The Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800

Born in reaction to the popular excesses of the Revolution, the Federalist world could not endure. The Federalists of the 1790s stood in the way of popular democracy as it was emerging in the United States, and thus they became heretics opposed to the developing democratic faith. To be sure, they believed in popular sovereignty and republican government, but they did not believe that ordinary people had a direct role to play in ruling the society. They were so confident that the future belonged to them, that the society would become less egalitarian and more hierarchical, that they treated the people with condescension and lost touch with them. “They have attempted,” as Noah Webster observed, “to resist the force of public opinion, instead of falling into the current with a view to correct it. In this they have manifested more integrity than address.”1 Indeed, they were so out of touch with the developing popular realities of American life, and their monarchical program was so counter to the libertarian impulses of America’s republican ideology, that they provoked a second revolutionary movement that threatened to tear the Republic apart.

Only the electoral victory of the Republicans in 1800 ended this threat and brought, in the eyes of many Americans, the entire revolutionary venture of two and a half decades to successful completion. Indeed, “the Revolution of 1800,” as the Republican leader and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, later called it, “was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.”2 He and his Republican party took over the presidency and both houses of the Congress in 1801 with a worldview that was fundamentally different from that of the Federalists. Not only were the Republicans opposed to traditional monarchies with their bloated executives, high taxes, oppressive debts, and standing armies and in favor of republics with the least government possible, but they also dreamed of a world different from any that had ever existed, a world of democratic republics in which the scourge of war would at last be eliminated and peace would reign among all nations. It is not surprising that Jefferson’s election helped to convince a despairing Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant leader of the Federalists, who more than anyone had pursued the heroic dreams of the age, “that this American world was not meant for me.”3

JEFFERSON PERSONIFIED this revolutionary transformation. His ideas about liberty and democracy left such a deep imprint on the future of his country that, despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as there is a United States he will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation’s noblest ideals and highest aspirations.

Yet Jefferson himself was the most unlikely of popular radicals. He was a well-connected and highly cultivated Southern landowner who never had to scramble for his position in Virginia. The wealth and leisure that made possible his great contributions to liberty and democracy were supported by the labor of hundreds of slaves. He was tall—six feet two or three—and gangling, with a reddish freckled complexion, bright hazel eyes, and copper-colored hair, which he tended to wear unpowdered in a queue. Unlike his fellow Revolutionary John Adams, whom he both fought and befriended for fifty years, he was reserved, self-possessed, and incurably optimistic, sometimes to the point of quixoticism. Although he could be shrewd and practical, his sense of the future was sometimes skewed. As late as 1806, for example, he believed that Norfolk, Virginia, would soon surpass New York as a great commercial city and would probably in time become “the greatest sea-port in the United States, New Orleans perhaps excepted.”4 He disliked personal controversy and was always charming in face-to-face relations with both friends and enemies. But at a distance he could hate, and thus many of his opponents concluded that he was two-faced and duplicitous.

He was undoubtedly complicated. He mingled the loftiest visions with astute backroom politicking. He spared himself nothing and was a compulsive shopper, yet he extolled the simple yeoman farmer who was free from the lures of the marketplace. He hated the obsessive money-making, the proliferating banks, and the liberal capitalistic world that emerged in the Northern states in the early nineteenth century, but no one in America did more to bring that world about. Although he kept the most tidy and meticulous accounts of his daily transactions, he never added up his profits and losses. He thought public debts were the curse of a healthy state, yet his private debts kept mounting as he borrowed and borrowed again to meet his rising expenditures. He was a sophisticated man of the world who loved no place better than his remote mountaintop home in Virginia. This slaveholding aristocrat ended up becoming the most important apostle for liberty and democracy in American history.

Jefferson’s narrow victory in the presidential election of 1800 confirmed the changing course of national developments. Jefferson received seventy-three electoral votes to the sixty-five of the Federalist candidate, John Adams. For several weeks even that close victory was in doubt. Because the original Constitution did not state that the electors had to distinguish between their votes for president and those for vice-president, both Jefferson and the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, had received the same number of electoral votes. Because of this tie, the election, according to the Constitution, was to be thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state congressional delegation would have a single vote. The newly elected Republican-dominated Congress would not be seated until December 1801. Suddenly, there loomed the possibility that the lame-duck Federalists in the Congress would be able to engineer the election of Aaron Burr as president.

Many Federalists wanted to do just that, including John Marshall, whom John Adams in the waning days of his administration had appointed chief justice of the United States. Marshall did not know Burr at all, but he did know Jefferson, his cousin, and he had “almost insuperable objections” to Jefferson’s character.5 Marshall feared what the Republican leader would do to the authority of the nation and the presidency, to the Federalist commercial and banking systems, and to American foreign policy. Federalists figured that Jefferson was a doctrinaire democrat who wanted to take the country back to something resembling the Articles of Confederation, and that he was in the pocket of France and would likely go to war with Great Britain. Burr posed no such threat. Some of the Federalists thought that they might work out a deal with Burr. The country was on the verge of a constitutional crisis.

DURING THE EARLY 1790S Aaron Burr had been one of the most promising leaders in American politics. He had been a member of the United States Senate from New York, and in the election of 1796 he had received thirty electoral votes for president. He seemed to have everything a gentleman could want—looks, charm, extraordinary abilities, a Princeton education, distinguished Revolutionary service, and, above all, a notable lineage. John Adams said that he had “never known, in any country, the prejudice in favor of birth, parentage, and descent more conspicuous than in the instance of Colonel Burr.” Unlike most of the other Revolutionary leaders, who were the first in their families to attend college, Burr was the son of a president of Princeton and the grandson of another Princeton president—Jonathan Edwards, the most famous theologian in eighteenth-century America—and, said Adams, he “was connected by blood with many respectable families in New England.”6 This presumption that he was already an aristocrat by blood separated Burr from most of the other leaders of the Revolutionary generation. He always had an air of superiority about him, and he always considered himself to be more of a gentleman than other men.7

He certainly sought to live the life of an eighteenth-century aristocratic gentleman. He had the best of everything—fine houses, elegant clothes, lavish coaches, superb wines. His sexual excesses and his celebrated liberality flowed from his traditional European notions of gentility. Since real gentlemen were not supposed to work for a living, he could not regard his law practice, or indeed even money—that “paltry object”—with anything but distaste.8 Like a perfect Chesterfieldian gentleman, he almost never revealed his inner feelings. In several respects he was highly enlightened, especially in his opposition to slavery (despite owning slaves himself) and in his advanced position on the role of women.9

The great flaw in Burr’s desire to be an eighteenth-century aristocrat was that he lacked the money to bring it off. Money was “contemptible,” he said.10 Despite being one of the most highly paid lawyers in New York, he was perpetually in debt and often on the edge of bankruptcy because of his lavish living. He borrowed over and over and created complicated structures of credit that always threatened to come crashing down. It was this insecure financial situation coupled with his grandiose expectations that led to his wheeling and dealing and self-serving politics.

Burr could easily have become a Federalist. He viewed politics largely in traditional terms—as contests between “great men” and their followers, tied together by strings of interest and influence. He expected that someone with his pedigree and talent was owed high office as a matter of course, and that naturally public office was to be used to maintain his position and influence. Beyond what politics could do for his friends, his family, and him personally, it had little emotional significance for him. Politics, as he once put it, was “fun and honor & profit.”11

Of course, other politicians of the early Republic viewed politics in much the same way as Burr did, especially in New York with its family-based factions of Clintons, Livingstons, Van Rensselaers, and Schuylers. Yet no other political leader of his prominence ever spent so much time and energy so blatantly scheming for his own personal and political advantage. And no one of the other great Revolutionary statesmen was so immune to the ideology and the values of the Revolution as Burr was.

Burr certainly had little of the aversion to the use of patronage, or what was often called “corruption,” that a Revolutionary ideologue like Jefferson had. Burr was utterly shameless in recommending anyone and everyone for an office—even in the end himself. Jefferson recalled that he had first met Burr when Burr was senator from New York in the early 1790s, and he mistrusted him right away. He remembered that when both the Washington and Adams administrations were about to make a major military or diplomatic appointment, Burr came quickly to the capital “to shew himself” and to let the administration know, in Jefferson’s words, “that he was always at market, if they had wanted him.” Burr’s zealousness over patronage was crucial in eventually convincing Jefferson that Burr was not Jefferson’s kind of Republican.12

For Burr, befriending people and creating personal loyalties and connections was the way politics and society worked. Aristocrats were patrons, and they had clients who were obliged to them. Hence Burr sought to patronize as many people as he could. His celebrated liberality and generosity grew out of this need. Like any “great man” of the age, he even patronized young artists, including New York painter John Vanderlyn, whom he sent on a grand tour of Europe.

