John Adams and the Few and the Many

Except for the era of the Civil War, the last several years of the eighteenth century were the most politically contentious in United States history. With no George Washington in office to calm the emotions and reconcile the clashing interests, sectional antagonisms became more and more bitter. Some leaders began predicting a French invasion of the United States and envisioned once again a breakup of the Union. As the Federalist and the Republican parties furiously attacked each other as enemies of the Constitution, party loyalties became more intense and began to override personal ties, as every aspect of American life became politicized. People who had known one another their whole lives now crossed streets to avoid confrontations. Personal differences easily spilled into violence, and fighting erupted in the state legislatures and even in the federal Congress. By 1798 public passions and partisanship and indeed public hysteria had increased to the point where armed conflict among the states and the American people seemed likely. By the end of the decade, in the opinion of the British foreign secretary, the “whole system of American Government” seemed to be “tottering to its foundations.”1

DURING THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 1796 few Americans foresaw how bad things would become. With Washington retired, for the first time political leaders were confronted with the prospect of actually choosing someone to be president, and no one was sure how this should be done. According to the Constitution, presidents were elected by the Electoral College, in which each state had the same number of electors as it had congressmen and senators. The Electoral College had been the product of long agonizing debate in the Constitutional Convention. Some delegates, including James Wilson, had proposed direct election by the people. But others wondered, once Washington had served, how the people would know whom to vote for outside of the notables in their own state. The delegates, of course, did not anticipate political parties that would propose tickets or mass media that would create national celebrities. Other delegates suggested that Congress, which would know who was qualified nationally, should elect the president. But when it was pointed out that this would make the president dependent on the Congress, others suggested that the president be elected for a single term of seven years and not be eligible for reelection: by not having to seek re-election, the president would not have to kowtow to the Congress. Others, however, feared that seven years was too long a term. And so the debate went, until someone suggested creating an alternative Congress of independent electors that would have the sole and exclusive responsibility for electing the president every four years. Thus the Electoral College was born.

By 1796, with the admission to statehood of Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the electors totaled 138. The states could select their electors in any way they chose, and the electors were free to vote for any two people they wished, as long as one of them was from outside the state. The man who received the highest majority of votes was president; the second highest, vice-president. If no one received a majority of electoral votes, then the House of Representatives voting by state congressional delegations with each delegation having but a single vote was to select the president from those candidates with the five highest numbers of electoral votes.

After Washington, this elaborate two-stage procedure was probably how most Framers expected the electoral process would normally work. Because they assumed that worthy presidential candidates might not be known outside of their state or region, they thought that the Electoral College, which favored the large states, would act as a nominating body. The electoral votes would be scattered, and no one, it was assumed, would receive a majority of them; thus from the five men with the highest number of electoral votes, the House would make the final selection of the president. The unanticipated development of parties undermined these expectations.

But not at once. Parties in 1796 were still distasteful, and most people were reluctant to put party loyalties ahead of regional, state, or personal loyalties. Hence the leading contenders for the presidency—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—had to appear as if they were indifferent to the office. In 1796 they did not openly campaign but instead remained secluded on their farms, making no statements and offering no hints of their intentions. Although Adams saw himself as the “heir apparent” and believed his “succession” was likely, he knew as well as Jefferson that the ideal character for the presidency had to be called to the office.2

It was thus left to friends and allies to promote a man’s candidacy. Most Federalists thought that Adams deserved the presidency, but, of course, they wanted a Federalist sympathizer for vice-president as well. Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, the negotiator of the treaty with Spain, was most talked about, but not everyone knew who he was. Pinckney himself was in the middle of the Atlantic on his way home from Europe and knew nothing of the promotion of his candidacy for high office. Hamilton actually thought that Pinckney was more suitable for the presidency than Adams (he had “a temper far more discreet and conciliatory”). But whether Adams or Pinckney, Hamilton was at least clear about one thing: “all personal and partial considerations must be discarded, and every thing must give way to the great object of excluding Jefferson.”3

Other Federalists were equally appalled at the prospect of Jefferson’s becoming president or even vice-president. Jefferson as president, said Oliver Wolcott Jr., the Connecticut Federalist who had replaced Hamilton as secretary of the treasury in 1795, would “innovate upon and fritter away the Constitution.” But, continued Wolcott, Jefferson as vice-president might even be worse than if he were president: “he would become the rallying point of faction and French influence” and “without any responsibility, he would . . . divide, and undermine, and finally subvert the rival administration.”4 Better to support Pinckney as president, some Federalists declared, than to see Jefferson in any office, even if it cost Adams the presidency.

Adams picked up some of this Federalist gossip and was furious. The idea of Pinckney’s becoming president ahead of him violated the natural hierarchy of society and the very meaning of the Revolution. “To see such . . . an unknown being as Pinckney, brought over my head, and trampling on the bellies of hundreds of other men infinitely his superiors in talents, services, and reputation, filled me with apprehensions for the safety of us all.”5

For the Republicans, Jefferson was the most obvious person to be president. But they were even more confused and divided than the Federalists over the choice of vice-president. Some wanted Pierce Butler of South Carolina. Others mentioned John Langdon of New Hampshire. And still others suggested Robert R. Livingston or Aaron Burr of New York. Burr, who was especially charming and well connected, actually had his eyes on the presidency and was willing to cultivate Federalist votes to get it. Burr’s personal maneuvering made many believe that he was “unsettled in his politics” and thus likely to “go over to the other side.”6

In the end personal ambitions, local interests, sectional ties, and personal friendships tended to override national party loyalties, making the final election a confused and chaotic affair. Thus the rudimentary efforts of party caucuses to designate a suitable pair of candidates had less effect than many wanted. With the electors in each state chosen in a variety of ways and free to vote for whomever they wished, the electoral system inhibited the capacity of the parties to organize presidential and vice-presidential tickets.

The Constitution provided for the electors to select any two candidates that suited them, even if they were from opposing parties. So in Pennsylvania one elector voted for both Jefferson and Pinckney. In Maryland an elector voted for Adams and Jefferson. And all the electors of South Carolina voted for both Jefferson and Pinckney. Despite these examples of crossing party lines, however, eight of sixteen states did vote a straight Adams-Pinckney or Jefferson-Burr ticket. Yet, as the vote of the South Carolina electors suggests, the election in fact reflected more of a sectional than a party split.

In the end Adams received seventy-one electoral votes, mostly from New England and New York and New Jersey. Jefferson was next with sixty-eight, all from Pennsylvania and the states in the South. Pinckney received fifty-nine votes and Burr thirty. The remaining forty-eight votes were scattered among nine men, including Samuel Adams, who received fifteen electoral votes from Virginia as an expression of that state’s mistrust of Burr—something Burr never forgave.

