Modern history


THE Early Republic



DURING THE DEBATE over the new proposed Constitution in D 1787–1788, many Americans were fearful that the entire Revolutionary project of 1776 was being threatened. Opponents thought that the Constitution threatened to undermine the republican experiment and create a monarchical tyranny that would eventually take away America’s liberty. They especially objected to “the mighty and splendid President,” who possessed power “in the most unlimited manner” that could be easily abused.1

It was true that the Convention had decided on an extraordinarily strong and single executive. The president was to stand alone, unencumbered by an executive council except one of his own choosing. With command over the armed forces, with the authority to direct diplomatic relations, with power over appointments to the executive and judicial branches that few state governors possessed, and with a four-year term of office (longer than that of any state governor) and perpetually reeligible for reelection, the president was a magistrate who, as Patrick Henry charged, could “easily become king.” 2 Many of the opponents of the Constitution believed that the country was being led down the garden path to monarchy.

These opponents of the new Constitution were not entirely wrong. By 1787–1788 many of those who supported the new Constitution—the Federalists, as they called themselves—did have aspects of monarchy on their minds. By the time the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, many members of the elite had lost faith in the Revolutionary dream of 1776—that America could exist as a confederation of thirteen states with a minimum of government. Some New England Federalists, “seeing and dreading the evils of democracy,” according to one English traveler at the time, were even willing to “admit monarchy, or something like it.” The wealthy New England merchant Benjamin Tappan, father of the future abolitionists, was not alone in thinking that a good dose of monarchism was needed in 1787 to offset the popular excesses of the American people. Even though Henry Knox, Washington’s close friend, had given Tappan “a gentle check” for openly voicing such an opinion, Tappan told Knox that he “cannot give up the Idea that monarchy in our present situation is become absolutely necessary to save the states from sinking into the lowest abyss of misery.” Since he had “delivered my sentiment in all companies” and found it well received, he believed that “if matters were properly arranged it would be easily and soon effected,” perhaps with the aid of the Society of the Cincinnati, the fraternal organization of former Revolutionary War officers. Even if nothing were done, Tappan intended to continue to be “a strong advocate for what I have suggested.”3

There were many more Americans in 1787 thinking like Tappan than we have been prepared to admit. This new federal government marked as great a change as the Revolution itself. Such a strong national government as the Constitution prescribed had certainly not been anticipated by anyone in 1776. No one in his wildest dreams had even imagined such a powerful government.

In 1776 the Revolutionaries had established not a single republic but thirteen of them. The Declaration of Independence was in fact a declaration of thirteen separate states. All of these states in 1776 had immediately set about constructing their own constitutions. These Revolutionary constitutions were modeled on what Americans thought the mixed or balanced constitution of the so-called English commonwealth ideally ought to have been. Thus most of the state constitution makers created mixtures of governors, senates, and houses of representatives, which they identified with the monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy of the English constitution. The new republican governors may have been elected, but they were still thought to embody the monarchical element in society. In the same way, the senates or upper houses of the legislatures were thought to embody the aristocratic element.

Of course, the American constitution makers wanted to avoid the corruption of the English constitution, which they believed flowed from the misuse of patronage by the crown. Hence they forbade members of the legislatures from simultaneously holding office in the government or executive branch. This prohibition, repeated in Article I, Section 6 of the federal Constitution, prevented the development of ministerial responsibility to the legislatures and, as we saw in a previous essay, sent Americans off on a very different constitutional path from the English.

Although Americans in 1776 attempted to model their republican state constitutions on the balanced English monarchical constitution, they knew only too well that republican and monarchical governments were designed for very different societies. Republicanism put a premium on the homogeneity and cohesiveness of its society. By contrast, monarchies could comprehend large territories and composite kingdoms and peoples with diverse interests and ethnicities. Monarchies had their unitary authority, kingly honors and patronage, hereditary aristocracies, established national churches, and standing armies to hold their diverse societies together. Republics had none of these adhesive elements. Instead, republics were supposed to rely for cohesion on the moral qualities of their people—their virtue and their natural sociability. Monarchy imagined its society in traditional and prenational terms, as a mosaic of quasicorporate communities, and thus had little trouble in embracing African slaves and Indians as subjects. But republicanism created citizens, and since citizens were all equal to one another, it was difficult for the Revolutionaries to include blacks and Indians as citizens in the new republican states they were trying to create. This emphasis on republican homogeneity and equal citizenship meant that republics, as Montesquieu had indicated, should be small in size.