Most of Burr’s surviving correspondence deals either with patronage and influence or with speculative money-making schemes. Many of his letters were the hastily scribbled notes of a busy man who did not have the time or the desire to put much on paper. They were for the moment and, unlike the letters of the other Founders, were rarely written with a future audience in mind. Indeed, he once warned his law clerks, “Things written remain.”13 He was always worried that his letters might “miscarry,” and thus he tried to avoid saying anything in them too implicating. “If it were discreet to write plainly,” he said at one point, but in his conspiratorial world it was rarely possible to write plainly. He repeatedly appended warnings to his letters: “Say nothing of this to any other person,” or “Let no suspicion arise that you have any knowledge of these matters,” or “The recommendation must not appear to have been influenced by me,” or “You & I should not appear to act in concert.”14

But the peculiar character of Burr’s correspondence goes beyond his preoccupation with haste and secrecy. Burr never developed any ideas about constitutionalism or governmental policy in the way the other Revolutionary statesmen did, because, in truth, he was not much concerned about such matters. If he had an idea about the new federal Constitution of 1787, he left no record of it. Nor did he have much to say about the Federalists’ great financial program of the early 1790 s. Although he mentioned Hamilton’s plan for a national bank at one point in 1791—the year he was elected to the U.S. Senate—he confessed he had not read Hamilton’s arguments.15 Burr had “no theory,” it was said; he was “a mere matter of fact man.” He seems not to have cared much what posterity thought of him. Burr, said Hamilton, in his most damning indictment, “never appeared solicitous for fame.”16

Burr never pretended to be public-spirited in the fulsome way that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and other Founders did. There was nothing self-righteous and hypocritical about him. Perhaps because he was so sure of his aristocratic lineage, he did not have the same emotional need the other Revolutionary statesmen had to justify a gentlemanly status by continually expressing an abhorrence of corruption and a love of virtue.

In the early 1790s Burr could have gone in several different directions; only a series of accidents and his own trimming temperament had thrown him into the Republican party. He opposed Jay’s Treaty and championed the Democratic-Republican Societies against Washington’s criticism. When his efforts to become vice-president in 1796 did not pan out, he lost interest in his Senate seat; he stopped attending the sessions and devoted his attention to making money through speculation. Because there were more opportunities for money-making in the state legislature than in the Congress, he entered the New York assembly in the hope of aiding his business associates and restoring his personal fortune. He pushed for tax exemptions, bridge and road charters, land bounties, alien rights to own land—any scheme in which he and his friends had an interest. His manipulation of the Manhattan Company in 1798–1799, where he used a state charter to provide water for the city of New York as a cover for the creation of a bank, was only the most notorious of his self-interested shenanigans.

Burr’s political skills were extraordinary. He developed remarkably modern hands-on techniques for organizing the Republican party and getting out the vote. Eventually he built such a strong political machine in New York that he was able to carry the state assembly for the Republicans in the spring elections of 1800. Artisans and other workers in New York City were especially angry at Hamilton and the Federalists’ general neglect of their interests, and in the election to the assembly they supported the Republicans by a two-to-one margin.

Since the New York legislature chose the presidential electors, the Republican presidential candidates would be assured of all twelve of New York’s electoral votes later that year. The frightening prospect that Jefferson might become president led a desperate Hamilton to urge Governor John Jay to change retroactively the state’s electoral rules and reverse the results, telling Jay that “in times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overly scrupulous.” It was imperative, he said, “to prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from gaining possession of the helm of the State.” Jay never replied, writing on the back of Hamilton’s letter, “Proposing a measure for party purposes which it would not become me to adopt.”17

SINCE THE REPUBLICANS had known that New York would make all the difference in the presidential election of 1800, they had made Burr their candidate for vice-president. No Republican, however, expected him to get the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson.

In the House of Representatives nine states were needed for election. Although the Federalists had a majority of congressmen in this lame-duck Congress, they controlled only six state delegations; the Republicans controlled eight. The congressional delegations of two states, Vermont and Maryland, were evenly divided between the two parties. The prospect loomed that no president might be elected in time for the inauguration on March 4, 1801. All sorts of plans flew about—ranging from Federalist ideas of the Federalist-dominated Congress selecting an interim president to Republican ideas of holding a new election. Symptomatic of their contrasting situations, the Federalists relied on legalistic and constitutional manipulations, while the Republicans generally relied on their faith in the people, creating what one scholar has called the “plebiscitarian principle” of the presidency—the notion that the presidency rightfully belongs to the candidate whose party has won an electoral mandate from the voters. Jefferson himself came to describe the presidency in these terms: It was the “Duty of the Chief magistrate . . .,” he said, “to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people” in order to “produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind.”18

Federalists thought they might be able to convince some congressmen to throw the election to Burr. Indeed, so great was the Federalists’ fear of Jefferson that many of them thought that simply electing Burr was the best way of keeping Jefferson out of the presidency. Burr, said Federalist Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, was a much safer choice than Jefferson. Burr was no democrat, he was not attached to any foreign nation, and he was not an enthusiast for any sort of theory. He was just an ordinary selfish, interested politician who would promote whatever would benefit him. Burr’s “very selfishness,” said Sedgwick, was his saving grace. Burr had personally benefited so much from the Federalists’ national and commercial systems, said Sedgwick, that he would do nothing to dismantle them.19

Hamilton, for one, disagreed violently. To him (and to Jefferson too), Burr’s reputation for “selfishness” was precisely the problem. Burr may have represented what most American politicians would eventually become—pragmatic, get-along men—but to Hamilton and Jefferson he violated everything they had thought the American Revolution had been about. There was “no doubt” in Hamilton’s mind that “upon every virtuous and prudent calculation” Jefferson was to be preferred to Burr. It was a matter of character, he said: Burr had none, and Jefferson at least had “pretensions to character.”20

When it seemed likely that the election would end in a tie, Hamilton spared no energy in trying to convince his fellow Federalists to support Jefferson over Burr. Over five or six weeks in December 1800 and January 1801, he wrote letter after letter in a frantic campaign to prevent Burr from becoming president. “For heaven’s sake,” he pleaded with Sedgwick, “let not the Federal party be responsible for the elevation of this Man.” “Burr,” he told his correspondents over and over, “is sanguine enough to hope every thing—daring enough to attempt every thing—wicked enough to scruple nothing.”21 Hamilton preferred Jefferson even though they were personal enemies; indeed, he said, “if there be a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson.” And he knew too that the opposite was true with Burr: he had always gotten along well with him personally. But, said Hamilton, his personal relations should not count in this matter. The country’s survival was at stake, and “the public good,” he insisted, “must be paramount to every private consideration.”22

Burr did little during the crisis to disabuse people of his reputation for selfishness. Although he did not campaign for the presidency and never approached the Federalists, neither did he announce that he would refuse the presidency and resign the office if he should be elected. Many Republicans would never forgive him for his unwillingness to sacrifice himself for the cause; they assumed that he had intrigued against Jefferson. That he had not done, but he was certainly angry with many of the Republicans, especially those from Virginia who had deceived him in 1792 and 1796 .

Over the course of several days in mid-February 1801 the House voted thirty-five times with no majority. Inauguration day, March 4, drew ever closer. Republican newspapers talked of military intervention. The governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania began preparing their state militias for action. Mobs gathered in the capital and threatened to prevent any president from being appointed by statute. On February 15 Jefferson wrote Governor James Monroe of Virginia that the Republicans had warned the Federalists that any statutory naming of a president would lead to the arming of the Middle States and the prevention of any “such usurpation.” Moreover, the Republicans threatened to call a new constitutional convention, which, said Jefferson, gave the Federalists “horrors; as in the present democratical spirit of America, they fear they should lose some of the favourite morsels of the constitution.”23

Finally Senator James Bayard, a moderate Federalist from Delaware, received from General Samuel Smith, a Republican from Maryland, what Bayard took to be firm assurances from Jefferson that he would preserve the Federalist financial program, maintain the navy, and refrain from dismissing subordinate Federalist officeholders except for cause. Although Jefferson declared that he would not go into the presidency “with my hands tied,” and Smith later said that these assurances were his opinion only, Federalists in Congress thought they had a deal with Jefferson.24 On February 17, 1801, some Federalist delegations abstained from voting, and on the thirty-sixth ballot Jefferson was finally elected president, receiving the vote of ten states to four for Burr, with two states blank.

