The Crisis of 1798–1799

When the French learned of Jay’s treaty with Great Britain, they immediately began seizing American ships and confiscating their cargoes. Actually, ever since the European war had broken out in 1793, the French treatment of American neutral shipping had not been all that different from that of the British, despite the stipulations of “free ships, free goods” in the French-American treaty of 1778. But throughout all its erratic seizing of American ships France at least had pretended to respect American neutral rights.

The Federalists were primed to be suspicious of anything France did. The president’s son John Quincy Adams, minister to the Netherlands, which had recently become a French satellite, fed Federalist fears. France, he reported to his father in 1796, was working to undermine the Federalists and bring about the “triumph of the French party, French principles, and French influence” in American affairs. France believed that “the people of the United States had but a feeble attachment to their government and will not support them in a contest with that of France.” Young Adams even suggested that France planned to invade the South and with the support of sympathizers there and in the West break up the Union and create a puppet republic. Revolutionary France and its armies were, after all, doing just that—setting up puppet regimes—throughout Europe. Such a conspiratorial and fearful atmosphere seemed to make any sort of normal diplomatic relations impossible.1

In 1797, after Adams’s presidential victory, France abandoned its earlier efforts to divide Americans politically and decided to confront the United States directly. Not only did France’s Directory government refuse to receive Thomas Pinckney’s elder brother Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, whom Washington had sent to Paris to replace Monroe, but it also announced that all neutral American ships carrying British goods were now liable to seizure and that all American sailors impressed onto British ships would be treated as pirates.

In response, President Adams called a special session of Congress for May 1797, the first president to do so. After Adams urged a buildup of American military forces, especially the navy, Congress authorized the president to call up eighty thousand militiamen, provided for harbor fortifications, and approved the completion of three frigates still on the ways. At the same time, the president criticized the French for trying to divide the people of the United States from their government, declaring that “we are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence.”2 By the middle of 1797 the United States and France were on the verge of war with one another in much the same way that the United States and Britain had been in 1794. Since Washington had earlier headed off war with Britain by sending Jay on his diplomatic mission, Adams decided to follow his predecessor’s example and send a similar mission to France.

At first, Adams toyed with the idea of sending Madison, but his cabinet, composed of Washington appointees Timothy Pickering (State), Oliver Wolcott Jr. (Treasury), and James McHenry (War), was decidedly hostile to this suggestion. Hamilton, on the other hand, favored sending Madison, confident that Madison would be unwilling to sell out the United States to France. America, Hamilton believed, still needed peace; it was not yet mature or strong enough for out-and-out war with any of the European states. But other Federalists wanted no capitulation to French pressure; the extreme hard-liner Pickering, in fact, urged a declaration of war against France and an American alliance with Britain.3

For their part, the Republican leaders doubted that France wanted war with the United States and urged that America delay any action. They were not at all eager to get involved in peace-making efforts with France that might mean endorsing the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. Jefferson and other Republicans believed that a French invasion of Britain was imminent and that its success would solve all the problems. Since the coalition massed against the revolutionary regime had fallen apart, France now dominated Europe. Napoleon had defeated the Austrians in Italy and looked to crush France’s one remaining enemy. It was rumored that the Dutch, in their French-dominated Batavian Republic, were preparing an invasion force. In fact, fourteen hundred French banditti did manage to land on the British coast, though they were quickly surrounded by local militia.

Britain seemed quite plausibly to be on the verge of collapse. Bread was scarce and famine threatened. Mutinies rocked the Royal Navy. Stocks on the British exchange fell to a record low, and the Bank of England was forced to suspend gold payments to private persons. General Cornwallis, the Yorktown loser who had become governor-general of British India, was deeply alarmed. “Torn as we are by faction, without an army, without money, trusting entirely to a navy whom we may not be able to pay, and on whose loyalty, even if we can, no firm reliance is to be placed, how,” he asked, “are we to get out of this accursed war without a Revolution?”4

To Jefferson and the Republicans, war with France was inconceivable and had to be avoided at almost any cost. War would play into the hands of the Federalist “Anglomen” in America and destroy the republican experiment everywhere. In this confusing and emotional atmosphere Adams appointed a three-man commission to France to negotiate peace—Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the minister whom the French had refused to receive; John Marshall, a moderate Virginia Federalist; and Elbridge Gerry, Adams’s quirky Massachusetts friend who was even more anti-party than Adams himself.

The French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, was, like Jefferson, known for his finesse and his ability to hide his feelings. At this moment he was in no hurry to negotiate with the United States and did not believe he had to. America posed no threat to France, he thought, and most of its people seemed to be sympathetic to the French cause. In fact, Jefferson had been advising French diplomats in America that delay was the best line for the French to take, because, as he and many others assumed, the war between monarchical Britain and revolutionary France would not last much longer. France would conquer Britain as it had conquered other nations in Europe.

The Directory in charge of the French government, however, was not as strong as its army’s victories on the Continent suggested. Not only was its authority shaky and increasingly dependent on the army, but it was desperate for funds and showed no interest in anything except extracting money from its client states and puppet republics. Thus when the American envoys arrived in Paris in October 1797, they were met with a series of humiliating conditions before negotiations could even begin. Agents of Talleyrand and the Directory, later referred to as “X, Y, and Z” in dispatches published in America, demanded that the American government apologize for President Adams’s hostile May 1797 speech to Congress and assume responsibility for any outstanding French debts and indemnities owed to Americans. At the same time, these French agents insisted that the United States make a “considerable loan” to France and give to Talleyrand and the Directory a large sum of money for their “private use,” that is, a substantial bribe of fifty thousand pounds. Only then might the French government receive the American commissioners.

These requests were followed by scarcely veiled threats. America’s neutrality, the French agents said, was no longer possible: all nations must aid France or be treated as enemies. In April 1798, after months of further discussions, a disgusted Marshall and Pinckney returned to the United States. Gerry, fearful that a war with France would “disgrace republicanism & make it the scoff of despots,” remained behind.5

In the meantime, France decreed that any neutral ship carrying any English product could be seized—in effect denying that free ships meant free goods and claiming the right to confiscate virtually all American ships on the high seas. The president had received the dispatches that Marshall had written describing the XYZ Affair and the collapse of negotiations with France. Without revealing the dispatches, Adams informed Congress in March 1798 of the failure of the diplomatic mission and called for arming America’s merchant vessels.

Knowing nothing of the contents of the dispatches, Vice-President Jefferson was furious at what he took to be the president’s rash and irrational behavior. He thought that Adams’s message was “almost insane” and believed that the administration’s refusal to make the dispatches public was a cover-up. He continued to urge his Republican friends in Congress to delay any further moves toward war. “If we could but gain this season,” he told Madison, “we should be saved.”6

The country teemed with rumors of war. In January 1798 a Federalist measure in Congress to fund the diplomatic missions abroad led to a proposal by Republican congressman John Nicholas of Virginia that the whole diplomatic establishment be cut back, and perhaps eventually eliminated altogether. The executive had too much power already, Nicholas said, and needed to be reduced. This set off a six-week debate that released all the partisan suspicion and anger that had been building up since the struggle over the Jay Treaty. “The legislature is as much divided and the parties in it as much embittered against each other as it is possible to conceive,” concluded Senator James Ross of Pennsylvania.7 It may not have seemed possible, but things got worse.

The Republicans called for the release of the commission’s dispatches, unaware of how damaging they were to their cause. When the country finally learned of the humiliations of the XYZ Affair in April 1798, it went wild with anger against the French. Publication of the dispatches, Jefferson told Madison, “produced such a shock on the republican mind as has never been seen since our independence.” Particularly embarrassing were the French agents’ references to the “friends of France” in the United States, implying that there was a kind of fifth column in the country willing to aid the French. Many of the Republican party’s “wavering characters,” Jefferson complained, were so anxious “to wipe out the imputation of being French partisans” that they were going over in droves to “the war party.”8

The Federalists were ecstatic. “The Jacobins,” as Fisher Ames and many other Federalists usually labeled the Republicans, “were confounded, and the trimmers dropt off from the party like windfalls from an apple-tree in September.”9 Even “out of doors,” reported Secretary of State Pickering, “the French Devotees are rapidly quitting the worship of their idol.” “In this state of things,” groaned Jefferson, the Federalists “will carry what they please.” Over the remainder of 1798 and into 1799 the Federalists won election after election, most surprisingly even in the South, and gained control of the Congress.10

The president and his ministers, as a rather astonished Fisher Ames pointed out, had become at last “decidedly popular.”11 Ames was astonished because in the Federalist scheme of things the Federalists were not supposed to become popular until American society developed further and became more mature and hierarchical. But the French played into Federalist hands. The American envoys’ reply to the French demand for a bribe, as a newspaper colorfully put it, was “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!” It became their rallying cry. (Pinckney actually had said, “It is no, no, not a sixpence!”) When Marshall arrived back in the United States, he was hailed as a national hero who had refused to be intimidated and bribed. Patriotic demonstrations spread everywhere, and the Federalists’ long opposition to the French Revolution seemed to be finally vindicated. Plays and songs acclaimed the Federalists and the president as patriots and heroes. “Hail Columbia,” written by a Philadelphia lawyer, Joseph Hopkinson, and set to the tune of “The President’s March,” became an instant hit. Theater audiences that earlier had rioted on behalf of the French now sang the praises of President Adams. In one case the audience demanded that the orchestra play “The President’s March” six times before it was satisfied.