For this reason, none of the Revolutionaries in 1776 had had any idea of making the thirteen United States anything other than a confederation. Hence they created in 1777 and ratified in 1781 the Articles of Confederation. It was a league of friendship among thirteen independent states, in character not all that different from the present European Union. In this Confederation each of the states had equal representation and a single vote. The individual states may have been republics, but the Confederation government was something else—a union of republics. Although the Confederation Congress was not a king, it was designed to play the same role the former king had been supposed to play in the empire. It inherited most of the prerogative powers that the British king had exercised over the colonies—namely, the powers to conduct foreign policy, to declare and wage war and to make peace, to handle Indian affairs, and to settle disputes between the states. The Congress, composed of equal representation from each state, was not intended to be a legislature but rather a superintending executive of the Confederation. It became in effect a stand-in for the former monarchy, which is why it was not given the powers to tax or regulate trade: these powers were not prerogative powers and had not been exercised unilaterally by the king.

By the early 1780s the vicissitudes of the war forced the Congress to create separate departments of war, finance, and foreign affairs, with single individuals appointed to head them; in other words, the Congress created something akin to modern executive departments. This development turned the Congress, which was supposed to play the central magisterial role the crown had played in the empire, into something resembling a legislature. And when this happened, many began complaining that now this congressional legislature did not proportionally represent the people in the various states. All of this prepared the way for the disposing of the Articles and the creation of an entirely new government with the Constitution of 1787—the present existing government of the United States.

In the decade following the Declaration of Independence, many of the Revolutionary leaders had become increasingly disillusioned with the consequences of their republican revolution. The Confederation lacked the powers to tax and to regulate trade and was unable to stand up for the United States in international affairs. But, more important, the states themselves were not behaving as the leaders had expected. By the mid-1780s, as we have seen, many of them had become convinced that not only was the Confederation too weak to accomplish its tasks, but, more alarming, the states themselves were unable to function as stable and just republics.

James Madison and other leaders had concluded that legislative majorities in the states were acting irresponsibly, flooding the states with poorly drafted and mutable laws that victimized minorities and violated individual rights. Most alarming, these state legislators were simply acting in accord with the sentiments of the voters who elected them. Such abuses of popular power, these excesses of democracy, were not easily remedied, for they struck at the heart of what the Revolution was about. These legislative evils, said Madison, “brought into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such governments are the safest Guardians both of public Good and private rights.”4 To Madison and to other leaders it thus seemed as if the entire American experiment in republicanism was at stake.

Thus the crisis of the 1780s was a real one for many of the country’s leaders. There was too much democracy in the states, and this excessive democracy had to be curbed—without doing violence to republican principles. At first many reformers had concentrated on changing the Revolutionary state constitutions. They urged taking power back from the houses of representatives and giving it to the senates and the governors—the aristocratic and monarchical elements of their constitutions. Although Americans in 1776 had created their mixed or balanced state governments in emulation of the famed English constitution, the reformers soon discovered that they could no longer justify strengthening their governors and senates by talking in traditional terms of infusing more monarchy and aristocracy into their state constitutions. Since any public reference to monarchy and aristocracy was vehemently denounced as unrepublican and un-American, reformers had to find new justifications for the senates and the governors. Within a few years they began describing all parts of the original mixed state governments—governors and senators, and not just the houses of representatives—as representative agents of the people. As we have seen, this forced Americans into an entirely new understanding of the sovereign people and the people’s relationship to government.

Many reformers, however, soon realized that even changing the state constitutions would not solve the problems of majoritarian factionalism and minority rights in the state legislatures. They soon began to look beyond the state level for what Madison called “a republican remedy for those diseases most incident to republican government.” Those who wanted to reform the states were able to come together with the growing numbers of those who were urging reform of the Confederation. Indeed, by the mid-1780s nearly the entire political nation agreed that some specific powers needed to be added to the Confederation Congress—namely, the powers to levy customs duties and to regulate trade.