Initially, the election of the Federalist John Adams as president and the Republican Thomas Jefferson as vice-president seemed to promise an end to factionalism and a new era of goodwill. Jefferson and Adams had been friends during the Revolution, and the results of the electoral contest, together with Jefferson’s expressed willingness to serve as vice-president under the more senior Adams, suggested to both men the possibility not only of renewing the friendship but also of restoring the Founders’ dream of nonpartisan government. Others had the same hope—that somehow the two men would detach themselves from their respective factions and end what one observer called the “prevailing spirit of jealousy and party.”7

John Adams came to the presidency much opposed to what he repeatedly called “that fiend, the Spirit of Party.”8 As a good radical Whig, he had always valued independence, not only the independence of America from Great Britain and the independence of one part of the government from another, but also the independence of one man from another; indeed, he always prided himself on his own independence. He defied his father in choosing a career as a lawyer rather than as a clergyman. He defied many of his fellow patriots in 1774 by defending loyalist victims of a mob in the aftermath of the so-called Boston Massacre.9 While in Europe negotiating the peace in the early 1780s, he defied both Congress and his colleagues in doing what he thought was best for the United States and New England. He repeatedly expressed fears of being under obligation to other people, and he seemed to take a stubborn pride in the snubs and sneers that he often received for his cantankerous and outspoken opinions. “Popularity,” he told James Warren in 1787, “was never my Mistress, nor was I ever, or shall I ever be a popular Man.” His classical heroes were Demosthenes and Cicero, whose achievements came in the teeth of their defeats, their unpopularity, and their loneliness. “I must think myself independent, as long as I live,” he said. “The feeling is essential to my existence.”10

That feeling was expressed in his political and constitutional theories. Adams was always interested in constitutionalism and the proper structuring of government. Indeed, none of the Revolutionaries took the science of politics more seriously. At the moment of Independence and constitution-making in 1776, his pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, became the most influential work guiding the framers of the new state republics. In 1780 he took the lead in drafting the Massachusetts constitution, widely regarded as the most consequential state constitution of the Revolutionary era. And in 1787–1788 when he was abroad serving as first minister to Great Britain he sought to translate what he had learned into some basic principles of political science applicable to all peoples at all times. The result was his three-volume work Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, a bulky, disordered conglomeration of political glosses on the single theme of mixed or balanced government.

By 1787 Adams had lost whatever confidence he had once possessed at the time of Independence in the capacity of the American people to make themselves into a benevolent and virtuous people. Americans, he now concluded, had “never merited the Character of very exalted Virtue,” and it was foolish to have “expected that they should have grown much better.”11 Life everywhere was a struggle for superiority. In this struggle only a few made it to the top, and once there, these aristocratic few, who were rarely the most talented or virtuous, would seek only to stabilize and aggrandize their position by oppressing those below them. Those on the bottom of society, driven by the most ambitious, would in turn seek only to ruin and replace the few aristocratic social leaders they hated and envied.

Hence arose, said Adams, an inevitable social division between the few and the many, between gentlemen and commoners, between “the rich and the poor, the laborious and the idle, the learned and the ignorant,” between those who had attained superiority and those who aspired to it. Grounded as it was in the irrational passions of people, this division could be neither stable nor secure. This struggle for superiority existed everywhere, even in egalitarian, republican America. Indeed, argued Adams, almost a half century before Tocqueville made the same penetrating observation, Americans were more driven by the passion for distinction, by the desire to set themselves from one another, than other peoples. In a republican society devoted to equality “there can be no subordination.” A man would see his neighbor “whom he holds his equal” with a better coat, house, or horse. “He cannot bear it; he must and will be on a level with him.” America, Adams concluded, had thus become “more Avaricious than any other Nation.”12

Adams’s political solution to this ceaseless scramble for place and prestige was a mixed or balanced government. Education, religion, superstition, oaths—none of these devices could control human appetites and passions. “Nothing,” he told Jefferson in 1787, “but Force, and Power and Strength can restrain them.” Nothing “but three different orders of men, bound by their interests to watch over each other, and stand the guardians of the laws” could maintain social peace.13

Constitution-makers, said Adams, must provide separate chambers in the legislature for those at the top and those on the bottom of the society, for the aristocracy and for the democracy. They must segregate and balance the two warring social elements in a bicameral legislature and erect an independent executive who would share in the law-making and mediate the basic social struggle between the few and the many.

Although Adams’s idea of mixed or balanced government resembled the traditional theory that went back to the ancient Greeks, he gave it a new twist. In 1776 most Americans, like most eighteenth-century English Whigs, had assumed that the basic struggle in English history had always been between the crown and the people, between the king and the House of Commons, between the royal governors and the colonial assemblies. In this perennial conflict the aristocracy sitting in the House of Lords and the various colonial councils had played a mediating or balancing role in the famous mixed English constitution and in each of its miniature colonial counterparts. Now in the 1780s Adams, like some other Americans and especially like the Swiss writer on the English constitution Jean Louis De Lolme, recast the basic struggle and turned it into one between ordinary people and the aristocracy, between commoners and gentry, and between the lower and the upper houses of a bicameral legislature. In this new social conflict the executive, the monarchical element in this mixed constitution, became the balancer or mediator. Adams’s image of the government was a set of two scales held by a third hand, which was the executive.14

With a veto power over all legislation such as that theoretically held by the British monarch, the executive could throw its weight against the irrational and oppressive measures of either branch of the legislature, especially against the usurpations of the aristocracy segregated in the upper house. “If there is one certain truth to be collected from the history of all ages,” argued Adams in his Defence, it was “that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a strong executive.”15

For all his theoretical emphasis on the importance of the executive in government, Adams had never actually served as an executive in any organization. He had never been a governor, or a cabinet officer, or a military commander. Even as vice-president he had not been involved in the discussions and decisions of the Washington administration. Yet now he was the chief executive of the United States, able to put his ideas of a balanced constitution to the test.

It would not prove easy. Adams had little of Washington’s prestige, and that distinction between him and his illustrious predecessor became the scourge of his life. Every time he heard Washington praised as the savior of the country he squirmed with irritation and envy. Added to his woes was his reputation for favoring monarchism that bred suspicion of his presidency. He had so often praised the English constitution (that “most stupendous fabric of human invention”), and in his writings so often emphasized the “monarchical” element in his balanced constitution, and so often talked of America’s having become a “monarchical republic” because of its single strong president that his commitment to republicanism was always mistrusted. His fellow Americans had good reason to believe that he had absorbed too much English royal thinking during his mission to the Court of St. James’s in the 1780s.

ADAMS’S SIMPLE-MINDED CONSTITUTIONAL REMEDY of bicameral legislatures may have been disproportionate to the unruly and dynamic social circumstances he described, but he was not wrong in his contention that American society was divided between the few and the many. In fact, that was how many Americans in the 1790s had come to describe their society, as a contest between “democrats” and “aristocrats,” which were the derogatory terms that the two emerging parties of Federalists and Republicans commonly used to label one another.

Although Jefferson could privately call himself and others like him “natural aristocrats,” most Federalists were not at all happy with being called “aristocrats.” While John Adams in his honest, blunt way was elevating the contest between the few and the many into his elaborate science of politics, most of his fellow Federalists were vainly trying to deny publicly that there was any difference at all between themselves and ordinary folk. The Revolution had turned “aristocrat” into a pejorative term or worse—the enemy of all good republicans and liberal reformers. Thus labeling one’s opponent an aristocrat was good rhetorical strategy, and all the more effective in light of the way in which the French revolutionaries were demonizing their privileged aristocrats as being even beyond the pale of citizenship, something they were underlining in blood.16 If the Federalists were willing to be recognized as distinctive at all, they wanted to be thought of as the rightful rulers of the society, as disinterested leaders beset by hordes of Jacobinical sans-culottes who were out to destroy all harmony and order in the society.