Most impressive were the complimentary addresses that poured in upon the president—hundreds of them, from state legislatures, town meetings, college students, grand juries, Masonic lodges, and military companies. They congratulated the president on his stand against the French; some even warned that false patriots “who called themselves Americans” were “endeavoring to poison the minds of the well-meaning citizens and to withdraw from the government the support of the people.”12 President Adams, giddy with such unaccustomed popularity, responded to them all, sometimes with bellicose sentiments against France and charges of disloyalty among the Republicans that left even some Federalists uneasy. The president took the responsibility of answering the many addresses so seriously that his wife feared for his health; but he himself was never happier than during these months lecturing his countrymen on the basics of political science.

Adams had called for a day of fasting and prayer on May 9, 1798, and the orthodox clergy in the North and the Middle States responded with support for the Federalist cause, especially since most of the rapidly expanding dissenting Baptists and Methodists favored the Republicans. The traditional Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian clergy clearly saw their fight against infidelity linked to the Federalist fight against France and the Jacobins in America’s midst. Jedidiah Morse, author of the best-selling American Geography (1789) and Congregational minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, spread the theory that the French Revolution was part of an international conspiracy to destroy Christianity and all civil government. Drawing on the anti-Jacobin work of the Scot John Robison, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe (1798), Morse traced this conspiracy back to a central European society of freethinkers called the Bavarian Illuminati who had infiltrated Masonic organizations in Europe. Morse claimed that the French were now conspiring to use the Jeffersonian Republicans to subvert America’s government and religion.

Preposterous as these conspiratorial notions may seem, at the time they were believed by a large number of distinguished and learned American clergymen, including Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, and David Tappan, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. Not only were these beliefs in plots and plotters a measure of the Federalists’ fear that American society was badly deteriorating, but such conspiratorial notions were often the only means by which enlightened people in the eighteenth century could explain a concatenation of complicated events.

The question they asked of an event was not “how did it happen?” but rather “who did it?” The French Revolution and the upheavals in America seemed so convulsive, so complicated, and so awesome that many could scarcely comprehend their causes. But if human agents were responsible for all the tumult, they could not be a small group of plotters like those several British ministers who in the 1760s and 1770s had conspired to oppress the colonists. They had to be part of elaborately organized secret societies like the Bavarian Illuminati involving thousands of individuals linked by sinister designs. Many Americans seriously believed that such conspiracies were behind the momentous events of the 1790s.

On the day President Adams appointed for fasting and prayer, people spread rumors that a plot was afoot to burn Philadelphia, compelling many residents to pack their belongings while the longtime Pennsylvania governor, Thomas Mifflin, took steps to thwart the plot. At the same time, riots and brawling broke out in the capital between supporters of Britain and those of France, and mobs attacked Republican newspaper editors. Federalists in the Congress warned of resident aliens who were plotting “to completely stop the wheels of Government, and to lay it prostrate at the feet of its external and internal foes.” Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey announced that France was preparing to invade the United States, and the Federalist press, citing “authentic information” from Europe, confirmed this rumor.13

Congress responded to the president’s call by sanctioning a Quasi-War, or what Adams called “the half war with France.”14 It laid an embargo on all trade, and formally abrogated all treaties, with France. It allowed American naval vessels anywhere on the high seas to attack armed French ships that were seizing American merchant vessels. In addition to laying plans for building up the army, Congress authorized the acquisition of sloops and galleys for the protection of the shallow coastal waters and approved the building of fifteen warships. The budget for the navy reached $1. 4million, more naval spending in the one year of 1798 than in all previous years combined. To supervise the new fleet, Congress created an independent Navy Department, with Benjamin Stoddard of Maryland as its first secretary. To all these Federalist measures the Republicans put up a spirited resistance, and all passed by only narrow margins.15

The Republicans disavowed Madison’s idea of the 1780s that the legislative branch had a natural tendency to encroach upon the executive. Quite the contrary, declared Albert Gallatin, the brilliant Swiss-born congressman from Pennsylvania, who, following Madison’s retirement from Congress in 1797, had become the Republicans’ leader. The history of Europe over the previous three centuries, said Gallatin, showed that executives everywhere greatly increased their power at the expense of the legislatures; the result always had been “prodigality, wars, excessive taxes, and ever progressive debts.” And now the same thing was happening in America. The “Executive Party” was fomenting the crisis only to “increase their power and to bind us by the treble chain of fiscal, legal and military despotism.”16 Although not native to America, Gallatin had absorbed the eighteenth-century enlightened fear of high taxes, standing armies, and bloated executive authority as thoroughly as Jefferson or any other radical Whig.

The Federalists were frightened not merely by the prospect of war with France but, more important, by the way it might spark a civil war in the United States. It was the brutal and insidious manner that revolutionary France was dominating Europe and what this might mean for America that really unnerved them. France, the Federalists said, not only had annexed Belgium and parts of Germany outright but, more alarming, had used native collaborators to create revolutionary puppet republics in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and much of Italy. Might not something similar occur in America? Federalists wondered. In the event of a French invasion might not all the French émigrés and Jacobinical sympathizers in the country become collaborators?17

“Do we not know,” said Congressman Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts, who was far from the most extreme of the Federalists, “that the French nation have organized bands of aliens as well as their own citizens, in other countries, to bring about their nefarious purposes[?] . . . By these means they have overrun all the republics in the world but our own. . . . And may we not expect the same means to be employed against this country?” Were not the French victories in Europe due to France’s elaborate system of supporters and spies? Did not the mysterious voyage to France on June 13, 1798, of Dr. George Logan, an ardent Philadelphia Republican, suggest that he intended to contact the French government in order to bring about “the introduction of a French army, to teach us the genuine value of true and essential liberty”? And did not a Republican newspaper’s publication of a letter from Talleyrand to the State Department before the U.S. government released the text suggest that France had a direct line to its American agents, many of whom were editors? And were not these editors immigrant aliens, and were they not using their papers to stir up popular support for the Jacobinical cause?18

By 1798 the Federalists were convinced that they had to do something to suppress what they believed were the sources of Jacobin influence in America—the increasing numbers of foreign immigrants and the scurrilous behavior of the Republican press.

IN DESPERATION MANY FEDERALISTS resorted to a series of federal acts dealing with the problems they perceived—the so-called Alien and Sedition Acts. However justified they may have been in enacting them, in the end these acts turned out to be a disastrous mistake. Indeed, the Alien and Sedition Acts so thoroughly destroyed the Federalists’ historical reputation that it is unlikely it can ever be recovered. Yet it is important to know why they acted as they did.

Because the Federalists believed, in the words of Congressman Joshua Coit of Connecticut, that “we may very shortly be involved in war” with France, they feared that the “immense number of French citizens in our country,” together with the many Irish immigrants who came filled with hatred of Great Britain, might become enemy agents. One way of dealing with this threat was to restrict the naturalization of immigrants and the rights of aliens. Unfortunately, this meant challenging the Revolutionary idea that America was an asylum of liberty for the oppressed of the world.

It was ironic that the Federalists should have become frightened by the new immigrants of the 1790s. At the beginning of the decade it was the Federalists, especially Federalist land speculators, who had most encouraged foreign immigration. By contrast, the Jeffersonian Republicans had tended to be more cautious about mass immigration. Since the Republicans believed in a more active hands-on role for people in politics than did the Federalists, they had worried that immigrants might lack the necessary qualifications to sustain liberty and self-government. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson had expressed concern that too many Europeans would come to America with monarchical principles, a development that was apt to make the society and its laws “a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.” By relying instead on a natural increase of the population, America’s government, said Jefferson, would become “more homogeneous, more peaceable, more durable.”19

Still, most Americans accepted the idea that America represented an asylum for the oppressed of the world, and during the 1790s nearly one hundred thousand immigrants poured into the United States.20 During the debates in the Congress over naturalization, Americans struggled with their desire to welcome these immigrants on one hand and their fears of being overwhelmed by un-American ideas on the other.