To avoid a repetition of this electoral impasse, the country adopted the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed the electors to designate their presidential and vice-presidential choices separately in their ballots. This amendment turned the Electoral College from a decision-making body to a device for apportioning votes. It also signaled that presidential politics had become popular in a way the Founders in 1787 had not anticipated.25

Although the Republican Aurora declared that Jefferson’s election meant that “the Revolution of 1776, is now, and for the first time arrived at its completion,” the confused electoral maneuvering makes it difficult to see the bold and revolutionary character of the event.26 It was one of the first popular elections in modern history that resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from one “party” to another. Jefferson’s inauguration, as one sympathetic observer noted, was “one of the most interesting scenes, a free people could ever witness. The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder.”27

At the outset Jefferson himself struck a note of conciliation: “We are all republicans—we are all federalists,” he declared in his inaugural address—an expression of his traditional desire, shared by some other Republicans, to get rid of unnecessary party designations. The chasm that the Federalists had created between the federal government and the people was now closed, and there was no real need any longer for the Republican party. Because the Republicans believed that they were “the people,” they were willing to absorb many Federalists into their cause, thus reinforcing the sense of continuity with the 1790 s.

Consequently, the Jeffersonian “Revolution of 1800” has blended nearly imperceptibly into the main democratic currents of American history. Jefferson himself was sensible of his inability to accomplish “all the reformation which reason would suggest and experience approve.” He was not free to do whatever he thought best, he said; he realized how difficult it was “to advance the notions of a whole people suddenly to ideal right,” and he concluded “that no more good must be attempted than the people will bear.”28 Still, when compared to the consolidated heroic European-like state that the Federalists tried to build in the 1790s, what Jefferson and the Republicans did after 1800 proved that a real revolution—as real as Jefferson said it was—had taken place.29

IN HIS INAUGURAL ADDRESS the fifty-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson contemplated “a rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations that feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye.” America, he said, was “the world’s best hope,” and it possessed “the strongest Government on earth.” It was “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendents to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” He believed that the spirit of 1776 had finally been fulfilled and that the United States could at last become a beacon of liberty for the world. “A just and solid republican government” of the kind he sought to build, he said, “will be a standing monument & example for the aim & imitation of the people of other countries.” The American Revolution was a world-historical event, something “new under the sun,” he told the radical scientist Joseph Priestley. It had excited the minds of “the mass of mankind,” he said, and its “consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe.” No wonder Jefferson became the fount of American democracy, for he set forth at the outset of his presidency a body of American ideas and ideals that have persisted to this day.30

Believing that most of the evils afflicting human beings in the past had flowed from the abuses of inflated political establishments, Jefferson and the Republicans in 1800 deliberately set about to carry out what they rightly believed was the original aim of the Revolution: to reduce the overweening and dangerous power of government. Both Jefferson and his fellow Republicans wanted to form a national republic based on the eighteenth-century country-Whig opposition ideology that held that the smaller the government, the better. Jefferson had not initially much liked the Constitution. He thought the president was “a bad edition of a Polish king.” In fact, he thought that three or four new articles added “to the good, old, and venerable fabrick” of the Articles of Confederation would have sufficed.31 In 1801 he and his fellow Republicans were in a position to ensure that the United States would continue to be spoken of in the plural, as a union of separate sovereign states, which remained the case through the entire antebellum period. In short, they aimed to make the central government’s authority resemble that of the old Articles of Confederation rather than that of the European-type state that the Federalists had sought to build. To do so, Jefferson and his colleagues had to create a general government that could rule without the traditional attributes of power.

From the outset Jefferson was determined that the new government would spurn even the usual rituals of power. At the very beginning he set a new tone of republican simplicity that was in sharp contrast to the stiff formality and regal ceremony with which the Federalists had surrounded the presidency. No elaborately ornamented coach drawn by four or six horses for Jefferson: the president-elect walked from his boardinghouse on New Jersey Avenue to his inauguration without any fanfare whatsoever. He immediately sold the coaches, horses, and silver harnesses that President Adams had used and kept only a one-horse market cart.

That day in March 1801 on which he became president, he said, “buried levees, birthdays, royal parades, and the arrogation of precedence in society by certain self-stiled friends of order, but truly stiled friends of privileged orders.”32 Since the Federalist presidents Washington and Adams, like the English monarchs, had delivered their addresses to the Congress “from the throne,” Jefferson chose to deliver his message in writing to which no formal answer from the Congress would be expected; this set a precedent that was not broken until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Unlike Washington and Adams, Jefferson (“his Democratic majesty,” as one person called him) made himself easily accessible to visitors, all of whom, no matter how distinguished, he received, as the British chargé reported, “with a most perfect disregard to ceremony both in his dress and manner.” His dress was often informal, he sometimes greeted guests in carpet slippers, and he wore his hair, said one observer, “in negligent disorder, though not ungracefully.”33

At American state occasions President Jefferson, to the shock of foreign dignitaries, replaced the protocol and the distinctions of European court life with the egalitarian rules of what he called “pell-mell” or “next the door,” which essentially meant, sit wherever one wanted. His treatment of the new pompous minister from Great Britain, Anthony Merry, became notorious. Not only did Jefferson greet Merry in his usual casual manner, but he added to the minister’s astonishment at a dinner by paying no attention to Merry and his wife’s rank in seating and by inviting the French minister to the same dinner, even though the two countries were at war. After this experience, Merry never accepted another invitation to dine with the president.

While Jefferson’s gentlemanly tastes scarcely allowed for any actual leveling in social gatherings, his symbolic transformation of manners at the capital reflected changes that were taking place in American society. For the Republican revolution brought to the national government men who, unlike Jefferson, did not have the outward manners of gentlemen, who did not know one another, and who were decidedly not at home in polite society. Over half the members of the Republican-dominated Seventh Congress that convened in December 1801, for example, were new.34The British envoy in Washington wondered how long such a system of ordinary men with humble occupations promoting the “low arts of popularity” could last. “The excess of the democratic ferment in this people is continuously evinced by the dregs having got to the top.”35

THE REMOVAL OF THE NATIONAL CAPITAL in 1800 from Philadelphia to the rural wilderness of the Federal City on the Potomac accentuated the transformation of power. It dramatized the Republicans’ attempt to separate the national government from intimate involvement in the society. “Congress were almost overawed by the city [of Philadelphia],” recalled Matthew Lyon of his experiences as a congressman in the 1790 s; “measures were dictated by that city.” Lyon even referred to the sources of influence as “a commanding lobby,” one of the first instances of the term being used in this modern sense. Other congressmen had also feared the influence of Philadelphia’s lobbyists. “We talk of our independence,” Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina reminded his congressional colleagues, “but every man in Congress, when at Philadelphia, knew that city had more than its proportional weight in the councils of the Union.” To prevent this kind of social and commercial pressure, many of the Republicans aimed to erect the very kind of government that Hamilton in Federalist No. 27 had warned against, “a government at a distance and out of sight” that could “hardly be expected to interest the sensations of the people.”36

The new capital, as a British diplomat noted, was “like no other in the world.” It was surrounded by woods, its streets were muddy and filled with tree stumps, its landscape was swampy and mosquito infested, and its unfinished government buildings stood like Roman ruins in a deserted ancient city. Although one could easily could get mired in the red mud of Pennsylvania Avenue, “excellent snipe shooting and even partridge shooting was to be had on each side of the main avenue and even close under the wall of the Capitol.”37 Cows grazed on the Mall, and Pierre L’Enfant’s splendid squares were used as vegetable gardens. Not a single merchant house stood in the city, nor anything in the way of clubs or theaters. Land auctions were held, but few bids were made. Washington’s hopes for a national university in the city went begging. The Potomac was dredged, bridges were built, but still no trade, no business, came to the capital. The bulk of the tiny population seemed to be on poor relief.

