to tax their citizens, and the states lowered their taxes to between 50 and 90 percent of what they had been in the 1780s. By the mid-1790s the burden of taxation in the states had returned to pre-Revolution levels, which were considerably lower than those of the European nations. By 1795 some states had done away with poll taxes and other direct taxes altogether.71
With more money to spend, Americans were consuming more. The value of American imported consumer goods went from $23,500,00 in 1790 to $63,000,000 in 1795. Thanks in part to Jay’s Treaty, America was well on its way to becoming Britain’s best customer. Americans were selling more goods abroad too. The value of domestic exports rose rapidly—the price of a bushel of wheat exported from Philadelphia more than doubled between 1792 and 1796. The war in Europe created an ever expanding demand for American products, especially food, and opened up new opportunities for American neutral shipping.
American ships spanned the world. They had reached China in 1783 and were now sailing all over the Pacific—to Hawaii, Indonesia, Indochina, the Philippines, and India. The Benjamin out of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1792–1793 made a prosperous nineteen-month voyage to the Cape of Good Hope and the Isle de France. It was no easy voyage. The ship’s captain, Nathaniel Silsbee (later senator from Massachusetts), had to carefully select ports, decide on cargos, and judge freight costs, and at the same time avoid British and French warships. Although Silsbee was only nineteen, he had been at sea for five years; his first mate was aged twenty, and his clerk was eighteen. The ship went out with a mixed cargo of hops, saddlery, window glass, mahogany boards, tobacco, and Madeira wine and brought back goods that returned almost a 500 percent profit to their owner, Elias Hasket Derby.72
“The wars of Europe,” declared the Columbian Centinel in May 1795, “. . . rain riches upon us; and it is as much as we can do to find dishes to catch the golden shower.” Shippers increased their profits threefold between 1792 and 1796, which in turn stimulated an extraordinary increase in shipbuilding. More ships needed more lumber, more canvas, more rope, more tar, and more workers. Daily wages for both ship carpenters and laborers in Philadelphia doubled between 1790 and 1796.
This “golden shower” of prosperity inevitably diluted much of the Republican opposition to Federalist policies. “The farmers are so intent on improving the means of getting rich,” the Federalists noted with glee, “that they can hardly be got to lend an ear to any political subject, however interesting.”73 By the end of 1795 the three dozen or more Democratic-Republican Societies that had emerged in 1793–1794 to support the Republican cause and challenge the Federalists had disappeared as suddenly as they had arisen.
Part of the reason for the disappearance of the Democratic-Republican Societies was the Federalists’ ability to hold them responsible for the Whiskey Rebellion. In his November 1794 message to Congress Washington had condemned “certain self-created societies” for fomenting the rebellion. The president’s reference put the societies on the defensive and precipitated a debate in Congress over the right of associations to influence the people’s representatives. Although such societies might be necessary in a monarchy, said the Federalists, a republic that had numerous elected officials had no need of them. But America, the Republicans replied, had all sorts of private associations of people. The Baptists and Methodists, for example, might be termed self-created societies.
No one denied the right of people to form various associations, the Federalists retorted. It was what they did with these associations that was at issue. “Private associations of men for the purpose of promoting arts, sciences, benevolence or charity are very laudable,” declared Noah Webster, but associations formed for political purposes were “dangerous to good government.” Ambitious and desperate citizens had used the Democratic-Republican Societies to attack government with smears and slanders and had brought the authority of the governing officials into disrepute. “Citizens,” declared Fisher Ames, who made the most powerful congressional speech against the political clubs, “have thus been led by calumny and lies to despise their Government and its Ministers, to dread and to hate it, and all concerned in it.”74
The Federalists assumed in traditional eighteenth-century fashion—and it was an assumption they never lost—that no free government could long exist without the people’s confidence in the private character and respectability of the governing officials; indeed, they believed that without their personal credibility the weak national government might not have been able to sustain itself at all. Given the fierceness with which the Federalists were being criticized, many of them may have wondered whether they themselves had sufficient character and respectability left to command the people’s trust. But they had a trump card in the president’s unquestioned reputation for virtue, and they played it over and again with particular effectiveness.