Thus almost everybody welcomed the calling of the Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787 in order to amend the Articles of Confederation. But the Convention offered an opportunity as well to those who were most concerned with the problems of democracy in the states. Although it was the widespread desire to reform the Confederation that made the calling of the Convention possible, it was the problems of democracy in the states that actually drove the plans of the Convention’s leaders, including Madison, who more than anyone was responsible for the new Constitution. It was, Madison told his friend Jefferson, the abuses of the state legislatures, “so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism,” that “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform, than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.” 5 Instead of merely adding some powers to the Articles of Confederation, the Convention, under Madison’s leadership, scrapped the Articles and drew up an entirely new Constitution. Which, of course, it had no authority to do.

The new Constitution created not a confederation of separate states but a new powerful national republic operating directly on the people; in other words, it created a nation instead of a union, although the supporters scrupulously avoided using the terms “nation” and “national” in the Constitution. Given the prevailing assumption that republics were supposed to be small in size and homogeneous in character, justifying this huge extended republic posed some problems. All experience and all theory were against the kind of extended national republic that Americans in 1787 were attempting to erect. Not only did Americans know from their experience under the British Empire what far-removed central power could mean, but they also knew that conventional wisdom required that republics be small and homogeneous.

The new nation was hardly that. By 1787 Americans were already a very large and diverse people with a dazzling variety of ethnicities and religions. Not only were over 20 percent of the population of African descent, but the white population was composed of virtually every European nationality. Only about half the population was English in origin. Yet, unlike today, the defenders of the Constitution could scarcely stress America’s multicultural diversity—not in the face of the conventional wisdom that republics were supposed to have a homogeneous society. So in order to justify their new extended republic, they had to stretch the truth in emphasizing that Americans were actually one people with one destiny.

Although most supporters of the new Constitution stressed the homogeneity of the American people, some of them sought to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Some, including Madison, argued (following David Hume) that perhaps a large republic with many varying interests was better able to sustain itself than a small republic—largely because the varying interests would neutralize one another and allow for a common good to emerge.

Whatever the nature of the arguments, however, all the Federalists knew that if democracy were to be curbed, then what was needed in the new government was more power. And power in eighteenth-century Anglo-American political theory essentially meant monarchy. In the conventional thinking of an eighteenth-century balanced or mixed constitution, too much democracy required the counterbalancing of some more monarchy.

Just as the state reformers had been inhibited from speaking frankly about the need for more monarchical and aristocratic principles in the state constitutions, so too were the Federalists unwilling to say openly that the new national government required more aristocratic and monarchical elements. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that many of them had come to believe that some aristocracy and especially some monarchism were needed to offset the democratic excesses of the American people. In 1790 Benjamin Rush described the new government as one “which unites with the vigor of monarchy and the stability of aristocracy all the freedom of a simple republic.” 6 Even Madison, who was as devoted to republicanism as any of the Founders, was in 1787 Sufficiently disillusioned with the democratic consequences of the Revolution to see some advantages in monarchy. With his dream of “the purest and noblest characters” of the society in power in his new extended republic, he expected that the new federal government would play the same superpolitical neutral role that the British king had been supposed to play in the empire. Like a good constitutional monarch, he wrote, the new national government would be “sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to control one part of the society from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controlled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole society.”7

That a moderate like Madison should see some benefits to monarchy was a measure of the crisis of the 1780s. Other Federalists like Alexander Hamilton were even more disillusioned with the democratic consequences of the Revolution and wanted even stronger doses of monarchy injected into the body politic. In fact, Hamilton and other high-toned Federalists, who in the 1790s clung to the name of the supporters of the Constitution, wanted to create a centralized fiscal-military state that would eventually rival the great monarchical powers of Europe on their own terms. Yet they knew that whatever aspects of monarchy they hoped to bring back into America would have to be placed within a republican framework. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, the Federalists really intended to create another Augustan Age. Augustus had, after all, sought to incorporate elements of monarchy into the Roman Empire while all the time talking about republicanism.

If some monarchical power were to be instilled in the new system, the energetic center of that power would be the presidency. For that reason it was the office of the president that made many Americans most suspicious of the new government. The executive or chief magistracy was, after all, the traditional source of tyranny and, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, the source in America from which monarchy would naturally emerge.