The Federal City remained such a primitive and desolate village that, in the words of the secretary of the British legation, “one may take a ride of several hours within the precincts without meeting a single individual to disturb one’s meditations.”38 Since houses were scattered and had no street numbers and the few existing roads had no lamps and often trailed off into cow paths, people easily got lost. If it had been completed, the Capitol would have been imposing, but the Senate and House chambers stood in unfinished isolation, joined by only a covered boardwalk. Inside the Capitol, the design and workmanship were so poor that columns split, roofs leaked, and portions of the ceilings collapsed. Still, Jefferson lived with the hope, as he said in 1808, that “the work when finished will be a durable and honorable monument of our infant republic, and will bear favorable comparison with the remains of the same kind of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome.”39

The “President’s Palace,” as the White House was originally called, was the largest house in the country and, because of Washington’s influence, was as impressive as the Capitol, but it was equally unfinished. For years its grounds resembled a construction site with workmen’s shacks, privies, and old brick-kilns scattered about, so cluttered, in fact, that visitors to the President’s House were always in danger of falling into a pit or stumbling into a heap of rubbish. Because of the unwillingness of the parsimonious Republican Congress to spend money, everything in the capital remained unfinished, complained the English-trained architect Benjamin Latrobe, who had migrated to the United States in 1796 and had become surveyor of public buildings under Jefferson.40

In other words, this new and remote capital, the city of Washington in the District of Columbia, utterly failed to attract the population, the commerce, and the social and cultural life that were needed to make what its original planners had boldly expected, the Rome of the New World. Instead of acquiring the population of one hundred sixty thousand that one of the city’s commissioners had predicted “as a matter of course in a few years,” Washington remained for the next two decades an out-of-the-way village of less than ten thousand inhabitants whose principal business was the keeping of boardinghouses.41 Situated on a marsh, the Federal City fully deserved the many jibes of visitors, including that of the Irish poet Thomas Moore:

This fam’d metropolis, where fancy sees

Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;

Which traveling fools and gazetteers adorn

With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn,

Though nought but wood and [Jefferson] they see,

Where streets should run and sages ought to be!42

THE REPUBLICANS IN FACT meant to have an insignificant national government. The federal government, Jefferson declared in his first message to Congress in 1801, was “charged with the external and mutual relations only of these states.” All the rest—the “principal care of our persons, our property, and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns”—were to be left to the states, which Jefferson thought were the best governments in the world.43 Such a limited national government meant turning back a decade of Federalist policy in order to restore what Virginia Republican theorist John Taylor called the “pristine health” of the Constitution. The Sedition Act was allowed to lapse, and a new liberal naturalization law was adopted. Because of what Jefferson called the Federalist “scenes of favoritism” and “dissipation of treasure,” strict economy was ordered to root out corruption.44

The inherited Federalist governmental establishment was small even by eighteenth-century European standards. In 1801 the headquarters of the War Department, for example, consisted of only the secretary, an accountant, fourteen clerks, and two messengers. The secretary of state had a staff consisting of a chief clerk, six other clerks (one of whom ran the patent office), and a messenger. The attorney general did not yet even have a clerk. Nevertheless, in Jefferson’s eyes, this tiny federal bureaucracy had become “too complicated, too expensive,” and offices under the Federalists had “multiplied unnecessarily.”45

The number of offices had certainly grown over the previous decade. The listing of offices in the early 1790s took up only eleven pages; ten years later the roll filled nearly sixty pages.46 Everywhere in the previous Federalist administrations, Jefferson saw “expenses . . . for jobs not seen; agencies upon agencies in every part of the earth, and for the most useless or mischievous purposes, and all of these opening doors for fraud and embezzlement far beyond the ostensible profits of the agency.”47 Thus the roll of federal officials had to be severely cut back. All tax inspectors and collectors were eliminated, which shrank the number of treasury employees by 40 percent. The diplomatic establishment was reduced to three missions—in Britain, France, and Spain. If Jefferson could have had his way, he would have gotten rid of all the foreign missions. Like other enlightened believers in the possibility of universal peace, he longed to have only commercial connections with other nations.48

The Republicans were determined to destroy the Federalist dream of creating a modern army and navy. When Jefferson learned early in 1800 of Napoleon’s coup d’état of November 1799 that overthrew the French Republic, he did not draw the lesson the Federalists did: that too much democracy led to dictatorship. Instead, he said, “I read it as a lesson against standing armies.”49 After he took office, he made sure that the military budget was cut in half. Since the armed forces had been the largest cause of non-debt-related spending in the 1790s, amounting to nearly 40 percent of the total federal budget, this action meant a severe decrease in the overall expenditures of the national government.

Because the officer corps of the army was Federalist-dominated, it needed to be radically reformed, with the most partisan Federalist officers dismissed and the rest made loyal to the Republican administration. Although Jefferson in the 1790s had opposed the creation of a military academy, he now favored the establishment of one at West Point as a means of educating Republican army officers, especially those whose families lacked the wealth to send their sons to college. The Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802 that laid the basis for Jefferson’s reform of the army gave the president extraordinary powers over the new academy and the Corps of Engineers charged with its operation.50

Until it could be thoroughly “republicanized,” the army, stationed in the West, was left with three thousand regulars and only 172 officers. The state militias were enough for America’s defense, said Jefferson. Although the navy’s war machine consisted of only a half-dozen frigates, Jefferson wanted to replace this semblance of a standing navy with several hundred small, shallow-draft gunboats, which were intended simply for inland waters and harbor defense. They would be the navy’s version of the militia, unquestionably designed for defense of the coastline and not for risky military ventures on the high seas. Such small, defensive ships, said Jefferson, could never “become an excitement to engage in offensive maritime war” and were unlikely to provoke naval attacks from hostile foreign powers.51 The kind of permanent military establishment the Federalists had desired was both expensive and, more important, a threat to liberty.

Since Hamilton’s financial program had formed the basis of the heightened political power of the federal government, it above all had to be dismantled—at least to the extent possible. It mortified Jefferson that his government inherited “the contracted, English, half-lettered ideas of Hamilton. . . . We can pay off his debt in 15 years, but we can never get rid of his financial system.” But something could be done. All the internal excise taxes the Federalists had designed to make the people feel the energy of the national government were eliminated. For most citizens the federal presence was reduced to the delivery of the mail. Such an inconsequential and distant government, noted one observer in 1811, was “too little felt in the ordinary concerns of life to vie in any considerable degree with the nearer and more powerful influence produced by the operations of the local governments.”52

ALTHOUGH JEFFERSON’S EXTREMELY ABLE secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, persuaded the reluctant president to keep the Bank of the United States, the government was under continual pressure to reduce the Bank’s influence, especially from state banking interests. When the Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791, there were only four state banks; but since then their numbers had grown and were continuing to grow dramatically, twenty-eight by 1800, eighty-seven by 1811, and 246 by 1816. Despite the hopes of some Federalists that the branches of the BUS might absorb the state banks, that had not happened. In 1791 Fisher Ames had predicted that “the state Banks will become unfriendly to that of the U.S. Causes of hatred & rivalry will abound. The state banks . . . may become dangerous instruments in the hands of state partisans.”53Ames was correct. The proliferating state banks resented the restraints the BUS was able to place on their ability to issue paper money, and from the beginning they sought to weaken or destroy it.

Then as now banking remained a mysterious business for many Americans. Many of the Southern planters scarcely understood banking, and those Northern gentry who lived off salaries or proprietary wealth such as rents and interest from money out on loan were not much more knowledgeable. The only real money, of course, was specie or gold and silver. But since there was never enough specie and it was unwieldy to carry, the banks issued pieces of paper (that is, made loans) in their own names, promising to pay gold and silver to the bearer on demand. Yet most people, confident that the bank could redeem their notes at any time, did not bother to have them redeemed and instead passed the notes on to one another in commercial exchanges. The banks soon realized they could lend out two, three, four, or five times in paper notes the amount of gold and silver they had in their vaults to cover these notes. Since the banks made money from these loans, they had a vested interest in issuing as many notes as they could.