The radical Revolutionary commitment to voluntary citizenship and expatriation—the idea that a person could disavow his subject status and become a citizen of another country—aggravated this dilemma. Unlike the English, who clung to the idea of perpetual allegiance—once an Englishman always an Englishman—most Americans necessarily accepted the right of expatriation. But they worried that naturalized citizens who had sworn allegiance to the United States might later transfer their loyalty to another country. And they were troubled by American expatriates who wanted to be readmitted to the United States as citizens. With these kinds of examples America’s concept of volitional citizenship seemed alarmingly capricious and open to abuse.21

Although Congress in 1790 passed a fairly liberal naturalization act requiring only two years of residency for free white persons, it soon changed its mind under the impact of the French Revolution. Both Federalists and Republicans backed the Naturalization Act of 1795, which extended the time of residency to five years and required aliens seeking citizenship to renounce any title of nobility they may have held and to provide proof of their good moral character and their devotion to the Constitution of the United States.

It was not long, however, before the Federalists realized that most of the immigrants, especially those whom Harrison Gray Otis labeled the “hordes of wild Irishmen,” posed a distinct threat to the kind of stable and hierarchal society they expected America to become. By 1798 the Federalists’ earlier optimism in welcoming foreign immigration was gone. Since these masses of new immigrants with their disorderly and Jacobinical ideas were “the grand cause of all our present difficulties,” the Federalists concluded, in the most pessimistic refrain—one that virtually repudiated one of the central tenets of the Revolution—”let us no longer pray that America may become an asylum to all nations.”22

Some extreme Federalist congressmen, such as Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, thought that “the time is now come when it will be proper to declare that nothing but birth shall entitle a man to citizenship in this country.”23 Although most congressmen thought Harper’s proposal went too far, they did eventually enact a fairly radical naturalization act. The Naturalization Act of June 18, 1798, extended the period of residence required before an alien could apply to become a citizen from five to fourteen years, compelled all aliens to register with a district court or an agent appointed by the president within forty-eight hours of arrival in the United States, and forbade all aliens who were citizens or subjects of a nation with which the United States was at war from becoming American citizens.

The Federalists also laid plans for dealing with the aliens who were already in the country. Even the Republicans feared some aliens. Consequently, they had no serious objection to restraining enemy aliens during wartime and, mainly in order to prevent worse legislation, virtually took over the passage of the Alien Enemies Act of July 6, 1798—an act that is still on the books. But the Federalists wanted an even wider-ranging law to deal with aliens in peacetime as well as wartime, because, as Abigail Adams put it, even though the United States had not actually declared war against France, nonetheless, “in times like the present, a more careful and attentive watch ought to be kept over foreigners.” The resultant Alien Friends Act of June 25, 1798, which Jefferson labeled “a most detestable thing . . . worthy of the 8th or 9th century,” gave the president the power to expel, without a hearing or even giving reasons, any alien whom the president judged “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” If such aliens failed to leave the country, they could be imprisoned for up to three years and permanently barred from becoming citizens. This extraordinary act was temporary and was to expire in two years.24

The Alien Friends Act and the Naturalization Act met strenuous opposition from the Republicans, especially from the New York congressmen Edward Livingston and Albert Gallatin. Denying that a French invasion was imminent, the Republicans argued that the measures were unnecessary. They declared that the state laws and courts were more than capable of taking care of all aliens and spies in the country. They claimed that the acts were unconstitutional, first, because Article V of the Constitution, made with the slave trade in mind, prevented Congress prior to 1808 from prohibiting “the Migration or Importation” of persons coming into the United States, and, second, because the acts gave the president arbitrary power. Gallatin in particular argued that the Alien Friends Act violated the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that “no person shall be deprived of his life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” pointing out that this right extended to every “person,” not just to citizens.25

Federalists, fearful, as Harrison Gray Otis put it, of “an army of spies and incendiaries scattered through the continent,” brooked no interference with their plans.26 Nevertheless, some of the Federalists were uneasy over the severity of the measures, especially those with large immigrant populations in their states, and the Naturalization Act and Alien Friends Act passed by only narrow margins. Still, most Federalists were pleased that the new measures would in the future deprive aliens from influencing America’s elections. Adams much later justified to Jefferson his signing of the Alien Friends bill on the grounds that “we were then at War with France: French Spies then swarmed in our Cities and in the Country. . . . To check them was the design of this law. Was there ever a Government,” he asked Jefferson, “which had not Authority to defend itself against Spies in its own Bosom?”27

RESTRICTING NATURALIZATION and restraining aliens were only partial solutions to the crisis the Federalists saw threatening the security of the country. Equally important was finding a way of dealing with the immense power over public opinion that newspapers were developing in the 1790s. In fact, the American press had become the most important instrument of democracy in the modern world, and because the Federalists were fearful of too much democracy, they believed the press had to be restrained.

With the number of newspapers more than doubling in the 1790s, Americans were rapidly becoming the largest newspaper-reading public in the world. When the great French observer of America Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 he marveled at the role newspapers had come to play in American culture. Since, as he noted, there was “hardly a hamlet in America without its newspaper,” the power of the American press made “political life circulate in every corner of that vast land.” The press’s power, Tocqueville suggested, flowed from the democratic nature of the society. An aristocratic society, such as that promoted by the Federalists, was tied together by patronage and personal connections. But when these ties disintegrated, which is what happened when the society became more democratic, then, said Tocqueville, it became impossible to get great numbers of people to come together and cooperate unless each individual could be persuaded to think that his private interests were best served by uniting his efforts with those of many other people. “That cannot be done habitually and conveniently without the help of a newspaper,” Tocqueville concluded. “Only a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers.”28

Madison was one of the first to see the important role of newspapers in creating public opinion. Near the end of 1791 he revised some of his thinking in Federalist Nos. 10 and 51 and argued now that the large extent of the country was a disadvantage for republican government. In a huge country like the United States, not only was ascertaining the real opinion of the public difficult, but what opinion there was could be more easily counterfeited, which was “favorable to the authority of government.” At the same time, the more extensive the country, “the more insignificant is each individual in his own eyes,” which was “unfavorable to liberty.” The solution, said Madison, was to encourage “a general intercourse of sentiments” by whatever means—good roads, domestic commerce, the exchange of representatives, and “particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people .”29

Even as Madison wrote, the press itself was changing. It began shedding its traditional neutral role of providing advertising, mercantile information, and foreign news to its readers. Editors such as John Fenno and Philip Freneau no longer saw themselves as mere tradesmen earning a living, as printer Benjamin Franklin had in the colonial era; instead, they became political advocates and party activists. During the course of the 1790s, these partisan editors, many of them immigrants, and their news papers became essential to the emerging national parties of the Federalists and especially the Republicans.

In the generation following the Revolution, over three hundred thousand British and Irish immigrants entered the United States. Many were political or religious refugees, radical exiles driven from Britain and Ireland because of their dissenting beliefs, including the English Unitarian Joseph Priestley and the militant Irish Catholic brothers Mathew and James Carey. Since many of these radical exiles were writers, printers, and editors, they inevitably ended up in America creating or running newspapers. Indeed, they contributed in disproportionate numbers to the rapid growth of the American press. In the several decades following the end of the Revolutionary War, twenty-three English, Scottish, and Irish radicals edited and produced no fewer than fifty-seven American newspapers and magazines, most of which supported the Republican cause in the politically sensitive Middle States.30 Since in the early 1790s over 90 percent of newspapers had generally supported the Federalists, this surge of Republican papers represented a remarkable shift in a short period of time.31

These partisan newspapers gave party members, especially those of the opposition Republican party, a sense of identity and a sense of belonging to a common cause. Since there were no modern party organizations, no official ballots, and no lists of party members, newspaper subscriptions and readership often came to define partisanship; newspaper offices even printed party tickets.32

As these newspapers grew in number and partisanship, they became increasingly accessible to more ordinary people. Of course, by modern standards the circulation of individual newspapers remained small—from a few hundred to a few thousand for the most successful of the urban papers. Yet because they were often available in taverns and other public places and were sometimes read aloud to groups, they did manage to reach ever larger numbers of people. By the end of the decade some claimed that newspapers were entering three-quarters of American homes.33

No editor did more to politicize the press in the 1790s than Benjamin Franklin Bache, Franklin’s grandson. Bache, called “Lightning-Rod Junior” by the Federalists, was the most prominent of the Republican editors, and he took the lead in arguing for a new and special role for the press in a popular republic. In 1793Bache’s paper, the General Advertiser (later the Aurora), claimed that the press provided “a constitutional check upon the conduct of public servants.” Since public opinion was the basis of a republic, and newspapers were the principal and in some cases the only organ of that opinion, the press in America, said Bache, needed to become a major participant in politics. Because the people could not always count on their elected representatives to express their sentiments, newspapers and other institutions outside of government had responsibilities to protect the people’s liberties and promote their interests.