Although Americans were used to congresses, the presidency was a new office for them. A single, strong national executive was bound to remind them of the king they had just cast off. When James Wilson at the Philadelphia Convention had moved that the executive “consist of a single person,” a long, uneasy silence had followed. The delegates knew only too well what such an office implied. John Rutledge complained that “the people will think we are leaning too much towards Monarchy.” The creation of the presidency, warned Edmund Randolph, “made a bold stroke for monarchy.”8 But the Convention resisted these warnings and went on to make the new chief executive so strong, so kinglike, precisely because the delegates expected George Washington to be the first president.

Many people, including Jefferson, expected that Washington might be president for life, that he would be a kind of elective monarch—something not out of the question in the eighteenth century.9 Indeed, we will never understand events of the 1790s until we take seriously, as contemporaries did, the possibility of some sort of monarchy developing in America. From our vantage point, the idea of America becoming a monarchy may seem absurd, but in 1789 it did not seem so at all. After all, Americans had been raised as subjects of monarchy and, in the opinion of some, still seemed emotionally to need to look up to a single patriarchal figure. Republicanism was new and untried. Monarchy still prevailed almost everywhere; it was what much of the world was used to, and history showed that sooner or later most republics tended to develop into kingly governments. As ancient Rome had shown, the natural evolution of societies and states seemed to be from simple republican youth to complex monarchical maturity.

William Short, viewing the new Constitution from France, was not immediately frightened by the power of the executive. But he thought that “the President of the eighteenth century” would “form a stock on which will be grafted a King in the nineteenth.” Others, like George Mason of Virginia, believed that the new government was destined to become “an elective monarchy,” and still others, like Rawlins Lowndes of South Carolina, assumed that the government so closely resembled the British form that everyone naturally expected “our changing from a republic to monarchy.”10 To add to the confusion, the line between monarchical and republican governments in the eighteenth century was often hazy at best, and some were already talking about monarchical republics and republican monarchies.

From the outset, Washington’s behavior often savored of monarchy. His journey from Mount Vernon to the capital in New York in the spring of 1789, for example, took on the air of a royal procession. He was saluted by cannons and celebrated in elaborate ceremonies along the way. Everywhere he was greeted by triumphal rejoicing and acclamations of “Long live George Washington!” With Yale students debating the advantages of an elective over a hereditary king, suggestions of monarchy were very much in the air. “You are now a King, under a different name,” James McHenry told Washington in March 1789, and wished that he “may reign long and happy over us.”11 It was not surprising therefore that some people referred to his inauguration as a “coronation.”12

So prevalent was the thinking that Washington resembled an elected monarch that some people even expressed relief that he had no heirs.13 Washington was sensitive to these popular anxieties about monarchy, and for a while he had thought of holding the presidency for only a year or so and then resigning and turning the office over to Vice President John Adams. In the initial draft of his inaugural address he pointed out that “the Divine Providence hath not seen fit, that my blood should be transmitted or name perpetuated by the endearing though sometimes seducing channel of immediate offspring.” He had, he wrote, “no child for whom I could wish to make a provision—no family to build in greatness upon my country’s ruins.” Madison talked him out of this draft, but Washington’s desire to show the public that he harbored no monarchical ambitions remained strong.14His protests testified to the widespread sense that monarchy was a distinct possibility for America.

Sensitive to charges that he had royal ambitions, Washington was often uncertain about the role he ought to play as president. He realized that the new government was fragile and needed dignity, but how far in a monarchical European direction ought he to go to achieve it? Aware that whatever he did would become a precedent for the future, Washington sought the advice of those close to him, including the vice president and the man he would soon make his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

How often should he meet with the public? How accessible should he be? Should he dine with members of Congress? Should he host state dinners? Could he ever have private dinners with friends? Should he make a tour of the United States? The only state ceremonies that late eighteenth-century Americans were familiar with were those of the European monarchies. Were they applicable to the young republic?