Opposition to the Bank of the United States came from two principal sources: from Southern agrarians like Jefferson who never understood banks and hated them, and from the entrepreneurial interests of the state banks who did not like their paper-issuing abilities restrained in any way. In 1792 Jefferson was so angry at Hamilton that he told Madison that the federal government’s chartering of the BUS, which it had no right to do, was “an act of treason” against the states, and anyone who tried to “act under colour of the authority of a foreign legislature” (that is, the federal Congress) and issue and pass notes ought to be “adjudged guilty of high treason and suffer death accordingly, by the judgment of the state courts.” Obviously this was one of those times that Madison was referring to when he said that Jefferson, like other “men of great genius,” had a habit of “expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.” Jefferson never really accepted the idea of a bank (“a source of poison and corruption”) or the paper it issued. Such paper, he said, was designed “to enrich swindlers at the expense of the honest and industrious part of the nation.” He could not comprehend how “legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth or hard labor in the earth. It is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing .”54

But the more important enemies of the BUS were the state banks. By regularly redeeming the outstanding notes of the state banks, the BUS had checked their ability to issue notes too far in excess of what they could cover with specie, that is, their reserves; and this had become a deep source of anger. In addition, the state banks resented the monopolistic position the BUS had in holding the national government’s deposits and condemned it for being Federalist and British-dominated. Jefferson agreed. If they had to exist, then, as he told Gallatin in 1803, he was “decidedly in favor of making all the banks republican by sharing [the federal government’s] deposits amongst them in proportion to the dispositions they show,” by which he meant their loyalty to the Republican cause.55 When the twenty-year charter of Hamilton’s BUS was about to expire in 1811, it was not surprising that these state banks were determined that it would not be renewed.

Despite the opposition of President Jefferson and later President Madison to the BUS, Gallatin, who knew something about banks and had created in 1793 a state bank for Pennsylvania modeled on the BUS, urged that the Bank of the United States be issued a new charter. He knew that the issue was tricky, that the Virginia Republicans regarded the Bank as a British bank, and he worried that the question might become “blended with or affected by . . . extraneous political considerations.” As early as 1808 the Bank applied for renewal of its charter, and Gallatin earnestly supported the application, offering to enlarge the number of stockholders so as to include fewer foreigners. Congress delayed dealing with the issue until 1811. By this time the radical Republican press was excoriating Gallatin for showing “alarming symptoms in the English style.”56 Despite Gallatin’s enthusiastic backing of a new charter for the BUS, the Congress by the closest of votes denied the re-chartering, and the state banks had their victory and the national government’s deposits. Gallatin warned that the switch to the state banks would be “attended with much individual, and probably with no inconsiderable public injury,” and questioned “why an untried system should be substituted to one under which the treasury business had so long been conducted with perfect security,” but all to no avail.57

Although Gallatin later blamed the defeat more on the Republican ideologues than on pressure from the state banks, the result was that the federal government distributed its patronage among twenty-one state banks and thus effectively diluted its authority to control either the society or the economy.

With the demise of the BUS, America suddenly went wild in creating new banks. Seventy-one banks, including the BUS, had been created in the two decades between 1790 and 1811. In the next five years 175 additional state-chartered banks were established. These banks, unlike the original Bank of North America or the BUS, were not just sources of credit for government, not just commercial banks, handling short-term credit for merchants, but banks for all the different economic interests of the society that wanted easy, long-term credit—mechanics and farmers as well as governments and merchants. In 1792 the Massachusetts legislature had required the second state bank it created to lend at least 20 percent of its funds to citizens living outside of the city of Boston in order that the bank “shall wholly and exclusively regard the agricultural interest.”58 The state charter setting up the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Philadelphia in 1809 had stipulated that a majority of the directors be “farmers, mechanics, and manufacturers actually employed in their respective professions.” Many new charters had similar requirements.59

And these banks were to be located not merely in the large urban centers such as Philadelphia or Boston but also in such outlying areas as Westerly, Rhode Island, where a new bank established in 1800, called Washington Trust, justified itself by declaring that existing state banks in Providence, Newport, and Bristol were “too remote or too confined in their operations to diffuse their benefits so generally to the country as could be wished.” By 1818 the tiny state of Rhode Island, one of the most commercially advanced in the nation, had twenty-seven banks. In 1813 the Pennsylvania legislature in a single bill authorized incorporation of twenty-five new banks. After the governor vetoed this bill, the legislature in 1814 passed over the governor’s veto another bill incorporating forty-one banks. As early as 1793 John Swanwick of Philadelphia had envisioned banks sprouting up in all the provincial towns of the state. “Their number will be so far multiplied,” he told the Pennsylvania legislature, “that it will be no longer a favor to obtain discounts.” By the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century it seemed to one observer that nearly every village in the country had a bank; wherever there was a church, a tavern, and a blacksmith, one could usually find a bank as well. By 1818 Kentucky had forty-three new banks, two of them in towns that had fewer than one hundred inhabitants.60

It was the proliferation of these state-chartered banks and their issuing of notes that enabled the states to have paper money after all—despite the Constitution’s prohibition in Article I, Section 10 against the states themselves issuing bills of credit.61 Indeed, since, unlike today, the federal government did not issue any paper money, without these increasing bank notes (that is, credit) the society could never have commercialized as rapidly as it did. By 1815 over two hundred banks had deposits and note liabilities of about $90 million backed by only $17 million of specie.62 In 1808 the Farmers’ Exchange Bank of Gloucester (now Glocester), Rhode Island, emitted over $600,000 in paper; it had, however, only $86. 45 in specie to support these notes. This was too much, even for Rhode Island, which had a notorious reputation for excessive paper emissions or loose credit; and in 1809 the state legislature closed the bank, making it the first bank to fail in United States history.63

The American economy floated on paper. “The circulation of our country,” Senator James Lloyd of Massachusetts declared in 1811, “is at present emphatically a paper circulation; very little specie passes in exchange between individuals.” With this extraordinary multiplication of banks, entrepreneurial farmers in the backcountry had the money and the sources of credit they had long desired, and the agrarian unrest that had troubled the rural areas in the aftermath of the Revolution tended to subside. Indeed, Americans had created a modern financial system that was the equal of any in the world. According to two economic historians, the United States in the early nineteenth century became “history’s most successful emerging market, attracting the capital of investors in older nations seeking higher returns.”64

REPUBLICANIZING THE BANKING SYSTEM may have become important to Jefferson, but shrinking the debt was far more crucial: it went to the heart of the Republicans’ conception of government. Precisely because Hamilton had regarded the permanent federal debt as a principal source of support for the national government, Jefferson and the Republicans were determined to pay it off—and quickly. More important, they regarded the ability of governments to borrow money as the major means by which nations carried on war, something they wished to avoid. In 1798 Jefferson actually thought of amending the Constitution by “taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.” He knew “that to pay all proper expences within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us.” But the alternative was worse, “ten wars instead of one. For wars would be reduced in that proportion.”65 But in 1801 he knew such a proposal would be controversial, and the same end could be accomplished by severe economy.66 Each year of his presidency he habitually called for further reductions in the debt. If the public debt were not extinguished, he warned Gallatin in 1809, “we shall be committed to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution. The discharge of the debt, therefore, is vital to the destinies of our government.”67

By 1810, even with the $15 million in cash and claims spent on the Louisiana Purchase, the Republicans had reduced the federal debt to half of the $80 million it had been when they took office. Jefferson was obsessed with the power of debt. It was not only a matter of preventing a present generation from burdening its descendants or of reducing the wherewithal of waging war. He also wanted to destroy what he considered an insidious and dangerous instrument of political influence. Eliminating the public debt was part of his ultimate desire to create an entirely new kind of government, one without privilege or patronage.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Jefferson’s radical conception of government better than his problems with patronage. In the radical Whig-country view of politics, patronage—appointing people to office and creating clients—was corruption. Jefferson believed that Hamilton, like all the eighteenth-century English ministers of the crown, had built support for his program by essentially buying people off—giving them offices or other favors. When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he was determined to do things differently, to create a republican government that was free of corruption.