Of course, nothing could be more different from the Federalists’ view of the people’s relationship to their republican governments. They assumed in traditional English fashion that once the people had elected their representatives, they should remain quiet and uninvolved in politics until the next election. But Bache’s Aurora and other Republican newspapers in the 1790s set about educating the people in their new obligations as citizens. In order to get people to throw off their traditional passivity and deference and become engaged in politics, the Republican editors urged people to change their consciousness. They relentlessly attacked aristocratic pretension and privilege and classical deference and decorum and implored the people to cast off their sense of inferiority to the “well-born” and their so-called betters and elect whomever they wished to the offices of government, including men like William Findley, Jedediah Peck, and Matthew Lyon.

“In Representative Governments,” these Republican editors declared, “the people are masters, all their officers from the highest to the lowest are servants to the people.” And the people should be able to elect men “not only of ourselves, but as much as possible as ourselves, Men who have the same kind of interests to protect and the same dangers to avert.” How could a “freeman,” they asked, trust any leader “who boldly tells the world, that there are different grades and castes in every society, arising from natural causes, and that these grades and castes must have a separate influence and power in the government, in order to preserve the whole”? For too long the “great men” of the Federalist party had looked “upon the honest laborer as a distinct animal of an inferior species.” Above all, the Republican editors attacked the leisured gentry as drones and parasites feeding on the labor of the common people. Such leisured gentlemen—who were “for the most part merchants, speculators, priests, lawyers and men employed in the various departments of government”—obtained their wealth either by inheritance or “by their art and cunning .”34

In just these ways did the Republican newspapers meet the emotional needs of thousands upon thousands of aspiring middling sorts, especially in the Northern states, who for so long had resented the condescending arrogance of the so-called better sort, or the “prigarchy,” as one Northern Republican labeled the Federalists.35 Even a Republican paper in the tiny town of Cincinnati, Ohio, filled its pages with hopeful lessons from the French Revolution that “sufficiently proved that generals may be taken from the ranks, and ministers of state from the obscurity of the most remote village.”36

By contrast with this extensive Republican use of the press, the Federalists did little. Presuming that they had a natural right to rule, they had no need to stir up public opinion, which was what demagogues did in exploiting the people’s ignorance and innocence.37 Federalist editors and printers of newspapers like John Fenno and his Gazette of the United States did exist, but most of these supporters of the national government were conservative in temperament; they tended to agree with the Federalist gentry that artisan-printers had no business organizing political parties or engaging in electioneering.38

Even the most successful printer-editor associated with the Federalist cause, William Cobbett, had very little to do with party politics. Although Cobbett was himself a British émigré who arrived in the United States in 1792, he shared none of the radical politics of his fellow émigrés. Indeed, he loved his homeland and always portrayed himself as a simple British patriot who admired all things British. What made him appear to be a supporter of the Federalists was his deep and abiding hatred of the French Revolution and all those Republicans who supported it. He actually had no great affection for the United States and never became an American citizen. He thought the country was “detestable . . . good for getting money” and little else, while its people were “a cheating, sly, roguish gang.”39 He supported the Federalists indirectly by attacking the Republicans, whose “rage for equality” he ridiculed.

Cobbett was especially effective in mocking the hypocrisy of the liberty-loving Southern Republicans who were slaveholders. “After having spent the day in singing hymns to the Goddess of Liberty,” he wrote in his 1795 pamphlet, A Bone to Gnaw, for the Democrats, “the virtuous Democrat gets him home to his peaceful dwelling, and sleeps, with his property secure beneath his roof, yea, sometimes in his very arms; and when his ‘industry’ has enhanced its value, it bears to a new owner the proofs of his Democratic Delicacy!” Such earthy sarcasm and fiery invective were unmatched by any other writer of the period. Sometimes Cobbett’s nastiness and vulgarity embarrassed even the Federalists.40

Since Cobbett was much more anti-French and pro-British than pro-Federalist, he never played the same role in organizing the Federalist party that Bache played in creating the Republican party. What Cobbett did do, however, was legitimize many latent American loyalties to the former mother country. “After all,” he wrote, “our connexions are nearly as close as those of Man and Wife (I avoid,” he said, “the comparison of Mother and Child, for fear of affecting the nerves of some delicate constitutions.)” Reading Cobbett, many Federalists felt they could at last express their long-suppressed affection for England openly and without embarrassment, especially as England had emerged as the champion of the European counter-revolution, opposed to all the frenzy and madness coming out of France.41

All aspects of American culture—parades, songs, art, theater, even language—became engines of one party or another promoting France or Britain. The Republicans attacked the English-dominated theater and, according to Cobbett, prohibited the use of all such words as “your majesty, My Lord, and the like,” and the appearance onstage of all “silks, gold lace, painted cheeks, and powdered periwigs.” They sang the new song attributed to Joel Barlow, “God Save the Guillotine,” to the tune of “God Save the King.” They pulled down all remnants of Britain and royalty, including a statue of William Pitt, Lord Chatham, which Americans themselves had erected during the imperial crisis, and destroyed images of the executed French king Louis XVI, who had helped America win the Revolution.42

When the Republicans began wearing the French tricolor cockade to show their support for the French Revolution, the Federalists labeled it “that emblem of treason” and in retaliation adopted a cockade of black ribbon, four inches in diameter and worn with a white button on a hat. Passions ran so high that some church services in 1798 ended in fisticuffs when several Republicans dared to show up wearing French cockades. According to one person’s recollection, even ladies would “meet at the church door and violently pluck the badges from one another’s bosoms.” To some frightened observers society seemed to be breaking up. “Friendships were dissolved, tradesmen dismissed, and custom withdrawn from the Republican party,” complained the wife of a prominent Republican in Philadelphia. “Many gentlemen went armed.”43

It was the newspapers that became the principal instruments of this partisan warfare. While the Federalist press accused the Republicans of being “filthy Jacobins” and “monsters of sedition,” the Republican press denounced the Federalists for being “Tory monarchists” and “British-loving aristocrats” and the president for being “a mock Monarch” who was “blind, bald, toothless, querulous” and “a ruffian deserving of the curses of mankind.” By the late 1790s both President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson came to believe that they had become the victims, in Adams’s words, of “the most envious malignity, the most base, vulgar, sordid, fish-woman scurrility, and the most palpable lies” that had ever been leveled against any public official.44

BECAUSE THE FEDERALISTS were in charge of the government in the 1790s, they were the ones most frightened by the vituperation of the Republican press. It was one thing to libel private individuals; it was quite another thing to libel someone in public office. Such libels were doubly serious, indeed, under the common law were seditious, because they called into question the officeholders’ authority to rule. Even Republican Thomas McKean, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, agreed. Libels against public officials, McKean declared, involved “a direct tendency to breed in the people a dislike of their governors, and incline them to faction and sedition.”45

Because politics was still personal, the honor and reputation of the political leaders seemed essential to social order and stability. Indeed, it was difficult in this early modern world for men to conceive of anyone becoming a political leader who did not already have an established social superiority. The reasons seemed obvious to many American leaders at the time, both Federalists and Republicans alike. Since early modern governments lacked most of the local coercive powers of a modern state—a few constables and sheriffs scarcely constituted a police force—officeholders had to rely on their social respectability and their reputation for character to compel the obedience of ordinary people and maintain public order. It is not surprising, therefore, that public officials should have been acutely sensitive to criticism of their private character. “Whatever tends to create in the minds of the people, a contempt of the persons who hold the highest offices in the state,” declared conventional eighteenth-century wisdom, whatever convinced people that “subordination is not necessary, and is no essential part of government, tends directly to destroy it.”46

In the Federalists’ eyes much of the Republican press in the 1790s was indeed creating contempt for authority and undermining the due subordination of society. President Adams was especially vulnerable to criticism. Lacking Washington’s popularity and stature, Adams was ill equipped to play the role of the republican monarch, and efforts to bolster his authority with formal ceremonies and elaborate rituals only made him seem absurd and open to ridicule, which the Republican press was more than willing to supply.47

If the Republicans’ smear campaigns had been read by gentlemanly elites alone, they might have been tolerable to the Federalists. But, instead, the Republicans’ slanders against public officials were reaching down to new popular levels of readers. The Federalist attitude to published materials was similar to that of the attorney general of Great Britain. When the radical scientist Thomas Cooper, who would soon emigrate to the United States, sought to respond in print to an attack by Edmund Burke, he was warned by the British attorney general to publish his work in an expensive edition, “so as to confine it probably to that class of readers who may consider it coolly.” If it were to be “published cheaply for dissemination among the populace,” declared this law officer of the crown, “it will be my duty to prosecute.”48 In other words, more important than what one said was to whom it was said. Anything that undermined the public’s confidence in their leaders’ capacities to rule was by that fact alone seditious.