The Northern Republicans, of course, were only too eager to label the Federalists—all those landed gentlemen, rich merchants, wealthy lawyers, and other well-to-do professionals—as “aristocrats” who “fancy themselves to have a right of preeminence in every thing.”17 In fact, they were merely puffed-up phonies whose claims of disinterested superiority had no basis in reality. Most of those who made up the Northern Republican party may have been middling people, but they thought the Revolution with its republican emphasis on merit as the only criterion of leadership gave them as much right to govern and exert authority as the so-called better sort of Federalists. These ordinary men supported the Republican party and opposed Great Britain not because they had necessarily thought through all the particular issues and policies dividing them from the Federalists, but because they hated what they thought the Federalists and the monarchical spirit of Great Britain had come to stand for. Ultimately, as with all politics, there was a deep emotional basis to the ideological party division.

The Federalists tried to retaliate by calling their Republican opponents “democrats,” a term that in the past had suggested the licentiousness of the common people, but one that was now acquiring a more positive connotation. Indeed, the Republicans began to wear the hitherto derogatory term of “democrat” as a badge of honor.

The experience of three middling individuals who became ardent Republicans—William Findley of Pennsylvania, Jedediah Peck of New York, and Matthew Lyon of Vermont—may help illuminate the kinds of social feelings involved in the contest between the Federalists and the Republicans, or at least between the Federalists and Northern Republicans. These three individuals might be considered as stand-ins for tens of thousands of other common folk.

Although the conflict these individuals had with their Federalist opponents was described by them as “democrats” versus “aristocrats,” it was not quite a “class conflict” as the term is often understood today. To be sure, it was an important social conflict, but not one of an oppressed working class taking on an exploitative bourgeoisie or moneyed men, as some historians have contended.18 Indeed, if either contestant represented the “bourgeoisie,” it was the so-called middling “democrats,” men such as Findley, Peck, and Lyon. Although the contestants in this social struggle knew each other well, often dined with one other, and had a great deal in common, they nevertheless were engaged in a social struggle that revealed much of what America from its earliest days had been about and would continue to be about—the difficulty would-be aristocrats had setting themselves off from those just below them.

WILLIAM FINDLEY CAME TO AMERICA from northern Ireland in 1763, at age twenty-two.19 Apparently trained as a weaver, this Scots-Irish immigrant tried his hand at schoolteaching before buying a farm in 1768 in Cumberland (later Franklin) County, Pennsylvania. He joined the Revolutionary movement, moved through the ranks of the militia to a captaincy, and became a political officeholder, eventually a representative from Westmoreland County near Pittsburgh. Findley was the prototype of a later professional politician and was as much a product of the Revolution as were the more illustrious patriots like John Adams or Alexander Hamilton. He had no lineage to speak of, he had attended no college, and he possessed no great wealth. He was completely self-taught and self-made, but not in the manner of a Benjamin Franklin who acquired the sophisticated attributes of a gentleman. Findley’s origins showed, and conspicuously so. In his middling aspirations, middling achievements, and middling resentments, he represented far more accurately what America was becoming than did cosmopolitan gentlemen like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

In the 1780s this red-faced Scots-Irishman became one of the most articulate spokesmen for the debtor–paper money interests that lay behind the political turbulence and democratic excesses of the decade. As a representative from the West in the Pennsylvania state legislature in the 1780s, Findley embodied that rough, upstart, individualistic society that the Pennsylvania gentry, such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Robert Morris, and James Wilson, both scorned and feared.20

Hugh Henry Brackenridge, born in 1748, was seven years younger than Findley. As the son of a poor Scottish farmer, he too had humble origins. At the age of five, Brackenridge immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family. But his parents gave him a grammar school education and sent him to the College of New Jersey (Princeton), which upon his graduation in 1771 turned him into a gentleman. In 1781 he moved to western Pennsylvania because he thought that the wilds of Pittsburgh offered greater opportunities for advancement than crowded Philadelphia. As the only college-educated gentleman in the area, he saw himself as an oasis of cultivation. Wanting to be “among the first to bring the press to the west of the mountains,” he helped to establish a newspaper in Pittsburgh for which he wrote poetry, bagatelles, and other things.21 Missing no opportunity to show off his learning, this young, ambitious, and pretentious Princeton graduate was just the sort of person to drive someone like William Findley to distraction.

Findley was already a member of the state legislature in 1786 when Brackenridge decided that he too would like to be a legislator. Bracken-ridge ran for election and won by promising his western constituents that he would look after their particular interests, especially in favoring the use of state certificates of paper money in buying land. But then his troubles began. In the state capital in Philadelphia he fell in with the well-to-do crowd around Robert Morris and James Wilson, who had cosmopolitan tastes more to his liking. Under the influence of Morris, Brack-enridge not only voted against the state certificates he had promised to support but came to identify himself with the eastern establishment. He actually had the nerve to write in the Pittsburgh Gazette that the “eastern members” of the assembly had singled him out among all the “Huns, Goths and Vandals,” who usually came over the mountains to legislate in Philadelphia, and had complimented him on his “liberality.” But it was at a dinner party at Chief Justice Thomas McKean’s house in December 1786, at which both he and Findley were guests, where he made his most costly mistake. One guest suggested that Robert Morris’s support for the Bank of North America seemed mainly for his own personal benefit rather than for the benefit of the people. To this Brackenridge replied loudly, “The people are fools; if they would let Mr. Morris alone, he would make Pennsylvania a great people, but they will not suffer him to do it.”22

Most political leaders already knew better than to call the people fools, at least in public, and Findley saw his chance to bring Brackenridge down a peg. He wrote an account of Brackenridge’s statement in the Pittsburgh Gazette and accused him of betraying the people’s trust by his vote against the state certificates. It was all right, said Findley sarcastically, for a representative to change his mind if he had not solicited or expected the office, “which is the case generally with modest, disinterested men.” But for someone like Brackenridge who had openly sought the office and had made campaign promises—for Brackenridge to change his vote could only arouse the “indignation” and “contempt” of the people.

Brackenridge vainly tried to reply. He sought to justify his change of vote on the classic republican grounds that the people could not know about the “complex, intricate and involved” problems and interests involved in law-making. Only an educated elite in the assembly, said Brackenridge, possessed the “ability to be able to distinguish clearly the interests of a state.”23

But the more Brackenridge tried to explain, the worse his situation became, and he never fully recovered from Findley’s attack. The two men crossed swords again in the election to the state ratifying convention in 1788, and Brackenridge as an avowed Federalist lost to the Anti-Federalist Findley. Brackenridge then abandoned politics for the time being and turned his disillusionment with the vagaries of American democracy into his comic masterpiece, Modern Chivalry.