Hamilton thought that most people were “prepared for a pretty high tone in the demeanour of the Executive,” but probably not as high a tone as Hamilton thought desirable. “Notions of equality,” he said, were as “yet . . . too general and too strong” for the president to be properly distanced from the other branches of the government. (Note the “yet”; Federalists thought time was on their side.) In the meantime, suggested Hamilton, the president ought to follow the practice of “European Courts” as closely as he could. Only department heads, high-ranking diplomats, and senators should have access to the president. “Your Excellency,” as Hamilton referred to Washington, might hold a half-hour levee no more than once a week, and then only for invited guests. He could give up to four formal entertainments a year, but must never accept any invitations or call on anyone.15 Vice President John Adams for his part urged Washington to make a show of “splendor and majesty” for his office. The president needed an entourage of chamberlains, aides-de-camp, and masters of ceremonies to conduct the formalities of his office.16

Washington realized that he had to maintain more distance from the public than the presidents of the Confederation Congress had. They had reduced their office to “perfect contempt,” having been “considered in no better light than as a maitre d’hotel . . . for their table was considered as a public one and every person who could get introduced conceived that he had a right to be invited to it.” He knew that too much familiarity was no way “to preserve the dignity and respect that was due to the first magistrate.”17

As uncomfortable as he often was with ceremony, Washington knew that he had to make the presidency “respectable,” and when he became president he spared few expenses in doing so. Although he was compelled to accept his $25,000 presidential salary—an enormous sum for the age—he spent nearly $2,000 of it on liquor and wine for entertaining. In his public appearances he rode in an elaborately ornamented coach drawn by four and sometimes six horses, attended with four servants in livery, followed by his official family in other coaches.18 In his public pronouncements he referred to himself in the third person, and he sat for dozens of state portraits, all modeled on those of European monarchs; these were hung in prominent public places throughout the nation with the hope of thereby encouraging respect for the new regime. Indeed, much of the iconography of the new nation, including its civic processions, was copied from monarchical symbolism.19 Washington may have been a simple republican—at heart just a country gentleman who was in bed every night by 9:30—but there is no doubt that he was concerned with “the style proper for the Chief Magistrate.” He conceded that a certain monarchical tone had to be made part of the government, and he was willing up to a point to play the part of a republican king. He was, as John Adams later caustically remarked, “the best actor of presidency we have ever had.”20

Obsessed with the new government’s weakness, other Federalists were even more eager than Washington to bolster its dignity and respectability. Most believed that this could be best done by adopting some of the ceremony and majesty of monarchy—by making, for example, Washington’s birthday celebrations rival those of the Fourth of July. Like the king of England speaking to Parliament from the throne, the president delivered his inaugural address personally to the Congress, and like the two houses of Parliament, both houses of Congress formally responded and then waited upon the president at his residence.

The English monarchy was the model for the new republican government in other respects as well. The Senate, the body in the American government that most closely resembled the House of Lords, voted that writs of the federal government ought to run in the name of the president—just as writs in England ran in the name of the king. Although the House refused to go along, the Supreme Court used the Senate’s form for its writs. The Senate also tried to have all American coins bear the head of the president, as was the case with the European monarchs.

Although the high-toned Federalists eventually lost this proposal to put the president’s impression on the coins, they made many such attempts to surround the new government with some of the trappings of monarchy. They drew up elaborate monarchlike rules of etiquette at what soon came to be denounced as the “American Court.”21 They established formal levees for the president where, as critics said, Washington was “seen in public on Stated times like an Eastern Lama.”22 Led by Vice President Adams, the Senate debated for a month in 1789 the proper title for the president. He could not be called simply “His Excellency,” for governors of the states were called that. “A royal or at least a princely title,” said Adams, “will be found indispensably necessary to maintain the reputation, authority, and dignity of the President.” Only something like “His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness” would do.23 Eventually, under Adams’s prodding, a Senate committee reported the title “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” When Jefferson learned of Adams’s obsession with titles and the Senate’s action, he could only shake his head and recall Benjamin Franklin’s now-famous characterization of Adams as someone who was always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes on some things absolutely out of his mind.24

But apparently not the only one out of his mind, for Washington himself had supposedly initially favored for a title “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.”25 But when the president heard the criticism that such titles smacked of monarchy, he changed his mind and was relieved when the House of Representatives under Madison’s leadership succeeded in fixing the simple title of “Mr. President.” Still, the talk of royalizing the new republic continued and heightened the fears of many Americans. The financial program of Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, with its funded debt and Bank of the United States, was modeled on that of the British monarchy. Indeed, like the British ministers of His Majesty George III’s government, Hamilton sought to use patronage and every other source of influence to win support for his and Washington’s programs. To many other Americans, however, it looked as if British monarchical corruption had spread to America.