It was bad enough that the Republican newspapers’ slanderous and malicious attacks on federal officials were reaching out to a new popular readership, but, equally alarming to many Federalists, like the Reverend Samuel Miller, whose Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century was an elaborate compendium of the Enlightenment, these newspapers had fallen into “the hands of persons destitute at once of the urbanity of gentlemen, the information of scholars, and the principles of virtue.”49 This helped explain why the Republicans’ writings had become so vulgar and vituperative. The politics of honor made it difficult to deal with muckraking by social inferiors. Newspaper criticism from the likes of James Madison or James Monroe could be handled by the code of honor. But criticism from the likes of Matthew Lyon or William Duane or James Callender was another matter altogether. Such Republican editors and writers were not gentlemen and in many cases were not even American citizens.

The Federalists concluded that these upstart scandalmongers were destroying the character of the country’s political leaders and undermining the entire political order. Believing, as George Cabot of Massachusetts put it, that “no free government, however perfect its form and virtuous its administration, can withstand the continued assaults of unrefuted calumny,” they sought to limit the national effectiveness of the muckrakers in the only way possible outside of the code of honor—by making seditious libel a federal crime.50

Americans believed in freedom of the press and had written that freedom into their Bill of Rights. But they believed in it as Englishmen did. Indeed, the English had celebrated freedom of the press since the seventeenth century, but they meant by it, in contrast with the French, no prior restraint or censorship of what was published. Under English law, people were nevertheless held responsible for what they published. If a person’s publications were slanderous and calumnious enough to bring public officials into disrespect, then under the common law the publisher could be prosecuted for seditious libel. The truth of what was published was no defense; indeed, it even aggravated the offense. Furthermore, under the common law judges, not juries, had the responsibility to decide whether or not a publication was seditious. Although this common law view of seditious libel had been challenged and seriously weakened by John Peter Zenger’s trial in New York in 1735, it had never been fully eradicated from American thinking or practice in the state courts.

Federalists wanted such a sedition law for the national government. The Sedition Act of July 14, 1798, which Vice-President Jefferson said was designed for the “suppression of the whig presses,” especially Bache’s Aurora, made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the President, or to bring them . . . into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States.” (Significantly, the office of vice-president was not protected by the act.) The punishment was a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and imprisonment not exceeding two years.51Compared to the harsh punishments Britain had meted out in its sedition trials of 1793–1794—individuals transported to Australia for fourteen years for expressing the slightest misgivings about the war with France—the American punishments for seditious libel were tame.

The sedition bill nevertheless left the Republicans aghast. It was one thing to repress aliens; it was quite another to repress the country’s own citizens. But radical Federalists like Robert Goodloe Harper thought that some citizens had become as dangerous as aliens. “There existed,” he said, “a domestic—what shall I call it?—a conspiracy, a faction leagued with a foreign Power to effect a revolution or a subjugation of this country, by the arms of that foreign Power.” Republican calls to the citizens to resist this legislation only confirmed the Federalist fears of “the contagion of the French mania.” The evidence was everywhere, said Harrison Gray Otis, of “the necessity of purifying the country from the sources of pollution.”52

The Federalist congressmen seemed almost demonic in the intensity of their passion. Even Hamilton became alarmed at the hasty vigor with which the Federalists in the Congress were moving. Slow down, he urged. “Let us not establish a tyranny. Energy is very different thing from violence.” By pushing things to an extreme too fast, he warned, the congressional Federalists might end up strengthening the Republicans.53

Ironically, the Sedition Act was actually a liberalization of the common law of seditious libel that continued to run in the state courts. Under the new federal statute, which resembled the liberal argument Zenger’s lawyer had used, the truth of what was said or published could be admitted as a defense, and juries could decide not only the facts of the case (did so-and-so publish this particular piece?) but the law as well; in other words, the jury could decide whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty of having written something libelous and seditious. Neither truth as a defense nor juries’ deciding the law was allowed under the American common law. Indeed, some Federalists believed that the national government did not even need a statute to punish seditious libel; they claimed that the common law of crimes ran in the federal courts and could be used to prosecute cases of seditious libel.

Despite these liberal elements, however, the bill passed the House by only forty-four to forty-one. It was due to expire on March 3, 1801, the day before the end of the Adams administration. However disastrously this act turned out for the Federalists’ reputation, at the time it seemed to many of them to be necessary for the protection of the country.

EVEN BEFORE THE ALIEN FRIENDS ACT was passed, anxious Frenchmen, including the noted French philosophe Constantine François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, prepared to leave the country for France. Following the act’s passage, more than a dozen shiploads sailed for France or Saint-Domingue. Many who did not flee the country were kept under surveillance by the ultra-suspicious secretary of state, Timothy Pickering. When Médéric Louis Elie Moreau de St. Méry, a refugee from the Reign of Terror, who in 1794 had established a bookstore in Philadelphia, asked why he was on the president’s list for deportation, he was told of President Adams’s blunt reply: “Nothing in particular, but he’s too French.”54 In the end, because so many foreigners left before the act was enforced and because of the president’s strict interpretation of the statute, the Federalist government never actually deported a single alien under the auspices of the Alien Act.

It was another story with the Sedition Act. The government arrested twenty-five persons and brought seventeen indictments of seditious libel against Republican journalists and editors (fourteen under the Sedition Act itself), of which ten resulted in conviction and punishment. So fearful were the Federalists of pro-French fifth column activities by the Republican editors that they could not even wait for the statute to be passed. Three weeks before President Adams signed the Sedition Act into law, the government arrested Benjamin Franklin Bache, charging him with seditious libel under the common law. In vain did Bache’s attorneys argue before District Judge Richard Peters that the common law of crimes did not run in the federal courts. Judge Peters thought otherwise and set bail at two thousand dollars, but Bache died of yellow fever in September 1798 before he could be tried.

The Federalists, again under the zealous leadership of Secretary of State Pickering, went after the other leading Republican newspaper editors. Three of those convicted were refugees from British repression in the 1790s—Thomas Cooper, the English lawyer and scientist who turned to journalism in the late 1790s; James Callender, the Scottish radical who had stirred up the Reynolds affair against Hamilton; and William Duane, the American-born but Irish-bred publisher who took over the Aurora upon Bache’s sudden death in 1798. Cooper’s trial took place in Philadelphia before Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. In his charge to the jury, Chase set forth the Federalists’ rationale for the Sedition Act. “If a man attempts to destroy the confidence of the people in their officers, their supreme magistrate, and their legislature,” Chase declared, “he effectively saps the foundation of the government.” Cooper was found guilty, fined four hundred dollars, and sentenced to six months in the local prison.55

Chase was even more vindictive in the trial of Callender, badgering the defense attorneys and forbidding them from calling witnesses. Again the jury found Callender guilty, and Chase fined him two hundred dollars and sentenced him to nine months in jail. The severest sentence under the Sedition Act was imposed on David Brown, a semi-literate commoner and itinerant political agitator who had traveled to over eighty Massachusetts towns writing and lecturing against the Federalists. Brown directed his message at middling and lower sorts of “Farmers, Mechanicks, and Labourers” and emphasized the “struggle between the laboring part of the community and those lazy rascals” who did not have to work for a living.