In this rambling picaresque novel, written piecemeal between 1792 and 1815, Brackenridge vented all his anger at the social changes taking place in America. His hero and spokesman in his novel was a classic figure (“his ideas were drawn chiefly from what may be called the old school; the Greek and Roman notions of things”). Nothing was more foolish, declared his classic hero, than the people’s raising of the ignorant and the unqualified—weavers, brewers, and tavern keepers—into public office. “To rise from the cellar to the senate house, would be an unnatural hoist. To come from counting threads, and adjusting them to the splits of a reed, to regulate the finances of a government, would be preposterous; there being no congruity in the case. . . . It would be a reversion of the order of things.”

This “evil of men seeking office for which they are not qualified” became “the great moral” of Brackenridge’s novel. Yet precisely because he himself was a product of social mobility, Brackenridge never lost his faith in republicanism and never fully accepted the Federalist belief in social hierarchy.

In trying to put the best face on what was happening, Brackenridge had the character of a conjuror in his story explain that there was “in every government a patrician class, against whom the spirit of the multitude naturally militates: And hence a perpetual war; the aristocrats endeavouring to detrude the people, and the people contending to obtrude themselves. And it is right it should be so,” the conjuror said; “for by this fermentation, the spirit of democracy is kept alive.” Since there seemed nothing anyone could do about this “perpetual war,” Brackenridge had to accept the fact that “the common people are more disposed to trust one of their own class, than those who may affect to be superior.” In the end, unable to repudiate the people, and convinced that the “representatives must yield to the prejudices of their constituents even contrary to their own judgments,” Brackenridge became a moderate Jeffersonian Republican.24

Federalists like Robert Morris and James Wilson were not so forgiving of the spirit of democracy as Brackenridge turned out to be, and because they flaunted their patrician superiority more fully than Brackenridge, Findley was even more determined to knock them off their high horses. During the debate over the re-chartering of the Bank of North America in the Pennsylvania assembly in 1786, Findley accused Morris of having a selfish interest in the bank and using it to acquire wealth for himself. The supporters of the bank were its directors or stockholders and thus had no right to claim that they were impartial umpires only deciding what was good for the state.

Findley and his fellow western opponents of the bank, however, had no desire to establish themselves as disinterested politicians. All they wanted was to hear no more spurious patrician talk of virtue and disinterestedness. They had no objection to Morris’s and the other shareholders’ interest in the bank’s re-chartering. “Any others in their situation . . . would do as they did.” Morris and the other legislators in favor of the bank, said Findley, “have a right to advocate their own cause, on the floor of this house.” But then they could not protest when others came to realize “that it is their own cause they are advocating; and to give credit to their opinions, and to think of their votes accordingly.” Indeed, said Findley, in one of the most remarkable anticipations of modern politics made during this period, such open promotion of interests promised an end to what he now regarded as the archaic idea that political representatives should simply stand and not run for election. When a candidate of the legislature “has a cause of his own to advocate,” said Findley, “interest will dictate the propriety of canvassing for a seat.”

With this simple remark Findley was challenging the entire classical tradition of disinterested public leadership and setting forth a rationale for competitive democratic interest-laden politics that has never been bettered; it was in fact a rationale that would come to dominate the reality if not the professed standard of American politics. Such a conception of politics meant that politically ambitious middling men—like Findley—with interests and causes to promote could now legitimately run and compete for electoral office. These politicians would thus become what Madison in Federalist No. 10 had most feared—parties who were at the same time judges in their own causes. With just such simple exchanges was the traditional political culture gradually transformed.25

Findley’s tangle with James Wilson, the Scottish graduate of St. Andrews, came in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. Findley believed that Wilson and the other genteel supporters of the Constitution thought they were “born of a different race from the rest of the sons of men” and “able to conceive and perform great things.”26 But he knew better, and he deeply resented the contemptuous way he was treated in the ratification debates. When the Philadelphia gentry were not laughing at him when he rose to speak, they repeatedly made snide and sarcastic comments about his arguments. The crucial moment came when Findley claimed that Sweden had declined when it ceased using jury trials. Wilson, who was one of the leading lawyers in the state, and Thomas McKean, the state’s chief justice, immediately challenged Findley to prove that Sweden had ever had jury trials.

These learned lawyers assumed that this hick from the west did not know what he was talking about. Wilson haughtily declared that “he had never met with such an idea in the course of his reading.” Findley had nothing to say at the moment but promised to answer the scoffing. When the convention assembled several days later, Findley brought with him two sources that confirmed that Sweden at one time did have jury trials. One of the sources was the third volume of William Blackstone’s Commentaries, the bible for all lawyers. Embarrassed, McKean had the good sense to remain silent, but Wilson could not. “I do not pretend to remember everything I read,” he sneered. “But I will add, sir, that those whose stock of knowledge is limited to a few items may easily remember and refer to them, but many things may be overlooked and forgotten by someone who has read an enormous number of books.” Wilson went on to claim that someone as well read as he had forgotten more things than someone like Findley had ever learned.27

Such expressions of arrogance only intensified the anger of middling men like Findley. Unlike many of the Revolutionary leaders, such as John Adams, who came from ordinary backgrounds but attended college and became acculturated to gentry standards, Findley continued to identify himself as a “democrat.” He eventually became a dedicated Jeffersonian Republican determined to expose the phoniness of the aristocratic claims of men like Wilson. “The citizens,” he wrote in 1794, by which he meant common citizens like himself, “have learned to take a surer course of obtaining information respecting political characters,” particularly those who pretended to disinterested public service. They had learned to inquire “into the local interests and circumstances” of such characters and to point out those with “pursuits or interests” that were “inconsistent with the equal administration of government.” Findley had seen the gentry up close, so close in fact that all the sense of awe and mystery that had hitherto surrounded aristocratic authority vanished.28

Findley went on to have a lengthy career in Congress, more or less subverting Madison’s hope in 1787 that the elevated and extended nature of the national republic would filter out his likes. He represented the western country of Pennsylvania in the Second through the Fifth Congresses (1791–1799) and again in the Eighth through the Fourteenth (1803–1817). Findley always saw himself as a spokesman for ordinary citizens. He opposed Hamilton’s financial program and the excise tax on whiskey and favored selling western land in small parcels so as to benefit small farmers rather than large speculators. As a good Jeffersonian Republican, Findley favored free public education and states’ rights, but unlike his party’s leaders he opposed slavery. Because he became the longest-serving member of Congress, he was designated the “Father of the House” just before he retired from Congress in 1817; he was the first congressman awarded this honorary title.

JEDEDIAH PECK ALSO SAW the would-be aristocracy up close and became equally aware of how superficial its genteel claims could be. He began his political career as an ally of Federalist William Cooper, the great landlord of Otsego County in New York. Once he came to realize, however, that Cooper, for all his aristocratic pretensions, was no different from him, he turned against his patron and became a fiery Republican.

Cooper had wanted to become an aristocratic patriarch, but like many other Federalists he never acquired enough gentility to pull it off. He found himself continually scrambling to make money, and the more he scrambled the less he was able to fulfill a Federalist image of leisured gentility. Cooper certainly sought to display his wealth as aristocratically as he could. He bought a carriage, erected his substantial Manor House in the midst of the primitive village of Cooperstown, stocked it with books, and supplied it with indentured servants and slaves. Yet at every turn he betrayed his lowly origins, his crude manners, and his unenlightened temperament. The wooden unornamented Manor House, as his son the author James Fenimore Cooper recalled with embarrassment, was “low and straggling.” Cooper had to hire men to walk alongside his pretentious carriage to keep it from jolting on the uneven rocky roads of the county. He never learned to keep a proper gentlemanly distance from the common settlers of his village; he not only jostled and joked with them but wrestled them. He could not even remain superior to his servants: one of them could write better than he could.