Because of these very real apprehensions of monarchy and monarchical corruption, the first decade or so under the new American Constitution could never be a time of ordinary politics. In fact, the entire period was wracked by a series of crises that threatened to destroy the national government that had been so recently and painstakingly created. The new expanded republic of the United States was an unprecedented political experiment, and everyone knew that. No similar national republic in modern times had ever extended over such a large extent of territory. Since all theory and all history were against the success of this republican experiment, the political leaders worried about every unanticipated development. With even President Washington’s having suggested at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention that the new federal government might not last twenty years, most political leaders in the 1790s had no great faith that the Union would survive. In such uneasy and fearful circumstances, politics could never be what we today regard as normal.

The political parties that emerged in the 1790s—the Federalists and the Republicans—were not modern parties, and competition between them was anything but what some scholars used to call “the first party system.” No one thought that the emergence of parties was a good thing; indeed, far from building a party system in the 1790s, the nation’s leaders struggled to prevent one from developing. The Federalists under the leadership of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton never saw themselves as a party but as the beleaguered legitimate government beset by people allied with Revolutionary France out to destroy the Union. Although the Republicans, under the leadership of Jefferson and Madison, did reluctantly describe themselves as a party, they believed they were only a temporary one, designed to prevent the United States from becoming a Federalist-led British-backed monarchy. Since neither the Federalists nor the Republicans accepted the legitimacy of the other, partisan feelings ran very high, making the bitter clash between Hamilton and Jefferson, for example, more than just personal. Indeed, the 1790s became one of the most passionate and divisive decades in American history.

This is the best context for understanding the 1790s and Jefferson’s election as president in 1800. Otherwise we can never make full sense of the extraordinary events and behavior of people in the period: the many riots and the burning of officials in effigy; the viciousness of the press; the many duels; the fighting and wrestling in the halls of Congress; the Alien and Sedition Acts that gave the government extraordinary powers to deal with aliens and to prosecute libel against federal officials; the astonishingly improper and indiscreet actions of officials in dealing with foreign powers, actions that in our own time might be labeled treasonous. Only by taking seriously the feeling of many Americans that the Federalists in the 1790s were well on their way to reintroducing monarchy in America can we understand the significance of the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. Jefferson sincerely believed that his “revolution of 1800” was, as he later said, “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.”26 He thought, with some justification, that he had saved the republic from monarchy.

From our present perspective, it is hard to take seriously Jefferson’s belief in the revolutionary significance of his election (especially since the kind of fiscal-military quasimonarchical state the Federalists wanted for the United States has actually come into being; Hamilton surely would have loved the Pentagon and the CIA, and America’s huge standing army). From our viewpoint, then, Jefferson’s election does not seem all that bold and radical. At the outset he struck a note of conciliation: We are all republicans—we are all federalists, he said; and some Federalists were soon absorbed into the Republican Party. Jefferson’s administration, as historian Henry Adams delighted in pointing out, did deviate from strict Republican principles. Thus the continuities are impressive, and the Jefferson “revolution of 1800” has blended nearly imperceptibly into the main democratic currents of American history.

However, compared to the consolidated and centralized state that the Federalists wanted to build in the 1790s, the Republicans after 1800 proved that something akin to a real revolution did take place. Jefferson radically reduced the power of the federal government. He turned it into something resembling the Articles of Confederation more than the European-type state the Federalists desired. In fact, the Jeffersonian Republicans sought to create a general government that would rule without the traditional attributes of power.

From the outset Jefferson was determined that the new government would lack even the usual rituals of power. He purposefully set a new tone of republican simplicity in contrast to the stiff formality and regal ceremony with which the Federalists, in imitation of European court life, had surrounded the presidency. Since the Federalist presidents (Washington and Adams), like the English monarch, had personally delivered their addresses to the legislature “from the throne,” Jefferson chose to submit his in writing (a practice that was continued until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson). Unlike Washington and Adams, he made himself easily accessible to visitors. In order to contrast his administration with those of his predecessors, he sought greater casualness in the White House, even to the point of greeting the British minister in carpet slippers. He replaced the protocol and distinctions of European court life with egalitarian rules of pell-mell, or “first into their seats.”