In the fall of 1798 Brown rambled into Dedham, Massachusetts, the hometown of the arch-Federalist Fisher Ames, who described Brown as “a vagabond ragged fellow,” a “wandering apostle of sedition,” who gave speeches “telling everybody the sins and enormities of the Government.” Brown’s speeches apparently incited the Republicans in the town into erecting a liberty pole that contained an inscription denouncing the Federalists and their actions. The Federalists were outraged, calling the liberty pole “a rallying point of insurrection and civil war,” and they had Brown and Benjamin Fairbanks, a very substantial citizen of the town, arrested and tried for sedition with Associate Justice Samuel Chase again presiding. Both indicted men pled guilty. Chase, who was becoming even more notorious for his Federalist partisanship, let Fairbanks off with a five-dollar fine and six hours of imprisonment, but because Brown had “attempted to incite the uninformed part of the community,” Chase sentenced him to eighteen months’ imprisonment and a fine of $480—an extraordinary punishment that was a measure of the Federalists’ fears, in Ames’s words, of “the tendencies of democracy to anarchy.”56

The Federalist administration also indicted Matthew Lyon and Jedediah Peck. Lyon was actually the first person put on trial for violating the Sedition Act. But his conviction and the punishment (four months in jail and a thousand-dollar fine) backfired and turned Lyon into a Republican martyr. From his jail cell not only did Lyon continue to write on behalf of the Republican cause, but he also ran a successful campaign for reelection to Congress, the first prisoner in American history to do so.

The government had more trouble with Peck. Judge Cooper in Otsego County had Peck arrested for circulating petitions against the Alien and Sedition Acts and had him taken in irons to New York City for trial. But when the government realized that prosecuting this Revolutionary War veteran only increased Republican strength in his New York county, it dropped the case.

The short-term success of the Federalist Sedition Act in shutting down several Republican newspapers scarcely justified the long-term consequences of the government’s actions. Republican editors were not cowed; indeed, the number of new Republican newspapers increased dramatically between 1798 and 1800. Just as printers increasingly came to see themselves as political professionals, making a living out of politics, so did many Federalists reluctantly come to realize that seditious libel made a very poor political weapon for putting down faction in the kind of democratic society America, at least in its Northern parts, was rapidly becoming.57

STILL, EXPELLING ALIENS and stopping the flow of scurrilous writings were only parts of a larger Federalist program for saving the Republic from the scourge of Jacobinism. There remained what many Federalists thought was the likelihood of a French army invading the United States. Under this threat of invasion Congress began beefing up the country’s military forces. It levied new taxes on land, houses, and slaves. In addition to its naval buildup, it authorized a dramatic enlargement of the military establishment. At last, many Federalists believed they would have the standing army that they had long yearned for. Without an army, they believed, the United States could scarcely qualify as a modern nation: it would lack the most important attribute of a modern state—the ability to wage war. Some Federalists even thought that this army might be profitably used in other ways than simply against the French.

After the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, the country in 1796 had settled on a peacetime army of about three thousand men. Although this regular army was simply a constabulary force strung out in forts along the frontier, even it aroused anxieties among many Americans fearful of any semblance of a “standing army.” Most Republicans thought the state militias were more than able to handle any military crises. War produced armies, debts, taxes, patronage, and a bloated executive power, and these, said James Madison, “are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”58 The best way to avoid war was not to build up the country’s military forces; that only made war inevitable. Instead, the nation ought to negotiate, avoid provocations, and look for peaceful alternatives to fighting.

Suddenly under threat of a French invasion, the Federalists were in a position to counter what they regarded as this milksop Republican approach to foreign policy and achieve the kind of military establishment that would make the United States the equal of the European states. Most Federalists assumed that possessing a strong military force not only was an essential feature of a real nation-state but was as well the best means of preventing war. “Can a Country,” asked Theodore Sedgwick in 1797, “expect to repel invasion and interruption by declaring they not only never will fight; but never will prepare either by Land or water, an effectual defence?”59

In the frenzied atmosphere of 1798, the Congress enlarged the regular army by twelve regiments and six troops of dragoons, creating what was called a “New Army” of twelve thousand men to be organized at once. At the same time, Congress created a “Provisional Army” of ten thousand men, which the president could activate in case of actual war or invasion or even the “imminent danger” of invasion. The rumor that France was going to use blacks from Saint-Domingue to invade and foment slave rebellions in the South even led to Federalist gains in the Southern states in the 1798 elections.

Although this military force was smaller than Hamilton wanted, it was much larger than President Adams thought necessary. Like many of his English ancestors, the historically minded Adams disliked armies, which could manage coups and create despotisms, but liked navies, which were usually away at sea. Thus he favored the new Navy Department that was created at the same time the army was augmented. Besides, unlike most of his Federalist colleagues, the president doubted that France could ever invade the United States. He realized that the United States might be drawn into a full-scale war, but he himself would never push for it. Consequently, he never recommended that Congress enlarge the army; Hamilton, he believed, was responsible for that. Indeed, the way Adams tended to recall the events of 1798, and sometimes even the way he acted at the time, was almost as if he were not the chief executive at all.

Adams in 1798 had the sense that there was “too much intrigue in this business” of the army and its leadership, and with good reason.60 In many respects this grandiose military force was peculiarly Hamilton’s. Certainly no one wanted the United States to become a European-like state more passionately than did Hamilton, and he had shown a willingness to employ the army for internal purposes. In 1783 he had even urged Washington to use the army to pressure Congress into strengthening public finances, which had led General Washington to warn his high-strung aide that the army was “a dangerous instrument to play with.”61

Although Hamilton had been out of office and practicing law in New York since 1795, he had remained immensely influential with Adams’s cabinet and other Federalists. He saw in this crisis with France an opportunity both to redeem his reputation and, more important, to realize some of his vision of what the nation ought to become. In the spring of 1798 he dashed off a seven-part series of newspaper essays calling for the creation of a huge army to resist the imperialistic plans of the French and accusing the weak-kneed Republicans of appeasement. When some Federalists tried to lure him back into government with offers of a Senate seat from New York or the position of secretary of war, he resisted. He had his sights on a bigger role for himself: the effective commander-in-chief of the new army.

To be in charge of all the American armies seemed to Hamilton like a dream fulfilled. Instead of having to wait patiently for time and social development to turn America into a modern state, he could take advantage of the crisis with France and short-circuit the process. The army was central to his plans, both at home and abroad. With some justification, the Republicans believed that Hamilton intended to use the army against them. Sincerely fearing that a fifth column within the United States was willing to aid an invading French army, Hamilton certainly was eager to suppress any domestic insurrection with a massive show of force. When rumors spread that Jefferson’s and Madison’s home state was arming, he seemed prepared to “put Virginia to the Test of resistance.”62

When an armed uprising of Germans led by John Fries actually occurred in several northeastern Pennsylvania counties early in 1799, Hamilton told the secretary of war not to err by sending too few troops. “Whenever the Government appears in arms,” he wrote, “it ought to appear like a Hercules, and inspire respect by the display of strength.”63 He thought that a respectable standing army would enable the United States both “to subdue a refractory & powerful state” such as Virginia and to deal independently and equally with the warring powers of Europe. President Adams did respond to the Fries uprising with five hundred militiamen at a cost of eighty thousand dollars. The so-called rebellion was put down with no injuries.64

A strong military establishment seems to have been just the beginning of Hamilton’s future plans for strengthening the Union. He wanted as well to extend the judiciary, to build a system of roads and canals, to increase taxes, and to amend the Constitution in order to subdivide the larger states.65

Beyond the borders of the United States his aims were even more grandiose. He thought the war with France would enable the United States, in cooperation with Britain, to seize both Florida and Louisiana from Spain—in order, he said, to keep them out of the hands of France. At the same time, he held out the possibility of helping the Venezuelan patriot Francisco de Miranda to liberate South America. In all these endeavors, he told the American minister in Britain, Rufus King, America should be “the principal agency,” especially in supplying the land army. “The command in this case would very naturally fall upon me—and I hope I should disappoint no favorable anticipation.”66

As Fisher Ames later pointed out, Hamilton had never wanted power, popularity, or wealth; the only thing he ever craved was military fame and glory, not just for himself but for the country as well. “He was qualified, beyond any man of the age,” said Ames, “to display the talents of a great general.”67

But in 1798 America already had a great general, in retirement at Mount Vernon. If he were to realize his dreams, Hamilton knew that he would have to convince Washington to buckle on his sword and become Hamilton’s aegis once again, as he had during his presidency. But the current president would be a problem. President Adams had no hesitation in commissioning Washington as “Lieutenant General and commander in Chief of all the Armies raised or to be raised for the service of the United States,” and in July 1798 he did so, even before he received Washington’s permission. Adams was not at all eager to make Hamilton second in command, which was what the High Federalists in his cabinet were plotting. Other officers from the Revolution had been senior to Colonel Hamilton, namely Henry Knox and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

How to sort out the order of command? Since Knox declared that he would not serve under Pinckney or Hamilton, Adams favored Knox as next in command to Washington; but Hamilton said he would not serve under Knox. For his part Washington wanted Hamilton as second in command and threatened to resign if the bickering continued. The president, finally outmaneuvered by both his cabinet and Washington, reluctantly had to accede to Hamilton’s becoming major general and second in command to Washington. He was furious that he had been compelled to promote this foreigner, Hamilton, a man who was “the most restless, impatient, indefatigable and unprincipled Intriguer in the United States, if not in the world.”68 Soon, however, he would get his revenge on Hamilton and the whole crowd of Hamiltonians.