Madison thought he saw how the Federalists were using the president’s popularity for “party-advantage.” “The game,” he explained in a letter to Monroe in December 1794, “was to connect the democratic Societies with the odium of the insurrection—to connect the Republicans in Congress with those Societies—to put the President ostensibly at the head of the other party, in opposition to both.” Such efforts, he believed, could only wound the president’s popularity; indeed, he thought that Washington’s mention of “certain secret societies” in his message to Congress was “perhaps the greatest political Error of his life.” But Madison was not yet prepared to criticize the president directly or to admit that his own efforts on behalf of the Republican party were also a “game.”75 Political parties in any modern sense were still unacceptable to most Americans.
EVEN POLITICS IN ANY MODERN SENSE was not possible. Because Federalists and Republicans alike fervently believed that the very existence of the United States as an independent republic was directly related to the conflict between Great Britain and revolutionary France, some public officials in the 1790s were led into extraordinarily improper diplomatic behavior. Indeed, in this era of revolutionary passions and hatreds, proper and conventional diplomatic behavior from anyone may have been too much to expect.
In 1789–1790 Alexander Hamilton carried on private discussions with Major George Beckwith, who was acting as agent of the British government in the absence of a regular minister. He suggested to Beckwith that he, as secretary of the treasury, might be a better channel of communication to the administration than the secretary of state. He went on to tell the British agent that he “always preferred a Connexion with you, to that of any other Country, We think in English, and have a similarity of prejudices, and of predilections.”76 When in 1791 Jefferson as secretary of state greeted the first British minister, George Hammond, with unusually abrupt hostility, Hammond turned to Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton for discussions of Anglo-American affairs.
Jefferson and other Republican officials, of course, behaved with France as Hamilton did with England. Jefferson misled the French minister Genet into thinking that France would receive more support from the United States government than in fact it was willing to give. But the impropriety of Jefferson’s diplomatic behavior was nothing compared to that of his fellow Virginians, Edmund Randolph and James Monroe.
Secretary of State Randolph was never happy with Hamilton’s influence in the administration or with Jay’s mission to England, and he conveyed his unhappiness to Genet’s successor as French minister, Joseph Fauchet. One of Fauchet’s dispatches to the French government was intercepted at sea by a British warship and in the summer of 1795 was turned over to Oliver Wolcott, the new secretary of the treasury. Fauchet revealed that he had learned in conversations with Randolph that some members of the Federalist government were bent on absolute power; he suggested that they might have instigated the Whiskey Rebellion as a pretext for misleading the president and giving energy to the government. Worse still, Fauchet went on with an ambiguous reference to thousands of dollars that Randolph had requested from France—a reference that most assumed involved a bribe, mistakenly, it turned out.
When Washington confronted Randolph with Fauchet’s letter, the secretary of state immediately resigned, and then spent several months preparing a lengthy Vindication that did little to salvage his reputation. Randolph was not guilty of treason, as some high Federalists such as Secretary of War Timothy Pickering charged, but he was certainly guilty of stupidity and impropriety.77
James Monroe was likewise guilty of foolish behavior and even more partisan indiscretion during the two years, 1794 to 1796, when he was minister to France. He made no secret of his sympathies for “the fortitude, magnanimity, and heroic valor” of the French forces warring against Britain. He undermined his own government’s policies in every way, assuming, as he repeatedly told the French, that the interests of the United States were identical to those of her sister republic. He proposed that the United States make a $5 million loan to France, confident, he said, that the American people “would cheerfully bear a tax, the product of which was to be applied in aid of the French Republic.”78 Monroe kept advocating military action against Britain and continually downplayed the fact that Jay was in England trying to avoid war. When the Jay Treaty was published, Monroe was so personally opposed to it that he could never adequately explain it to the French on behalf of the government he represented. He even intimated to French officials that the election of Jefferson in 1796 would solve everything.
When some of Monroe’s private views expressed to fellow Republicans back home came to light, he was recalled. That Monroe as minister should have persisted so long opposing the government he represented is a measure of the high stakes involved. For Monroe and other Republicans the future of liberty itself seemed to rest on French success. Such ideological passions made ordinary politics impossible.
BY EARLY 1796, President Washington had had enough. He was determined to escape the “serious anxiety . . . troubles and perplexities of office.” Having a thin skin and always acutely concerned with his reputation, he had suffered deeply from the criticism leveled at him. He had been “accused of being the enemy of one Nation, and the subject to the influence of another.” Every act of his administration, he said, had been tortured and misrepresented, and he himself had been vilified “in such exaggerated, and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common picket-pocket.”79 He was sixty-four and tired, he said, in both body and mind.