More than anything, Cooper yearned to be a father to his people. To do so, however, he needed political authority commensurate with his social position and wealth. When Otsego became a New York county in 1791, Cooperstown became the county seat, and Cooper became the county’s first judge, a powerful and influential position. In 1794 he was elected to the U.S. Congress, narrowly defeated in 1796, but re-elected in 1798. From a distance Cooper appeared to have had the county pretty much in his pocket (Jefferson called him “the Bashaw of Otsego”) and to have become the dominant patriarchal political figure he longed to be. But in fact he was more confused, more vulnerable, and less powerful than he appeared. Cooper never fitted the Federalist ideal of a learned, wise, and genteel leader; he never came close to possessing the self-assurance and politeness of someone like John Jay. Cooper was caught up in a dynamic democratic frontier world that was rapidly undermining everything the Federalists stood for.

Representative of that new democratic world was Jedediah Peck. Peck was born in 1748 in Lyme, Connecticut, one of thirteen children of a lowly farmer. He essentially taught himself to read, mostly by reading the Bible over and over. He served in the Continental Army as a common soldier, developing a latent resentment of aristocratic pretension. After the war Peck was one of the early migrants to the Otsego area. He became a jack-of-all-trades, trying his hand at farming, surveying, carpentry, and millwrighting; he even traveled about as an evangelical preacher unaffiliated with any denomination before he became Cooper’s protégé. Although Peck’s origins were not all that different from Cooper’s, he acquired little of Cooper’s wealth and none of his need for Federalist gentility. One of his contemporaries described Peck as “illiterate but a shrewd cunning man. . . . He had not talent as a preacher or speaker; his language was low and he spoke with a drawling, nasal twang, so that on public speaking he was almost unintelligible.”29

Peck had begun as a Federalist, securing a county judgeship with Cooper’s influence. But in 1796 he turned to electoral politics and in a raucous populist campaign sought a seat in the New York senate. Writing in the Otsego newspaper as “A Ploughjogger,” Peck identified with “my brother farmers, mechanicks and traders.” He apologized for his misspellings and his simple style, for he knew his brother commoners would forgive him. He especially attacked the “intriguing set” of lawyers who, he said, “have wooled up the practices of the laws in such a heap of formality on purpose so that we cannot see through their entanglement to oblige us to employ them to untangle them, and if we go to them for advice they will not say a word without five dollars.” All this demagoguery infuriated the gentry elite of the county, and they retaliated by calling Peck an “ambitious, mean, and groveling demagogue,” who resembled a frog, an “insignificant animal that just so vainly imagined its little self swelled, or about to be, to the size of an ox.”30

Although Peck did not win this particular election, the attacks on him made him a popular hero among the small and middling people of the county. As a result, he was repeatedly elected as a Republican member of the New York state legislature, serving in the assembly for six years between 1798 and 1804, and in the state senate for five years between 1804 and 1808. He became the defender of the common farmers and other laboring people against privileged lawyers and leisured aristocrats. Sick and tired of Federalist criticism that he was unrefined and had not read Montesquieu, Peck turned his deficiencies back on his critics. He took to ridiculing pretentious book-learning, genteel manners, and aristocratic arrogance and, to the amazement of Cooper and other Federalist gentry, won popularity in the process. Unlike the Federalists, who stood for office by writing each other letters and lining up influential gentlemen as supporters, Peck and other Republicans in the region began promoting their own candidacies and campaigning for office openly. They used the newspapers to reach out to other common people in order to challenge the Federalist assumption that only well-to-do educated gentlemen were capable of exercising political authority. Cooper, like other Federalists, saw all his aristocratic dreams endangered by the demagogic behavior of Peck, and he began to try to stifle these new kinds of democratic writings and actions.31

The Federalist gentry could scarcely oppose social mobility since most of them were themselves the product of it. Indeed, many of the Revolutionary leaders in the 1760s and 1770s had expressed the same kind of resentment of arrogant aristocrats as Findley and Peck were voicing in the 1790s. As a young man John Adams had wondered “who are to be understood by the better Sort of People” and had concluded that there was “no Difference between one Man and another, but what real Merit creates.” He was thinking of the royal official Thomas Hutchinson and his genteel crowd, with their “certain Airs of Wisdom and Superiority,” and their “Scorn and Contempt and turning up of the Nose,” and he felt passionately that they were no better than he was.

But Adams’s remedy for his resentment had not been to celebrate his plebeian origins, as Peck did, but instead to outdo Hutchinson and his aristocratic crowd at their own genteel game. Although Adams began his career, like Peck, writing as a hick farmer, “Humphrey Ploughjogger,” in order to do battle on behalf of all those ordinary humble people who were “made of as good Clay” as the so-called “great ones of the World,” he had no intention of remaining one of those humble people. Instead, Adams had determined to become more learned, more refined, and, most important, more virtuous and public-spirited than Hutchinson and his ilk, who lived only by their lineage. Let the people decide who are the better sort, said Adams, in his naïve and youthful republican enthusiasm; they would be the best judges of merit.32

Many of the Republican upstarts of post-Revolutionary America were behaving quite differently. Benjamin Franklin in the 1730s had made fun of all those ordinary folk—mechanics and tradesmen—who found themselves “by their Industry or good Fortune, from mean Beginnings . . . in Circumstances a little more easy” and sought to become gentlemen when they were not really ready for the status. It was, said Franklin, “no easy Thing for a Clown or a Labourer, on a sudden to hit in all respects, the natural and easy Manner of those who have been genteelly educated: And ‘tis the Curse of Imitation, that it almost always either under-does or over-does.” Such men, said Franklin, were “Molatto Gentlemen,” possessing genteel desires and aspirations but lacking the talent and politeness to pull it off.33

But a new generation of ambitious commoners was moving in a very different world. They had the advantage of a post-Revolutionary republican climate that celebrated equality in a manner that Franklin’s earlier generation had never quite known. To be sure, large numbers of middling sorts were buying and reading etiquette manuals in order to become polite and genteel, but many more were acting like Franklin’s “Molatto Gentlemen,” indeed, even flaunting their lowly origins and their plebeian tastes and manners, and getting away with it. No one was more representative of this kind of parvenu than Matthew Lyon.

LYON HAD ARRIVED IN AMERICA from Ireland in 1764 as a fifteen-year-old indentured servant. He had been bound to a dealer in pork, who sold him to another master for a “yoke of bulls.” In 1773 he bought land in what became Vermont, and the following year migrated there and fell in with Ethan Allen and his brothers. Lyon was an ambitious scrambler who seized every opportunity for personal advancement offered by the Revolution, whether it was the confiscation of Loyalist lands or the creation of an independent Vermont. He founded the Vermont town of Fair Haven and served for well over a decade in the state assembly. He built saw, grist, and paper mills, an iron foundry, a blast furnace, and a tavern. Before he was done he had become a leader in the Vermont assembly and one of the richest entrepreneurs and manufacturers in Vermont, if not in all New England. Inevitably, he became a fervent Republican.