Jefferson left unbuilt Washington’s plans for a magnificent capital befitting the new American empire. Jefferson wanted the national government to be insignificant. The federal government, he declared in his first message to Congress in 1801, was “charged with the external affairs and mutual relations only of these states.” All the rest—the “principal care of persons, our property, and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns”—was to be left to the states. He and his Republicans set about reversing a decade of Federalist policy. Although the Federalist establishment was minuscule by even eighteenth-century standards (the War Department, for example, consisted of only the secretary, an accountant, fourteen clerks, and two messengers), Jefferson thought the bureaucracy had become “too complicated, too expensive,” and offices under the Federalists had “unnecessarily multiplied.”27 Thus the roll of federal officials was severely cut back. All tax inspectors and collectors were eliminated. The diplomatic establishment was reduced to three missions—to Britain, France, and Spain. The Federalist dream of creating a European-type army and navy disappeared; the military budget was cut in half. The army, stationed only in the West, was reduced to 3,000 men and 172 officers. The navy was cut back to several hundred gunboats for defensive purposes only. Hamilton’s financial program was dismantled or allowed to lapse and all federal taxes were eliminated. For most people, the national government’s presence was reduced to the delivery of the mail.

When the Republicans under President James Madison came to fight the War of 1812 with Great Britain, they refused to strengthen the government’s capacity to wage it. Better that the enemy burn the nation’s capital than surrender to a Hamiltonian enhancement of federal power. Thus the Republicans sought to fight the war without having to raise taxes, increase the debt, enlarge the military forces, or expand the executive. They wanted to prove that even war could be waged without the usual instruments of power.

When Andrew Jackson became president in 1828, the republican principles of the United States seemed so secure that the Jacksonian Democrats felt they could reassert some the older aspects of monarchism inherent in the presidency without fear of political retribution. Perhaps the Jacksonian era is less the era of the common man and more the era of consolidation and reintegration than we have usually allowed. The Jacksonians developed the use of patronage—the “spoils system”—to a fine art; they built up the federal bureaucracy, and under Jackson’s leadership they turned the presidency into the most popular and powerful office in the nation. Jackson’s opponents, in retaliation, called him “King Andrew” and called themselves Whigs, invoking the old English name for the opponents of bloated crown power. But the earlier fear of monarchy was now gone, and the Whigs could never really capitalize on their antimonarchical ideology.

Yet monarchism was latent in the powerful office of the presidency and it has been revived by various presidents over the subsequent decades of American history. Article II of the Constitution is so vague that many presidents under wartime conditions have expanded executive authority to unanticipated lengths. Much of the so-called unitary executive was there at the outset. It may even be possible to argue that the presidency created in 1787 inherited all the prerogative powers of the English king save those that were explicitly assigned to the Congress, such as the powers to declare war, erect courts, and coin money. As we know from the history of the past half century, even the power to declare war has slipped back into the president’s hands.

Thus the imperial presidency of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century was built into the office from the beginning. One could argue that republicanism has survived in the United States not by repudiating but by absorbing some of the essential elements of monarchy. Vice President John Adams may have had little sense of political correctness, but he was honest to the core and maybe very accurate indeed when he called the United States a republican monarchy.


This paper began as the Bernard Bailyn Lecture given at La Trobe University in Australia in 2000 and was published separately by La Trobe University. It has been much revised since then. In addition to the expansion of the president’s powers during wartime mentioned in the essay, the president’s role in domestic affairs from the New Deal on has grown as well. Sometimes the Congress has fought back against this executive aggrandizement, creating its own budget office, for example, to counter the executive’s dominance over finance. But the crisis-ridden nature of modern life makes resisting the expansion of executive energy difficult. Over the past seven decades the president, like a royal monarch, has taken the country into war six times without the formal congressional declaration of war that is mandated by the Constitution. More recently the president has moved aggressively into the economy, asserting, for example, unprecedented control over the automobile and banking industries. The monarch-like character of the United States government seems more evident today than ever before.

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