The problem was that not all Republicans took his assault on patronage as seriously as he did. Many of them, alarmed by his suggestion in his inaugural address that “we are all republicans, we are all federalists,” thought that he might not thoroughly oust the enemy. Some were reluctant to join a government in which they might have few sources of influence. With the slashing reductions contemplated for the navy, for example, Jefferson had to go to his fifth choice before he got Robert Smith of Maryland to serve as secretary of the navy. Jefferson tried to assure his colleagues that the conciliatory words in his inaugural address referred only to the large body of Federalists, not their leaders. But the Republicans wanted more than just a few officers removed. “Elective government would then be contemptible indeed,” declared William Duane’s Aurora, “if a change of a few superior individuals, without regard to the virtues or integrity of subordinate agents, were to be the only consequences.”68

Jefferson felt beleaguered by this sort of pressure. “It is the business of removal and appointment,” Jefferson grumbled to John Dickinson in June 1801, “which presents the serious difficulties. All others compared with these, are as nothing.” Time and again the president found himself caught between his conscientious determination to avoid anything resembling Hamilton’s corruption and the pressing demands of his fellow Republicans that he give them the offices they deserved. In his reply to a group of New Haven merchants in July 1801 he suggested the Republicans were owed at least “a proportionate share in the direction of the public affairs,” by which he seems to have meant about one-half the offices. His Republican colleagues, however, interpreted the phrase to mean something closer to three-quarters, and this became the rule. The Federalists were furious and castigated the president for being “the head of a party & not of the nation.” No wonder that Jefferson complained that the removal and appointment of officeholders was the heaviest burden of his presidency.69

Of course, once the Federalists were replaced by Republicans, there was no further need for the Republicans to compromise on this issue of patronage, and removals from office for political reasons came to an end. Under Jefferson and his Republican successors, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, the holders of federal government appointments became a permanent officialdom of men grown old in their positions.

Still, many Republican congressmen remained eager to isolate themselves from all executive influence in their desire to prevent the Congress from becoming “a corrupt, servile, dependent and contemptible body” like the British House of Commons. With Jefferson himself being “averse to giving contracts of any kind to members of the Legislature,” Congress in 1808 explicitly forbade this practice in order to maintain, as one Virginia congressman put it, “the purity of the Representative body.”70 Despite this legislative isolation, however, Jefferson was able personally to direct Congress and the Republican party to an extraordinary degree. He used a combination of his initial patronage and some improvised forms of political influence—in particular his use of confidential legislative agents and his weekday legislative dinner parties with congressmen, usually eight in number with no women present.

As Federalist Manasseh Cutler observed in 1802, Jefferson held no levees but instead held dinners for the congressmen in rotation. “Strange” as it seemed, said Cutler, “(if anything done here can be strange) only Federalists or only Democrats are invited at the same time.” The idea, as Jefferson explained in 1806, was to bring congressmen and the president together to “know one another and have opportunities of little explanations of circumstances, which, [if ] not understood might produce jealousies and suspicions injurious to the public interest.” Of course, as the numbers of Federalists in Congress declined, fewer of them needed to be invited to dinner.71

Yet Jefferson’s personal influence and his notable achievements as president cannot obscure the remarkable transformation in the traditional meaning of government that the Republican revolution of 1800 created. During the opening decades of the nineteenth century, especially after Jefferson retired from the presidency, the United States government was weaker than at any other time in its history. Foreign immigrants were astonished that the national “government” in America made “no sensation.” “It is round about you like the air,” said a startled William Sampson fresh from Ireland, “and you cannot even feel it.”72

THE JEFFERSONIAN REVOLUTION was an extraordinary and unprecedented experiment in governing without the traditional instruments of power. Governments in the early nineteenth century were not supposed to cut taxes, shrink their bureaucracies, pay off their debts, reduce their armed forces, and diminish their coercive power. No government in history had ever voluntarily cut back its authority. With such a diminished and weakened government, how would the society hold together? Jefferson and the other Republican leaders had an answer, an enlightened answer that makes their political experiment one of the most idealistic in American if not world history. They imagined that people’s natural sociability and willingness to sacrifice their selfish interests for the sake of the whole would be sufficient social adhesives. And if these republican ideas could spread, perhaps the world itself would become a different place.

But for Hamilton and the Federalists these imaginings were nothing but “pernicious dreams.” By abandoning monarchical ceremonies and rituals, force, and governmental corruption—the main instruments by which eighteenth-century governments had held their turbulent societies together and ruled—the Republicans, said a disgruntled Hamilton, were offering “the bewitching tenets of the illuminated doctrine, which promises men, ere long, an emancipation from the burdens and restraints of government.” As early as 1794 Hamilton had been alarmed by the extraordinarily utopian idea coming out of the French Revolution “that but a small portion of power is requisite to Government.” And some radicals believed that “even this is only temporarily necessary” and could be done away with once “the bad habits” of the ancient régime were eliminated. Unfortunately, said Hamilton, there were wishful thinkers in both France and America who assumed that, “as human nature shall refine and ameliorate by the operation of a more enlightened plan” based on common moral feelings and the spread of affection and benevolence, “government itself will become useless, and Society will subsist and flourish free from its shackles.”

With all the “mischiefs . . . inherent in such a wild and fatal a scheme,” Hamilton had hoped that the Republican “votaries of this new philosophy” would not push it to its fullest. But now the new Jefferson administration was trying to do just that. “No army, no navy, no active commerce—national defence, not by arms but by embargoes, prohibition of trade &c.—as little government as possible.” These all added up, said Hamilton in 1802, to “a most visionary theory.” Because of the grandiose nature of these Jeffersonian pipe dreams, the Federalists never tired of ridiculing the Republicans for walking with their heads in the clouds trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.73 Jefferson, the philosophical visionary, may have been ideally suited to be a college professor, they said, but he was not suited to be the leader of a great nation.74

PERHAPS THE MOST RADICAL CHANGE resulting from the Jeffersonian election of 1800 was in politics. Popular voting took on a significance that it had never quite had before, and the increased numbers of contested elections for both federal and state officials sent the turnout of voters skyrocketing. In many places, especially in the North, the participation of eligible voters went from 20 percent or so in the 1790s to 80 percent or more in the first decade of the nineteenth century. At the same time, states that had not already done so began to expand the franchise by eliminating property qualifications or transforming the requirement into the mere paying of taxes. Of course, the enhanced importance of voting and the increase in electoral competition made suffrage exclusions as important as suffrage expansions. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey, which earlier had had no racial restrictions, now confined voting exclusively to white adult males. With the exception of a brief period in New Jersey (1790–1807) no state granted women the suffrage. By modern standards the system was far from democratic, but by the standards of the early nineteenth century America possessed the most popular electoral politics in the world.75

For the Federalists the Republican victory in 1800 was bewildering. It was not just the loss of the presidency and the Congress that disturbed them; it was what Jefferson’s election represented socially and culturally that was so frightening. Since “the Degradation of our Nation and the corruption of the public mind & of the Morals of Individuals are constantly increasing,” it seemed to Federalists like Christopher Gore of Massachusetts that the America they envisioned was coming to an end.76 Because the Federalists did not think of themselves as a party but rather as natural leaders who possessed superior social and cultural credentials, at first they did not think of the contest with the Republicans as one party against another. It was instead “a war of principles, . . . a contest between the tyranny of Jacobinism, which confounds and levels every thing, and the mild reign of rational liberty.”77

The Federalists’ world was dramatically changing, and they were understandably alarmed. Vulgarity seemed to be spreading everywhere, and in their minds upstarts and demagogues and Jacobins had taken over the reins of government. “We are sliding down into the mire of a democracy, which pollutes the morals of the citizens before it swallows up their liberties,” wrote a deeply pessimistic Fisher Ames.78

Not all Federalists were as depressed as Ames, but most were confused and unsure of what to do. They could not understand how so many uneducated and illiterate men were gaining elective office at the expense of men of talent and education.79 They had tried satire and ridicule, as Noah Webster had by mocking the middling sort of politician in pursuit of office: “I will run about streets,” he had his character declaim, “take every body by the hand, squeeze it hard, and look sweet.” But such mocking had no effect. What was most socially alarming about the new style of popular campaigning, said Webster, was that it could make a “SOMEBODY” out of a “MR. NOBODY.”80

As heirs of the republican Revolution, which in some sense was all about making somebodies out of nobodies, the Federalists were confused. Since they believed that the people should be the fount of government, they found it difficult to oppose the Republicans’ efforts to have as many offices as possible made elective. As an Ohio Federalist lamented, to oppose elections would be used “by our enemies, as an evidence of an encroachment on the privileges of the people.”81 With no real alternative to the people’s will, the Federalists inevitably surrendered the national ruling authority in 1801 without a fight—and it was their willingness to surrender that made the historic transition so peaceful. But they certainly did not regard the transfer of power from one party to another as normal in any modern sense. Because the older Federalist leaders considered themselves gentlemen for whom politics should not be an exclusive concern or vocation, many, including John Jay, George Cabot, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, echoed Joseph Addison’s Cato: “When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,/ The post of honor is a private station,” and retired to their professions and private lives to await what they assumed would soon be the people’s desperate call for the return of the “wise and good” and the “natural rulers.”82