Hamilton had his army, and he had Washington as his aegis. Hamilton told Washington in May 1798 that he was convinced that the Republicans intended “to new model our constitution under the influence or coercion of France,” and in substance, if not in name, “to make this Country a province of France.”69 Washington more or less agreed. Although he doubted that the French were capable at present of invading the country, he was sure that the Republicans were up to no good. Believing as he did that organized party opposition was pernicious, he concluded that the beleaguered Federalists were simply “the Friends of Government” trying to defend a Constitution that the French party of Republicans would use every means to “subvert” and turn into “a mere cipher.”70 The former president knew he could not remain an unconcerned spectator of France’s attempt to do what Britain had once tried to do—deprive America of its rights. Although Washington, as he had repeatedly in the past, expressed his reluctance to resume public office and wondered whether becoming commander-in-chief would not be considered “a restless Act, evincive of my discontent in retirement,” he was far more eager in 1798 to step back into the breach and do his duty than he ever had been before. It indicated just how seriously he took the crisis in 1798.71

With President Adams expressing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the whole project, organizing the army did not go well. In November 1798 Hamilton met with Washington and Pinckney in Philadelphia to appoint the officers and to recruit the troops. Because the army was designed not only to resist the French but presumably to put down domestic insurrections, and even political opposition, the officers had to be both talented and scrupulously Federalist; thus the process of appointment was slow. The chain of command was garbled, with Hamilton giving orders to his ostensible superior, the secretary of war, and the recruiting and supplying of the soldiers suffered from delays and confusion, with Hamilton bickering over the most trivial details, including how the soldiers’ hats should be cocked. More dismaying, Washington’s willingness to participate in the creation of the army began to cool; eventually the former president gave up on the project and returned to Mount Vernon thoroughly disillusioned with what was happening in the country. By the time the New Army disbanded in May 1800, it had become a joke.

EVEN BEFORE THE PASSAGE of the Alien and Sedition Acts, some Southern Republicans were thinking of ways to protect both liberty and the sectional interests of the South from the growing power of the national government. In the spring of 1798 John Taylor, who was rapidly becoming the conscience of the Republican party, wrote Monroe and Jefferson about his fears. Unless the Federalists were stopped, Taylor said, “the southern states must lose their capital and commerce—and . . . America is destined to war—standing armies—and oppressive taxation.” Taylor even raised the possibility that some of the Southern states might secede from the Union. In response, Jefferson tried to calm Taylor down. Federalist dominance was unnatural and only temporary. “A little patience,” Jefferson wrote in his famous letter of June 4, 1798, “and we shall see the reign of the witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, and restoring their government to its true principles.”72

With the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798, however, Jefferson changed his tune, especially as he saw the Federalists resorting to all sorts of insidious devices to sustain their popularity. The usually sanguine vice-president despaired. He thought that if these laws were accepted by the American people, Congress would next allow the president to serve for life, which would be the first step toward making the office hereditary, and then it would establish the Senate for life. Some Federalists, he believed, even wanted to restore George III over the American people. He thought the Federalists’ attack on freedom of the press was the prelude to an attack on freedom of religion; the denial of the press’s freedom “had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.” With some justification, he even feared that “our Buonaparte” Hamilton and the new army might invade Virginia in order to suppress dissent.73 In fact, the Republicans in general were as frightened by what they described as the Federalists’ moves toward monarchy and a war with France as the Federalists were by what they described as the Republicans’ radical efforts to collaborate in bringing the French Revolution to America.

With both the Federalists and the Republicans having legitimate reasons for their fears, their extreme partisanship divided the country more deeply than at any time since 1776. A Federalist newspaper in Virginia predicted an “ultimate appeal to arms by the two great parties.” Republican William Branch Giles of Virginia hoped “to see a separation of this state, from the General-Union.”74

With the Congress under the control of the Federalists, the vice-president and both Southern and some Northern Republicans thought the federal government had become in effect a “foreign jurisdiction,” and they began to look to the states as the best means of resisting Federalist tyranny. While Jefferson believed that the federal government had become “more arbitrary, and has swallowed more of the public liberty than even that of England,” he thought that “our state governments are the very best in the world without exception or comparison.”75 There in the states was where integrity and the solution to America’s problems could be found.

Madison, retired from Congress since 1797, was urged to run for election to the Virginia legislature. As one Republican told James Monroe, it was “highly important, at this moment and will be more so every day, to pay particular attention to the State Legislatures, and to get into them men of respectability.” Before Madison took office in the Virginia legislature in 1799, he and Jefferson thought they had to do something to combat the Federalist actions. Believing, as Madison put it, that the Federalists were seeking to create a consolidated government and “transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy,” the two Republican leaders quietly plotted to use the state legislatures as the most effective instrument for combating the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Because they intended to set forth radical constitutional ideas about the nature of the Union, they wanted their authorship to remain unknown except to the men who would actually introduce their legislative resolutions. Although Madison and Jefferson were not primarily thinking about protecting slavery in 1798, their ideas—“the spirit of ’98”—certainly laid the basis for the nullification and states’ rights doctrines later used to defend slavery and Southern distinctiveness in the period leading up to the Civil War.76

In his draft of state resolutions, which was intended for the Virginia legislature but instead ended up in that of Kentucky, Jefferson described the Constitution as “a compact” among the several states, with each state retaining final authority to declare acts of the federal government that exceeded its delegated powers, in this case, the Alien and Sedition Acts, “void & of no force” within that state’s jurisdiction. Jefferson labeled this remedy for abusive federal actions “nullification,” but, fortunately for his subsequent reputation, the Kentucky legislature edited out this inflammatory term when it adopted Jefferson’s draft in a set of resolves issued in November 1798.77

The resolutions drafted by Madison and issued by the Virginia legislature in December 1798 were somewhat less radical than Jefferson’s, especially in their conception of the compact as the consequence of the collective action of the people in each state; indeed, Madison seems to have thought of his resolutions as protests rather than as acts of nullification. He objected in particular to Jefferson’s idea that the state legislature could declare unconstitutional acts null and void. “Have you ever considered thoroughly the distinction between the power of the State, & that of the Legislature, on questions relating to the federal pact?” Madison asked his friend. Since Madison believed that the state, by which he meant the people themselves, was “the ultimate Judge of infractions,” the legislature had no business exercising such an authority; it belonged to a constitutional convention, since that was “the organ by which the Compact was made.” Unlike Jefferson, who was out of the country in 1787–1788, Madison was there at the creation, and he never forgot that the Constitution was ratified by state conventions, not state legislatures. In America, unlike England, he said, “the people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty. The legislature, no less than the executive, is under limitations. . . . Hence, in the United States, the great and essential rights of the people are secured against legislative as well as executive ambition.”78

Both the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures called upon the other states to join them in declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, but none of the other fourteen state legislatures followed.79Although four Southern states took no action at all, nine Northern states decisively rejected the resolutions, most of them declaring that the judiciary, and not the state legislatures, was the proper body to determine the constitutionality of acts of Congress. By August 1799 Jefferson was contemplating even more radical action. If the people did not soon change the direction and tone of the national government, he told Madison, Virginia and Kentucky ought “to sever our selves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which we have reserved, and in which alone we see liberty.”80 Although secession was being openly discussed, neither Jefferson nor Madison was willing to advocate force to bring it about.

Instead, the Republican leaders sought to have the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures answer the objections of the other states and reaffirm the sentiments of the original resolutions. With some advice from Jefferson, the Kentucky legislature in November 1799 repeated its opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts and declared “a Nullification of those acts by the States to be the rightful remedy.”81 Even with this provocative word included, the legislature’s resolve was much more conciliatory and much less extreme than the secessionist views Jefferson had expressed in letters several months earlier.