But for all of his wealth Lyon was always just an “ignorant Irish puppy” in the eyes of educated gentlemen like Nathaniel Chipman. It was not that Chipman himself came from a genteel background. Far from it: he was the son of a Connecticut blacksmith and farmer. But he had graduated from Yale College in 1777, and in his mind that made all the difference between him and the likes of Matthew Lyon. Like so many of the Revolutionary leaders Chipman was the first of his family to go to college and become a full-fledged gentleman. After resigning his commission in the Revolutionary army in 1778 because he lacked the income “to support the character of a gentleman” and “an officer,” Chipman followed many other Connecticut migrants, including Lyon, up the Connecticut River to Vermont, where he thought his college degree and his legal education at Litchfield Law School might go further. “I shall indeed be rara avis in terris,” he joked to a friend in 1779, “for there is not an attorney in the state. Think . . . think what a figure I shall make, when I become the oracle of law to the state of Vermont.”

Although there was a good deal of self-protective humor in these revelations of ambition to a close friend, there is no doubt Chipman was serious about rising rapidly in government, eventually even becoming a member of the Confederation Congress, then the highest national office in the land. All his joshing about the “many steps” he had to mount to attain “that pinnacle of happiness. . . . First, an attorney; then a selectman; a huffing justice; a deputy; an assistant; a member of Congress”—only points up his arrogant expectation that such offices naturally belonged to educated gentlemen like himself. It was just as inevitable that Chipman became a Federalist as Lyon had become a Republican.34

Naturally, Lyon deeply resented someone like Chipman. He regarded him and his fellow lawyers as “professional gentlemen” and “aristocrats” who used their knowledge of the rigmarole of the common law on behalf of former Loyalists, New York landlords, and other “over-grown land jobbers in preference to the poorer sort of people.” However big a manufacturer and however rich he became, Lyon was not wrong in claiming to represent the poorer sort of people, for emotionally and traditionally he remained one of them. From his perspective the struggle between Federalists like Chipman and Republicans like himself was indeed, as he said echoing John Adams, “a struggle . . . between the aristocrats and the democrats.” In 1793 Lyon formed a newspaper, the Farmer’s Library, which opposed Hamilton’s financial program and promoted the French Revolution. At the same time, he missed no opportunity to label Chipman and his family “tories” and “aristocrats.”35

The ironies of being called an “aristocrat” were not lost on Chipman and his family. “Nathaniel Chipman an aristocrat!” said his brother in amazed disbelief. “This must sound very oddly . . . to all those who have witnessed his plain, republican manners, habits, and sentiments.” Yet in the levels below levels of post-Revolutionary American egalitarianism, Chipman was in fact as much of an aristocrat as Vermont was to know, and Lyon, especially because he was wealthier than Chipman, deeply resented being made to feel his inferior.36

Although Lyon was a member of the state legislature, he spent the greater part of the 1790s trying to get elected to the United States Congress and was finally successful in 1797. He arrived in Philadelphia seething with rage at the aristocratic Federalist world. He immediately began ridiculing the customary ceremonies involved in the House’s replying to an address of the president. He did not wish, he declared, to take any part in “such a boyish piece of business.” In reaction, the Federalists missed no opportunity to make fun of his behavior and his origins, both in the Congress itself and in the press. Chipman, at that time one of Vermont’s senators, hoped that Lyon was making so “incredulous a figure” that he would embarrass his fellow Republicans. The Federalists called him “ragged Matt, the Democrat,” a “beast” that ought to be caged, the “Lyon” that was captured in the bogs of Hibernia. He was an Irishman, they said, who did not have real American blood in him. It was left to William Cobbett, the acerbic Federalist editor of Porcupine’s Gazette, however, to deliver the most devastating attack of all on Lyon. Among other derisive and satirical comments, Cobbett brought up the fact that Lyon had been court-martialed for cowardice during the Revolutionary War and had been forced to wear a wooden sword as punishment. This was something neither Lyon nor the Federalists were apt to forget.37

On January 30, 1798, during a brief recess in the Congress, Lyon was telling a group of his fellow congressmen that the conservative people of Connecticut needed someone like him to come in with his newspaper and turn them into Republicans. Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut interrupted to tell Lyon that if he were going to go into Connecticut, he had better wear his wooden sword, whereupon a furious Lyon spat in Griswold’s face. Many members were aghast at Lyon’s behavior but were even more appalled by the “outrageous” and “indecent” defense he offered for it: he was reported in the papers to have said, “I did not come here to have my———kicked by everybody.” When the Federalists urged that Lyon be expelled from the House for “gross indecency,” the Republicans rallied to his defense and prevented the two-thirds majority needed for expulsion.

Frustrated, Griswold wanted to avenge his honor. Had he considered Lyon his equal, he might have challenged him to a duel; instead, two weeks after having been spat upon, he assaulted and began caning Lyon in the House chamber. Lyon responded by grabbing a pair of fireplace tongs, and the two men ended up wrestling on the floor of the House of Representatives. Many were horrified, and some concluded that Congress had become no better than a “tavern,” filled with “beasts, and not gentlemen.”38 More than words ever could, this extraordinary incident of two congressmen wrestling on the floor of the House revealed the intensity of partisan antagonism and the emergence of new men into politics.

BUT THE SOCIAL STRUGGLE that underlay the political conflict between Federalists and Republicans in the Northern states in the 1790s was not simply a matter of new middling sorts of men challenging the established order. It was also a matter of the established aristocratic order being too feeble to resist these challenges. The persistent problem of American society—the weakness of its would-be aristocracy, at least in the North—became more glaringly evident in the 1790s. Too many of the Federalists, like William Cooper, lacked the attributes of gentility and seemed scarcely distinguishable from the middling sorts who were challenging them.

In eighteenth-century America it had never been easy for gentlemen to play the role of disinterested public servants who were supposed to sacri-fice their private interests for the sake of the public. The problem had become especially apparent during the Revolution. General Richard Montgomery, who in 1775 led a fatal ill-fated expedition to Quebec, continually complained about the lack of discipline among his troops. If only “some method” could be found of “engaging gentlemen to serve,” he said, the soldiers would become “more tractable,” since “that class of men” presumably commanded deference from commoners. But many gentlemen had chosen not to serve, since as officers they had to serve without pay.39

The same had been true of many of the Revolutionary leaders serving in the Continental Congress, especially those of “small fortunes.” They had grumbled repeatedly over the burdens of office and had begged to be relieved from those burdens in order to pursue their private interests. Periodic temporary retirement from the cares and turmoil of office to one’s country estate for refuge and rest was acceptable classical behavior. But too often America’s political leaders, especially in the North, had to retire, not to relaxation in the solitude and leisure of a rural retreat, but to the making of money in the busyness and bustle of a city law practice.40