But the popular reaction to the Republican revolution did not come. Many gentlemen of property and standing who earlier might have felt an obligation of their rank to participate in public affairs now stayed home and advised others to do the same, rather than have your “character bandied about through so many counties.” Even as early as 1797 Hamilton had begun questioning the classical imperative that men like him, men who were not independently wealthy, had an obligation to assume public office. In America “the pecuniary emolument is so inconsiderable as to amount to a sacrifice to any man who can employ his time with advantage in any liberal profession,” he told his Scottish uncle. “The opportunity of doing good, from the jealousy of power and the spirit of faction, is too small in any station to warrant a long continuance of private sacrifices.” With the spread of such sentiments a world was coming to an end.83

In 1803 President Timothy Dwight of Yale told his graduates to “never look either for subsistence, or for character, to popular suffrage, or governmental appointment, to public salaries, or official perquisites.”84 But others who wanted a successful political career and were convinced that Federalism could never come back, like John Quincy Adams, the son of the former president, and William Plumer, senator and later governor of New Hampshire, eventually joined the Republican movement. Young Adams concluded as early as 1802 that the Jefferson administration had “the support of a much stronger majority of the people throughout the Union than the former administrations ever possessed.” The Federalist system, he said, had been “completely and irrevocably abandoned and rejected by the popular vote. It never can and never will be revived.”85

Nevertheless, others, like Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina and James A. Bayard of Delaware, clung to their Federalist principles and their minority status in the Congress or in their state governments. Still others, like Fisher Ames, urged their colleagues to “entrench themselves in the State governments and endeavour to make State justice and State power a shelter of the wise, and good, and rich.”86 And still others, like Timothy Pickering, secretary of state under Adams, and Roger Griswold, congressman and later governor of Connecticut, dreamed of revenge and fomented separatist plots in New England. Yet most thoughtful Federalists knew that separation of the Northeastern states from the Francophiles in the rest of the country was no solution to the problems of America; for, as George Cabot of Massachusetts put it, the source of the evils afflicting America ultimately lay not in the Southern states or in Revolutionary France but “in the political theories of our country and in ourselves.”87

STUNNED BY THE JEFFERSONIAN TAKEOVER, many Federalists sensed that they had to change their ways. Their party, they said, lacked the kind of organization and newspaper support the Republicans possessed. And with Washington’s death in December 1799 they seemed to have no leader. “The Federalists scarcely deserve the name of a party,” lamented Fisher Ames in 1800. “Their association is a loose one—formed by accident and shaken by every prospect of labour or hazard.”88 While the Republicans were busy drawing up tickets and using all sorts of imaginative techniques to get out the vote, the Federalist gentry were writing letters to one another and addressing their political pamphlets to “the substantial (not the people) citizens.”89 The Federalists had no organized nominating process and often had multiple candidates for the same office who competed against each other, which allowed Republicans to win with less than a majority. Many of the old-school Federalists simply shook their heads and wrung their hands over the Republicans’ electoral successes. But in the aftermath of Jefferson’s election some Federalists sought to do things differently.

The election of 1800 had a cathartic effect on many Federalists. It broke the tension between the politics of honor and the politics of party and prepared the way for the expansion of democratic politics. With the spread of popular politics, many of the Federalists, especially the younger ones, reluctantly concluded that if they were to win back power they would have to swallow their pride and adopt some of the electioneering techniques of the Republicans. Many now accepted the fact that they were indeed a party—to be sure, not a self-interested faction like the Republicans, but a party of principle. Beginning first in New York in 1801, groups of Federalist activists created networks of caucuses and committees in each state that reached down to the localities. These Federalist caucuses and committees picked candidates, disciplined party members, and organized for elections, just as the Republicans had been doing.

The Federalist party created legislative programs and formed its own self-created societies to rival those of the Republican Tammany Societies. Most notable were the hundreds of Washington Benevolent Societies, which were ostensibly charitable organizations but in reality arms of the party. Some Federalists were now as determined to mobilize the people as the Republicans. “We must court popular favor,” concluded Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, “we must study public opinion, and accommodate measures to what it is and still more what it ought to be.”90

Of course, many other Federalists, especially old-school Federalists, resisted these efforts to become a party. They saw themselves as the wise, natural rulers of the society, and thus found it virtually impossible to conceive of themselves as an opposition party. Parties were factious and seditious, and they wanted no part of them. Many of the older Federalists refused to electioneer or campaign for office and, like Gouverneur Morris, indignantly condemned “those brawlers, who make popularity a trade.”91

No doubt these traditional views of politics hampered the ability of the Federalists to organize themselves. The party organization in Massachusetts, for example, remained strictly secret and designed only to carry out the decisions of its Boston leaders rather than mobilizing the statewide populace in the way the Republicans were doing. Not just the Federalists but many Republicans as well found it hard to accept the existence of competing parties.

Despite appearances to the contrary—the party designations, the caucuses, and the many contested elections—this was not quite yet a modern party system. There were no nominating conventions, no formal platforms, no party chairmen, no national party committees, and, most important, no intellectual justification for party competition. Old ideals of the unity of the public interest died hard. Even Republican governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, of gerrymandering fame, came out against parties in 1810, declaring that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and urging each citizen to “determine for himself to relinquish the party system.”92

Yet popular party politics of a new and distinctive sort did emerge, a kind of “celebratory politics,” as one historian has called it.93 Party tickets, party principles, and party loyalties developed, and partisan political activists sought to use every means they could to drum up popular support for their candidates. Anything and everything that was part of everyday popular culture—holidays, parades, barbecues, songs, sermons, toasts, funerals, militia meetings, and every conceivable form of print—was turned to partisan causes. The Republicans made the Fourth of July, with its celebration of Jefferson’s egalitarian Declaration of Independence, the paramount national holiday and used it to promote their party. The Federalists retaliated with celebrations of Washington’s birthday and any other local holiday, such as New York’s Evacuation Day, that they could employ to their advantage.

Newspapers, which had begun to form the basis for party organization and identity in the 1790s, continued to grow in numbers and political significance in response to the competitive partisan atmosphere. Despite the arrests of printers and editors under the Sedition Act, the number of Republican newspapers suddenly exploded in 1800—with eighty-five Republican papers published in that year, two-thirds more than had existed before the act. All these partisan papers tended to create an informal network that connected Republicans throughout the country. News originating from William Duane’s Philadelphia Aurora, the ideological center of the party, could reach Pittsfield, Massachusetts, or Raleigh, North Carolina, in only a few days. Not surprisingly, people in both parties became convinced that the Republicans owed their massive victory in 1800 to the power of their greatly expanded and openly partisan press. A “mighty wave of public opinion,” said Jefferson in 1801, had rolled over the country.94

Stimulated by the Republicans’ success, the Federalists sought to create rival newspapers. In 1801 Hamilton raised ten thousand dollars in just a few weeks and launched the flagship New York Evening Post. During the first decade of the nineteenth century the Federalists created dozens of papers, “igniting” what one historian has called “a journalistic arms race with the Republicans.” They now knew more clearly than ever before, as Fisher Ames put it, that “public opinion must be addressed; must be purified from the dangerous errors with which it is infected; and, above all, must be aroused from the prevailing apathy.”95

BY THE EARLY DECADES of the nineteenth century Americans had come to realize that public opinion, “that invisible guardian of honour—that eagle-eyed spy on human actions—that inexorable judge of men and manners—that arbiter, whom tears cannot appease, nor ingenuity soften and from whose terrible decisions there is no appeal,” had become “the vital principle” underlying American government, society, and culture.96

Nearly every educated person in the Anglo-American world believed in the power of public opinion and talked endlessly about it. Indeed, men were so preoccupied with their reputations and their honor precisely because of their intense concern for the judgment of others. By the word “public,” like the word “society,” however, eighteenth-century gentlemen usually had meant “the rational part of it” and not “the ignorant vulgar.”97 When Madison in 1791, echoing David Hume and others, said that public opinion was “the real sovereign” in any free government, he still conceived of it as the intellectual product of limited circles of “those philosophical and patriotic citizens who cultivate their reason.” Which is why he came to fear that the large extent of the United States made the isolated individual insignificant in his own eyes and made easier the fabricating of opinion by a few.98 Other Americans, however, were coming to see in the very breadth of the country and in the very insignificance of the solitary individual the saving sources of a general opinion that could be trusted.