As in the case of his career as commander-in-chief, Washington’s most important act as president was his giving up the office. The significance of his retirement from the presidency is easily overlooked today, but his contemporaries knew what it meant. Most people assumed that Washington might be president as long as he lived, that he would be a kind of elective monarch like the king of Poland. Hence his retirement from the presidency enhanced his moral authority and set a precedent for future presidents. But it also did more: that the chief executive of a state should willingly relinquish his office was an objective lesson in republicanism at a time when the republican experiment throughout the Atlantic world was very much in doubt.
Before Washington left office he wanted to say some things to “the Yeomanry of this Country” and “in language that was plain and intelligible to their understanding.”80 When he had thought of retiring in 1792, he had had Madison prepare a draft of a valedictory address. Now he altered that draft and gave the revision to Hamilton to rework into an address. Hamilton prepared two versions, one containing more of his own inclinations than Madison’s. Washington preferred that one, believing it “more dignified . . . and [containing] less egotism.”81
Despite all this collaboration, the final document very much represented the president’s ideas about what his administration had experienced; it also expressed his deep anxiety about the future of the new nation. After some more editing by Washington, his Farewell Address was given to the press and published on September 19, 1796. The president never delivered it orally.
This document became one of the great state papers of American history, often read in classrooms and elsewhere well into the twentieth century. Indeed, speakers and writers at the time, both Federalists and Republicans, urged that the Farewell Address be read by all Americans. It seemed that significant to the future of the nation.
Washington’s major theme was the importance of the Union, which alone made Americans “one people.” The national Union, he told his fellow countrymen, was what insured “your real independence.” The national government was the main “support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you value so highly.” He appealed to his fellow citizens to forget what divided them and to concentrate on the “sacred ties” that bound them together—their similarity of religion, manners, and political principles and, above all, their common participation in the Revolutionary cause. Although the different sections had different interests, they blended together into “an indissoluble community of Interest as one Nation.” It was true, he said, that theorists had doubted whether a republican government could embrace a large territory. But let us try the experiment, he urged.
Most dangerous to this experiment in an extended republic, he declared, was the spirit of party and faction that had recently arisen to unsettle American politics. Parties were the tools that “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” used “to subvert the Power of the People and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government.” The spirit of party agitated the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; it turned one part of the society against another; it even fomented riots and insurrections; and it offered the opportunity for foreigners to influence and corrupt the government itself. In all of these warnings Washington was, of course, thinking of the recent events of his administration. He conceded a possible role for this spirit of party in monarchies, but popularly elective republics had to be constantly vigilant against its rise.
Probably nothing in Washington’s Address reveals the traditional nature of his thinking about politics more than this lengthy heartfelt condemnation of parties. Of course, he was striking out against the Republican party without conceding that the Federalists, of whom he was the leader, were in any way a party. This was not confused hypocrisy on Washington’s part, but simply an example of how much conventional thinking continued to abhor partisan division in the state. Washington always sincerely saw himself as acting above partisan passions and, of course, could scarcely have imagined the nineteenth-century development of political parties normally contesting with one another.
After stressing the importance of religion, morality, a general diffusion of knowledge, and public credit, Washington concluded his valedictory with a long discussion of foreign policy. Here again he had recent experience, especially the behavior of the Republican party, very much in mind. He urged that the United States avoid all “permanent, inveterate antipathies” and all “passionate attachments” to particular nations. He was especially concerned that relatively small and weak nations, like the United States, not become satellites of great and powerful nations. Like many other Americans, including many Republicans, he advocated the extending of commercial relations to foreign nations and having “as little political connection as possible.” America was in a fortunate situation, separated by an ocean from the vicissitudes of European politics to which it had very little, if any relation. Although “temporary alliances” with foreign nations might be necessary in “extraordinary emergencies,” it was America’s “true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” It was “folly in one Nation to look for disinterested favors from another.”82
Beneath Washington’s idealistic picture of America as a uniquely situated experiment in republicanism lay a strong base of realism. All these principles, he said, were what had guided the policies of his own administration, in particular the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793. All he ever wanted for America, he declared, was time for its institutions to settle and mature, time for it to progress in strength and become master of its own fortunes.
He ended by looking forward to the sweet enjoyment of retirement under the benign influence of the free government that he had done so much to bring about. And he surely yearned for an end to the partisan fighting that marred the last years of his presidency. As anxious as he was about the future, he scarcely foresaw how unsettled and disturbing, and how partisan, the remaining years of the 1790s and of his life would be.