In short, America’s would-be gentlemen had a great deal of trouble maintaining the desired classical independence and freedom from business and the marketplace that philosophers like Adam Smith thought necessary for political leadership. Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) had praised the English landed gentry for being particularly qualified for disinterested political leadership. This was because their income came from the rents of tenants, which, said Smith, “costs them neither labour nor care, but comes to them, as it were, of its own accord, and independent of any plan or project of their own.”41

In America there were not many gentry who were capable of living in such a manner. Of course, large numbers of Southern gentry-planters enjoyed leisure based on the labor of their slaves, but most Southern planters were not as removed from the day-to-day management of their estates as their counterparts among the English landed gentry. Since they had slaves, not rent-paying tenants, their overseers were not comparable to the bailiffs or stewards of the English gentry. Thus the planters, despite their aristocratic poses, were often busy, commercially involved men. Their livelihoods were tied directly to the vicissitudes of international trade, and they always had an uneasy sense of being dependent on the market. Still, the great Southern planters at least approached the classical image of disinterested gentlemanly leadership, and they made the most of this image throughout the Revolutionary era and beyond. Virginia especially contributed a galaxy of leaders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, and George Mason—slaveholders all.42

For the Northern gentry the problems of maintaining their independence from the marketplace were particularly acute. Northern gentry-leaders were never able to duplicate the degree of self-confidence and noblesse oblige that characterized even the Southern gentry, let alone the English aristocracy. More and more of the Federalist officeholders found that their property, or their proprietary wealth, did not generate enough income for them to ignore or neglect their private affairs. Consequently, they either had to exploit their offices for profit or had to absent themselves from their public responsibilities.

Although the First Congress granted members of both houses a salary of six dollars a day—a radical act for the age: members of the British Parliament did not receive salaries until 1911—paying congressmen and other federal officers salaries was never enough. Too often private interests had to trump the official’s public duty. At a crucial moment during the debate over the assumption of state debts, Federalist congressman Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts complained about absences. Thomas Fitzsimmons and George Clymer, he said, were absorbed in their private affairs in Philadelphia, while Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut “has thought it more for his interests to speculate than to attend his duty in Congress, and is gone home.”43

New England Federalists, precarious aristocrats that they were, complained ceaselessly of “the continued disgrace of starving our public officers.” Fisher Ames thought that “such a sum should be paid for service as was sufficient to command men of talents to perform it. Anything below this was parsimonious and unwise.” Good men, he said, would not take up the public burden; or, as Oliver Wolcott Jr. put it, in words that by themselves repudiated the classical tradition of public service, “good abilities command high prices at market.” Although the federal administration had more than enough applicants for its lower and middling offices, by the mid-1790s it was having trouble filling its highest offices. In 1795 South Carolina Federalist William Loughton Smith charged in the House of Representatives that Jefferson, Hamilton, and Henry Knox had all resigned from the cabinet “chiefly for one reason, the smallness of the salary.” Although this was not true for Jefferson, both Knox and Hamilton did have trouble maintaining a genteel standard of living on their government salaries.44

Hamilton’s scrupulousness over the issue reveals the dilemma that personal interests could pose for those who wanted to hold public office. There is no doubt that Hamilton left the treasury early in 1795 in order to return to Wall Street and earn some money for his family. Since he was out of office and short of funds, his close friend Robert Troup pleaded with him to get involved in business, especially in speculative land schemes. Everyone else was doing it, said Troup. “Why should you object to making a little money in a way that cannot be reproachful? Is it not time for you to think of putting yourself in a state of independence?” Troup even joked to Hamilton that such money-making schemes might be “instrumental in making a man of fortune—I may say—a gentleman of you. For such is the present insolence of the World that hardly a man is treated like a gentleman unless his fortune enables him to live at his ease.”

Although he knew that many Federalists were using their governmental connections to get rich, Hamilton did not want to be one of them. “Saints,” he told Troup, might get away with such profit-making, but he knew he would be denounced by his Republican opponents as just another one of those “speculators” and “peculators.” He had to refuse “because,” as he sardonically put it, “there must be some public fools who sacrifice private to public interest at the certainty of ingratitude and obloquy—because my vanity whispers I ought to be one of those fools and ought to keep myself in a situation the best calculated to render service.”45 Hamilton clung long and hard to the classical conception of leadership.

Many of those Federalist aristocrats who sought to live up to the classical ideal sooner or later fell on hard times. Federalist congressman Joshua Coit of Connecticut found that his attempt to achieve “Independence” and real gentility by living off a nine-hundred-acre livestock farm was “utopian” and beyond his means. Even wealthy Christopher Gore, the first district attorney for Massachusetts and later one of the commissioners in London dealing with the issues of Jay’s Treaty, discovered that he did not have sufficient proprietary wealth to realize his genteel dreams of living without having to work. Fisher Ames thought that Gore would have to forgo retiring to his Waltham estate for a while and take up his law practice once again if he were to keep up the style of life appropriate to a gentleman of his rank. “A man may not incline to take a certain degree on the scale of genteel living,” Ames told Gore, “but having once taken it he must maintain it.”46

By the late 1790s in Philadelphia, contemporaries noted, many of “those who call themselves Gentlemen” had gone bankrupt and thus had destroyed that paternalistic “Confidence in men of reputed fortunes and prudence as used to exist.” Federalists who had sought to establish their genteel independence by acquiring landed estates could not fulfill their ambitions of emulating the English landed aristocracy. Since land in the New World was a far riskier investment than it was in England, failure was common; and many prominent Federalists such as Henry Knox, James Wilson, William Duer, and Robert Morris ended their careers in bankruptcy or in some cases in debtors’ prison.47

At the new government’s outset Benjamin Rush put his finger on the peculiar problem of the aristocracy in America. Many, said Rush in 1789, had expressed doubts about the appointment of James Wilson to the Supreme Court because of “the deranged state of his Affairs.” Rush admitted as much to John Adams. “But where,” he asked, “will you find an American landholder free from embarrassments?” It was a fact of American life that too many of its wealthy gentry, at least in the North, could not live up to their pretensions of aristocratic status.48

In such circumstances it became increasingly difficult to find gentlemen willing to sacrifice their private interests in order to hold public office. After Henry Knox retired, President Washington had to go to his fourth choice for secretary of war, James McHenry, and to replace Randolph as secretary of state he had to go to his seventh choice, Timothy Pickering. Most of the gentry in America, in the Northern states at least, simply did not have the wherewithal to devote themselves exclusively to public service. This weakness was the Federalists’ dilemma. They believed that they and their kind had a natural right to rule. All history, all learning, said so; indeed, the Revolution had been largely about securing the right of the natural aristocracy of talent to rule. But if their wealth were not sufficient for them to govern, what did that mean? Would that justify the opening of opportunities in government for new men, ordinary men, who seemed to the gentry to be less scrupulous in using government to make money and promote their private interests? In the eyes of the Federalist aristocracy these new middling men such as William Findley, Jedediah Peck, and Matthew Lyon were not supposed to be political leaders; their presence violated the natural order of things. They were not well educated; they were illiberal, ill-bred, and without any cosmopolitan perspective. They were “men, who,” in the opinion of Oliver Wolcott Jr., “possessed neithercapital nor experience” and not even the inclination to be virtuous or disinterested.49

Ironically, only the South—which provided much of the leadership of the pro-democratic Republicans opposed to the aristocratic Federalists—was able to maintain a semblance of a traditional leisured patriciate. But the Republican leaders, Madison and Jefferson, never really appreciated the character of the democratic and egalitarian forces they and their fellow Southern slaveholding Republicans were unleashing in the North.