The Sedition Act of 1798 marked a crucial point in the development of the American idea of public opinion. Its passage provoked a debate that went far beyond the issue of freedom of speech or freedom of the press; it eventually involved the very nature of America’s intellectual life. The debate, which spilled into the early years of the nineteenth century, drew out the logic of America’s intellectual experience since the Revolution, and in the process it undermined the foundations of the elitist eighteenth-century classical world on which the Founders had stood.

In the Sedition Act of 1798 the Federalists had thought they were being generous by changing the common law conception of seditious libel and enacting the Zenger defense into law. They not only allowed juries to determine what was seditious, but they made truth a defense, stating that only those statements that were “false, scandalous, and malicious” would be punished. But staunch Republican polemicists would have no part of this generosity. In the debate over the sedition law the Republican libertarian theorists, including George Hay of Virginia and Tunis Wortman of New York, rejected both the old common law restrictions on the liberty of the press and the new legal recognition of the distinction between truth and falsity of opinion that the Federalists had incorporated into the Sedition Act. While the Federalists clung to the eighteenth century’s conception that “truths” were constant and universal and capable of being discovered by enlightened and reasonable men, the Republican libertarians argued that opinions about government and governors were many and diverse and their truth could not be determined simply by individual judges and juries, no matter how reasonable such men were. Hence, they concluded that all political opinions—that is, words as distinct from overt acts—even those opinions that were “false, scandalous, and malicious,” ought to be allowed, as Jefferson put it, to “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”99

The Federalists were dumbfounded. “How . . . could the rights of the people require a liberty to utter falsehood?” they asked. “How could it be right to do wrong?”100 It was not an easy question to answer, neither then nor later. “Truth,” the Federalists said, “has but one side and listening to error and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth.” Any notion of multiple and varying truths would produce “universal uncertainty, universal misery,” and “set all morality afloat.” People needed to know the “criterion by which we may determine with certainty, who are right, and who are wrong .”101

Most Republicans felt they could not deny outright the possibility of truth and falsity in political beliefs, and thus they fell back on a tenuous distinction, developed by Jefferson in his first inaugural address, between principles and opinions. Principles, it seemed, were hard and fixed, while opinions were soft and fluid; therefore, said Jefferson, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” The implication was, as Benjamin Rush suggested, that individual opinions did not count as much as they had in the past, and for that reason such individual opinions could be permitted the freest possible expression.102

What ultimately made such distinctions comprehensible was the Republicans’ assumption that opinions about politics were no longer the monopoly of the educated and aristocratic few. Not only were true and false and even malicious opinions equally to be tolerated, but everyone and anyone in the society should be equally able to express them. Sincerity and honesty, the Republican polemicists argued, were far more important in the articulation of ultimate political truth than learning and fancy words that had often been used to deceive and dissimulate. Truth was actually the creation of many voices and many minds, no one of which was more important than another and each of which made its own separate and equally significant contribution to the whole. Solitary opinions of single individuals may now have counted for less, but in their statistical collectivity they now added up to something far more significant than had ever existed before, something that the New York Republican Tunis Wortman referred to as “the extremely complicated term Public Opinion .”103

Because American society was not the kind of organic hierarchy with “an intellectual unity” that the Federalists had wanted, public opinion in America, argued Wortman, the most articulate of the new Republican libertarians, could no longer be the consequence of the intellectual leadership of a few learned gentlemen. General public opinion was simply “an aggregation of individual sentiments,” the combined product of multitudes of minds thinking and reflecting independently, communicating their ideas in different ways, causing opinions to collide and blend with one another, to refine and correct each other, leading toward “the ultimate triumph of Truth.” Such a product, such a public opinion, could be trusted because it had so many sources, so many voices and minds, all interacting, that no privileged individual or group could manipulate or dominate the whole.104Like the example of religious diversity in America, a comparison many drew upon to explain their new confidence in public opinion, the separate opinions allowed to circulate freely would by their very differentness act, in Jefferson’s word, as “a Censor” over each other and the society—performing the role that the ancients and early eighteenth-century Augustan Englishmen had expected heroic individuals and satiric poets to perform.105

This vast, impersonal, and democratic idea of public opinion soon came to dominate all of American intellectual life. In all endeavors—whether art, language, medicine, or politics—connoisseurs, professors, doctors, and statesmen had to give way before the power of the collective opinion of the people. This conception of public opinion, said Federalist Theodore Sedgwick in disgust, “is of all things the most destructive of personal independence and of that weight of character which a great man ought to possess.”106 But no matter, it was the people’s opinion, and it could be trusted because no one controlled it and everyone contributed to it. “Public opinion,” said Harvard professor Samuel Williams, “will be much nearer the truth, than the reasoning and refinements of speculative and interested men.” Even in matters of artistic taste, declared Joseph Hopkinson before the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1810, “public opinion has, in more instances than one, triumphed over critics and connoisseurs.” Of course, the Federalists warned that a government dependent exclusively on public opinion was a mere “democracy,” in which “opinion shifts with every current of caprice.”107 But there was no turning back. In no country in the world did public opinion become more awesome and powerful than it did in increasingly democratic America.

BECAUSE OF THIS RELENTLESS DEMOCRATIZATION, the Federalists were never again able to gather the kind of national electoral strength they had had in the 1790 s. In the off-year election of 1802 the Republicans increased their strength in the Congress. In 1804 the Federalists put up Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of XYZ fame for president, but he was able to garner only 14 to Jefferson’s 162 electoral votes. Jefferson took the electoral votes of all the states, except those of Connecticut and Delaware and two from Maryland. Even Massachusetts went for Jefferson. In 1808 Pinckney did better with 47 to Madison’s 122 electoral votes. Although the Federalists continued to put up presidential candidates through the election of 1816, their electoral strength was continually weak and confined to New England. But even in their New England stronghold cracks began to appear. The Republicans began winning local elections, and by 1807 Massachusetts had more Republican than Federalist congressmen.

The party slowly withered. It was much too tainted with aristocracy and New England sectionalism to carry on as a national party. In the new Western states it virtually disappeared. One Republican reported from Ohio after the 1804 election that the Federalists “have dwindled to a number so inconsiderable that they are altogether silent on Politics.”108 Consequently, many Federalist gentry turned from party politics to the construction of civic institutions that could influence the culture—private libraries, literary and historical societies, art academies, and professional associations. By 1820 their party had become too weak even to nominate a presidential candidate, although the cultural authority of the Federalists, especially in New England, had grown substantially.109

At first the Republicans were remarkably united. In 1804 the Republican congressional caucus nominated Jefferson for president and sixty-seven-year-old George Clinton of New York for vice-president; no one at the meeting supported Vice-President Burr. By 1808 the party was faced with three candidates for the presidency—Secretary of State Madison, who was presumed to have Jefferson’s backing, Vice-President Clinton, who had strong support in New York and Pennsylvania, and James Monroe, who had recently returned from his ministry in England and had the backing of John Randolph of Virginia. Although Madison won the support of the congressional caucus (with Clinton as the vice-presidential candidate again), the supporters of Monroe and Clinton refused to recognize the right of the caucus to nominate candidates.

It was obvious that the Republican party was coming apart. Since its creation, its unity had rested on the threat the Federalists had posed to the principles of free and popular government; thus the decline of the Federalists meant that the Republicans began, in Jefferson’s words, to “schismatize among themselves.”110 A variety of Republican factions and groups arose in Congress and in the several states. These divisions were organized around particular individuals (the “Burrites,” the “Clintonians”), around political and social distinctions (the “Pennsylvania Quids,” the “Malcontents”), around states or sections (the “Old Republicans” of the South), and sometimes around ideology (“the Principles of ’98,” the “Invisibles,” the “War Hawks”).

The Republicans disagreed over multitudes of issues, but mainly over the degree to which the state and federal governments represented the people. Sometimes the moderate Republicans even sounded like Federalists, appealing, as Thomas McKean’s Pennsylvania “Quids” did in 1805, to the fact that “the best and wisest men in the community” were opposed to the “mad schemes” of the radicals, who in any case were little more than “backwoods bumpkins.”111 Unlike the Federalists, however, these moderate Republicans expressed no doubt about democracy and the sacredness of the will of the people. It was all part of the process of learning just how far republican equality could be carried. Of course, many individual politicians continued to pride themselves on their independence from factions and influence of any sort, and “party” still remained a disrespectful word. In fact, until the Jacksonian era nothing approaching a stable party system developed in Congress.

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