For his part Madison on January 7, 1800, issued a notable committee report to the Virginia assembly in which he defended the earlier resolutions and warned that the Federalist plans for a consolidation would “transform the republican system of the United States into a monarchy.” If the federal government extended its “power to every subject falling within the idea of the ‘general welfare,’” the discretionary and patronage authority of the executive would be greatly expanded; this in turn would lead to insidious efforts by the chief magistrate to manipulate his repeated re-election or to increasingly corrupt and violent elections, to the point where “the public voice itself might call for an hereditary in place of an elective succession.” In addition to denying the Federalist contention that the common law—“a law of vast extent and complexity, and embracing almost every possible subject of legislation”—ran in the federal courts, Madison made a powerful case for a strict construction of the Constitution, particularly its “necessary and proper” clause that Hamilton had exploited so effectively.

Finally, he offered a brilliant defense of the freedoms described in the First Amendment, especially freedom of the press. Elective republican governments, which were responsible to the people, required, said Madison, “a greater freedom of animadversion” than hereditary monarchies. This meant “a different degree of freedom, on the use of the press”; indeed, despite the excesses of scurrility and slander, popular governments needed newspapers for “canvassing the merits and measures of public men. . . . To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses,” he concluded, “the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.”82

SUDDENLY, SEVERAL DEVELOPMENTS worked to calm this fearful and frenzied climate. British admiral Horatio Nelson’s naval victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile in October 1798 essentially destroyed the possibility of a French invasion of either England or America. With the threat of a French invasion gone, the Federalists lost much of the rationale for their program. But more important in reducing the sense of crisis was the bold and courageous but bizarre action of President John Adams.

Adams’s presidency had been extraordinarily contentious, and Adams was never in command of his own cabinet, let alone the government. Indeed, he seemed to many to be escaping from the troubles of the capital in Philadelphia by spending more and more time at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. This short, stout, and sensitive man had been much too honest, impulsive, and passionate to handle the growing division among the Federalists over Hamilton’s ascendancy and the military buildup. Despite all the importance his political theory gave to the executive in a balanced government, he was temperamentally ill equipped to be Washington’s successor as president. He shared little of the Hamiltonian dream of turning the United States into a European-like state with a huge bureaucracy and a massive army with the capacity to wage war; indeed, Adams had been the author of the model treaty of 1776, and his ideas about foreign policy and war were closer to Jefferson’s than Hamilton’s. And Adams certainly had none of the personal Benjamin Franklin—like talents needed to deal with the intense, meddling, and high-strung personalities around him. But he was intelligent and patriotic, and he increasingly sensed that he had to do something to end the crisis.

In November 1798 he returned to Philadelphia from one of his many long vacations in Quincy determined once and for all to take command of his administration. Aware of Hamilton’s grand military ambitions and machinations and learning from various sources that the French government was finally ready to reach an accommodation with the United States, Adams decided, without consulting anyone, including his own cabinet, to send a new mission to France. On February 18, 1799, he informed Congress that he had appointed William Vans Murray as minister plenipotentiary to make peace with France. Although Murray was a former Federalist congressman from Maryland and presently minister to the Batavian Republic, he was not a major figure among the Federalists; but Adams had known and liked him in London in the 1780s, and for Adams that was enough. All things considered, it was a strange way for a president to behave.

Most Federalists were stunned by Adams’s action. While many seethed with “surprise, indignation, grief & disgust,” others thought the president had lost his mind.83 Under immense pressure from the High Federalists, including meetings that ended in undignified shouting matches, Adams was forced to make some concessions. He agreed to add two more envoys to join Murray—Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth and William Davie, the governor of North Carolina—and to delay the departure of the mission until the French gave more assurance that it would be received, which they did in August 1799. In the meantime Congress had adjourned at the end of February 1799 without further expanding the army, and Adams had gone back home to Quincy, where he remained angrily secluded for the next seven months.

The High Federalists, led by Secretary of State Pickering, were furious. With all their plans for the army and the suppression of the Republicans in disarray, they plotted to undermine the mission to France. Only when his new secretary of the navy, Benjamin Stoddard, who was not part of the Hamiltonian gang, warned Adams of the “artful, designing men” in the cabinet working against him did the morose and irritable president reluctantly return to the capital. In October 1799Hamilton, whose own high-strung temperament was being stretched to the breaking point, made a last-ditch effort to delay the mission by arrogantly lecturing the president on European politics and the likelihood of Britain’s restoring the Bourbons to the French throne. “Never in my life,” Adams recalled, “did I hear a man talk more like a fool.”84 (Of course, in 1814–1815 Britain and its allies actually did restore the Bourbon king Louis XVIII to the French throne.) Finally, by early November 1799, Adams was able to get his envoys off to Paris.

Adams’s awkwardly independent action irreparably divided the Federalist leadership between the moderates who supported the president and the extremists or “ultras” who supported Hamilton—seriously endangering Federalist prospects for the upcoming presidential election in 1800. Once the Federalist caucus had nominated Adams and Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney for president and vice-president in May 1800 (without, however, determining which person should have which office), the president felt strong enough politically to do what he should have done long before—dismiss the Hamiltonians in his cabinet, McHenry and Pickering. In one of his all too common fits of rage, Adams told McHenry that Hamilton, whom he called “the greatest intriguant in the World—a man devoid of every moral principle—a Bastard,” was the source of all the Federalists’ problems and that Jefferson was an “infinitely better” and “wiser” man.85 Learning of Adams’s tirade, and especially the reference to his illegitimacy, a deeply dispirited Hamilton concluded that the president was “more mad than I ever thought him,” and because of his praise of Jefferson perhaps “as wicked as he is mad.”86

Abandoning all sense of prudence and perspective, Hamilton and some other High Federalists began working to find some alternative to Adams as president, perhaps by electing Pinckney over Adams, or even by calling Washington out of retirement. With his dreams of making the United States a great nation falling apart all around him, Hamilton finally exploded. If he could not instigate a duel with the president to defend his honor, then he would publish a letter that would destroy the president and promote Pinckney’s candidacy, all in “the shape of a defence of my self”—a delicate task that was beyond his angry mood.87 In the summer and fall of 1800 he wrote a fifty-four-page privately published Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.

In this work, which apparently was originally intended to circulate only among select Federalists, including Federalist electors, Hamilton described Adams’s career in detail, praising here and there but mostly criticizing the man for his “eccentric tendencies,” his “distempered jealousy,” his “extreme egotism,” his “ungovernable temper,” and his “vanity without bounds.” He also attempted to answer Adams’s “virulent and indecent abuses” of himself, especially Adams’s charge that he was “the leader of a British Faction.” In his counter-charge Hamilton said that Adams, with his many “paroxysms of anger,” had undone everything that Washington had established in his presidency, and if he were to continue as president, he might bring the government to ruin. Despite saying that he had “the unqualified conviction of [Adams’s] unfitness” for the office, Hamilton ended his diatribe strangely enough by supporting the president’s re-election. Apparently he was hoping for some sort of combination of electoral votes that would result in a Pinckney victory.88

Republicans published excerpts of the leaked Letter in newspapers, a far from dignified forum, which compelled a horrified Hamilton to release the whole to the press. Although the Letter was not entirely wrong in its assessment of Adams’s quirky temperament, when widely circulated, it became a disaster both for Hamilton personally and for the Federalist party. The Federalists were appalled, and the Republicans were gleeful. It was ironic, to say the least, that Republican editors were going to prison for saying some of the very things about the president that Hamilton said in his pamphlet. Although Hamilton’s Letter may not by itself have prevented Adams’s re-election, its appearance was evidence of the deep division among the Federalists that made Jefferson’s election as president more or less inevitable.

That division was brought about by Adams’s decision to send a new mission to France, the issue that Hamilton most dwelled on in his Letter . Adams, always ready to bemoan his country’s neglect of his achievements, considered this decision to try once again to negotiate with France, as he never tired of telling his correspondents, to be “the most disinterested, prudent, and successful conduct in my whole life.”89 This controversial decision may have been precipitate and injudicious, as Hamilton claimed it was, but it did effectively end the war crisis; and thus it undermined the attempts of the extreme Federalists to strengthen the central government and the military establishment of the United States. After months of negotiations, France, under First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, who would soon make himself emperor, agreed to terms and in 1800 signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine with the United States that brought the Quasi-War to a close and suspended the Franco-American treaty of 1778, thus freeing America from its first of what Jefferson would refer to as “entangling alliances.” Unfortunately for Adams, word of the ending of the conflict did not reach America until the Republicans had won the presidency.90

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