ARISTOCRACY MAY HAVE BEEN unusually weak in America, especially in the Northern states, but some members of this aristocracy continued to cling to what they considered its distinctive manners and customs. Indeed, the more rapidly their aristocratic rank was being undermined by fast-moving social developments, the more insistent some of them were in claiming its prerogatives and privileges. Although the emergence of the Federalists and Republicans as political parties in the 1790s steadily eroded the personal character of politics, the aristocratic concept of honor still remained strong. Many of the leading figures continued to struggle with the various ways of defending their honor in a world where the concept was fast becoming irrelevant.

The manner in which Jefferson handled publication of a notorious letter he had sent to his Italian friend Philip Mazzei reveals how the politics of reputation could work. Jefferson had written the letter in 1796 in the aftermath of the heated controversy over the Jay Treaty, and in it he expressed his deep disappointment with the Washington administration. “An Anglican monarchical, and aristocratical party,” he told Mazzei, was trying to subvert the Americans’ love of liberty and republicanism and turn the American government into something resembling the rotten British monarchy. “It would give you a fever,” wrote Jefferson, “were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” Mazzei translated the political portion of this letter into Italian and published it in a Florentine newspaper. A French newspaper picked it up, and this French version, translated back into English, appeared in the American press in May 1797.50

Since most people assumed that Jefferson was defaming Washington, America’s great hero, the Federalists were delighted with the letter and missed no opportunity to publicize it, even having it read in the House of Representatives. “Nothing but treason and insurrection would be the consequence of such opinions,” declared one Federalist congressman.51

Jefferson was deeply embarrassed by the revelation of the letter. At first the vice-president thought that in defense of his reputation he must “take the field of the public papers”; but he soon realized, as he explained to Madison, that any response would involve him in endless explanations and would bring on “a personal difference between Genl. Washington and myself,” not to mention embroiling him “with all those with whom his character is still popular, that is to say, nine tenths of the people of the U.S.”52 Madison agreed that silence was probably Jefferson’s best alternative. Among those the vice-president consulted, only James Monroe urged him to reply publicly, as he himself was doing in an angry response to his embarrassing recall from France.

Monroe was a militant Republican and as a veteran of the Revolutionary War much more committed to the code of honor than either Jefferson or Madison. In 1798 he was angered by President John Adams’s reference to him as “a disgraced minister, recalled in displeasure for misconduct,” and he wrote to Madison for advice on how to respond within the code of honor. Monroe believed he could not simply ignore Adams’s insult, for “not to notice it may with many leave an unfavorable impression agnst me.” Yet a personal challenge to a duel seemed impossible, since Adams was “an old man and President.” He could not simply request an explanation for his recall from France, because he had already done that. Perhaps he could write a pamphlet and attack Adams, “ridicule his political career, shew it to be the consummation of folly & wickedness.” In response, Madison suggested that if Monroe were to do anything in the present heated atmosphere of partisanship, he ought to compose “a temperate & dignified animadversion published with your name to it.”53

Although Madison never fought a duel, he was well aware of the code of honor involved in these personal confrontations. He criticized Roger Griswold, for example, for not challenging Lyon to a duel. If Griswold had been “a man of the sword” he would never have allowed the House to intervene in his conflict with Lyon. “No man,” he said, “ought to reproach another with cowardice, who is not ready to give proof of his own courage.”54

Hamilton, as a Revolutionary War veteran, was very much a man of the sword—as a confrontation he had with Monroe in 1797 showed. Five years earlier, in 1792, Hamilton when he was secretary of the treasury had engaged in adultery with a woman named Maria Reynolds and had actually paid blackmail to her husband in order to keep the affair quiet. When privately challenged in 1792 by several suspicious congressmen, including Senator James Monroe, for misusing treasury funds, Hamilton confessed to the affair and the blackmail, which had nothing to do with treasury business. The congressmen, who were embarrassed by this revelation, seemed to accept Hamilton’s explanation and dropped their investigation.

Rumors of Hamilton’s involvement with the Reynoldses circulated over the next several years, but it was not until 1797 that James Thomson Callender, a Scottish refugee and one of the new breed of unscrupulous journalists who were spreading scurrility everywhere, used documents that he had acquired to charge Hamilton publicly with speculating in treasury funds. Although it was probably John Beckley, a loyal Republican and recently dismissed clerk of the House of Representative, who had supplied Callender with the documents, Hamilton suspected that it was Monroe, and he pressed Monroe to make a public statement avowing his belief in Hamilton’s explanation of five years earlier. The quarrel between the two men became so heated that only an exchange of letters and some complicated negotiations, including the intervention of Aaron Burr, averted a duel. The code of honor, however, required that Hamilton defend his reputation somehow, and therefore he published a lengthy pamphlet laying out all the sordid details of the affair with Mrs. Reynolds. Better to be thought a private adulterer than a corrupt public official. The pamphlet was a disastrous mistake, and it led Callender to gloat that Hamilton had done himself more damage than “fifty of the best pens in America could have said against him.”55

Hamilton was unusually intense and thin-skinned and sensitive to any criticism, but his experience with Monroe in 1797 was not unusual. Dueling was part of the politics of the day—a sign of how much aristocratic standards still prevailed even as the society was becoming more democratic. Men engaged in duels were not simply trying to maim or kill their adversaries; instead, they were seeking both to display their bravery, military prowess, and willingness to sacrifice their lives for their honor and to conduct partisan politics. Dueling was part of an elaborate political ritual designed to protect reputations and affect politics in what was still a very personal aristocratic world.

The challenges and responses and the negotiations among principals and their seconds and friends often went on for weeks or even months. The duels were often timed for political effect, and their complicated procedures and public exchanges in newspapers were calculated to influ-ence a broad public. There were many duels, most of which did not end in exchanges of gunfire. In New York City between 1795 and 1807, for example, there were at least sixteen affairs of honor, though few resulted in anyone’s death. Hamilton was the principal in eleven affairs of honor during his lifetime, but he actually exchanged fire in only one—his last, fatal duel with Aaron Burr.56

During the 1790s this politics of reputation and individual character was rapidly being eroded in a number of ways, especially through the growth of political parties and the proliferation of scandal-mongering newspapers that were reaching out to a new popular readership. Indeed, the clash between an older aristocratic world of honor and the emerging new democratic world of political parties and partisan newspapers lay behind much of the turbulence and passion of the 1790s. Under these changing circumstances newspapers became weapons of the new political parties, to be used to discredit and demolish the characters of the opposing leaders in the eyes of unprecedented numbers of new readers. Since the lingering code of honor was designed for gentlemen dealing personally with one another, it was incapable of handling the new problems created by an ever growing and more vituperative popular press, especially in a time of great crisis.

With the inauguration of John Adams as president and the spread of the French Revolution throughout the Western world, America was heading for just that kind of crisis.

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