The Federalist Presidencies



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The Federalist Presidencies
A nice quality of the study of history is that after a long look at philosophy and policy, there are always events that take over as those ideas are tested. Unfortunately, however, those events are often barbarous, bloody, and involve someone being abused. Then philosophy and policies change, then comes more violence, then more new ideas. This cycle is partly what led the Constitutional Convention to craft a living document that could change with the times. History is often punctuated with the phrase, “Events exploded. . .” Then thinkers reflect and write down what the human race should have learned. The human race, however, often doesn’t.

Geniuses help. Hamilton still acted as the director to the stage show of the first presidency. He urged Washington to take a national tour to court the “friends of the government” in the various states. This trip was the first example of presidential patronage as Washington went about the country in a coach drawn by white horses removing his large frame from time to time to bow at supporters. Then, events exploded.

The component of Hamilton’s fiscal plan that sparked the most ire in the west was the excise tax on whiskey. Whiskey was consumed by nearly everyone, including ministers and children (for medicinal purposes?). This distilled form of corn was in such prevalent use that it served as a form of currency in bartered arrangements on the frontier. Farmers on the frontier found it much easier to bring jugs of whiskey over the mountains to market than wagonloads of corn. Hamilton found the perfect source of federal revenue, but some historians credit him with finding the perfect opportunity to punish economic transactions operating apart from his currency and to show off the military strength of the new government by provoking a rebellion. Whether he was that ingenious is debatable, but he did get a rebellion. Backwoods farmers in western Pennsylvania mounted an insurrection against the tax in 1794.

Washington ordered them to cease, then mustered 15,000 troops to make them cease. A bizarre fact is that both Hamilton and Washington donned their old Revolutionary War uniforms and actually accompanied the troops west. This event is the only instance where a president took the field with troops on their way to battle. When the militia from VA, MD, NJ, and PA, arrived in the location of the Whiskey Rebellion, the farmers had dispersed. The new government proved it wasn’t going to have difficulty controlling unrest, and America became accustomed to the very thing they despised when the British employed one, a standing army. A move was made in Congress to limit the size of the standing army to 3,000 men, but Washington said he would agree to that only if Congress also passed a law preventing a foreign nation from attacking the United States with more than 1,500 men. In the end Hamilton kept his excise tax and, presumably, his uniform in case he would ever need it again.

Three other sources of danger were also surmounted by 1795. The first source of danger was the Indian tribes in possession of English and Spanish munitions and, well, whiskey. Indians had crushed an amateur army under Arthur St. Clair in the West in 1791 inflicting nearly 50% casualties (900/2000 soldiers killed or wounded). So Washington made more use of a professional, standing army by sending General “Mad” Anthony Wayne west to do more than stand. In 1794, Wayne’s forces crushed Indian resistance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on the west coast of Lake Erie. This campaign led to the first of three significant treaties you need to know from 1795, the Treaty of Greenville. Dozens of Indian tribes were forced to sign the treaty and give up much of the Ohio River Valley. The document itself is a poignant collection of figures of turtles and deer heads and other symbols from nature that represented the signature of the defeated chiefs. The American government had now quelled a rebellion and protected it’s settlers on the frontier.

The other two treaties were, you guessed it, with Britain and Spain. Jay’s Treaty of 1795 was negotiated by John Jay and revisited the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Jay got the British to recognize our land claims and their soldiers to evacuate their forts around the Great Lakes. In return, he pledged the help of the American government in getting Americans to pay back the loans they had borrowed from British banks but refused to pay since the War for Independence was won. The US Constitution did not grant the government power to do this, but the British probably hadn’t read the Constitution. The loans remained a sticking point between the two countries until we went to war with our Mother Country again in 1812.

Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795 with the Spanish addressed the problem of free navigation of the Mississippi River and especially the right of deposit in New Orleans. Spain’s empire was experiencing its first signs of decline, and Spain gave up claims to the Mississippi and to the land of the Mississippi River Valley. These three treaties did not make the United States a world power, but they finally made the United States an American power and consolidated control over our territory. To acquire world-power status we needed greater commercial strength and military might, especially a navy. They would come, later. The US sought to keep peace especially with Great Britain, more properly called the United Kingdom, now. The UK was a world power, and our government needed customs duties. Our country needed economic stability, and England was our biggest customer.

Amidst these tense events, political strife mounted at home. The Anti-Federalists united around opposition to Hamilton’s financial program and around Thomas Jefferson. Washington also held Jefferson in high regard and had the awkward experience of placing Jefferson in his cabinet as the Secretary of State alongside Hamilton. Hamilton and Jefferson despised one another, and evidence of Washington’s great leadership ability exists in that he listened to advice from both men. By the time Jefferson took a leadership role in the Anti-Federalist Party, they had taken to calling themselves Republicans (with a capital R), and to distinguish this party from the modern Republican Party, this one is known as the Jeffersonian Republicans.

Thomas Jefferson worked with James Madison (who had begun to move away from the Federalist Party) to achieve the first North/South compromise of US history. There will be at least five more. This compromise was negotiated with Hamilton and the Federalists to achieve the Hamiltonian Program. The Jeffersonians said that if Hamilton were to get his BUS and the rest, the South needed to have more influence in the national government by moving the seat of the government into the South. They picked a swampy spot on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland that happened to belong to George Washington who gladly sold it. He might have been the only person completely satisfied since, as you will see, compromises ultimately please neither side. The battle for the Bank opened the loose construction/strict construction debate, and Hamilton and Washington leaned heavily on the elastic clause. Washington grew to despise politics as resistance mounted in the opposition of the Jeffersonian Republican Party against what they called “The Federalist Court.” Such a jibe probably hurt Washington deeply since he had actually stopped a move among his military officers to make him King George I of America.

The French Revolution stirred up the ideas of American politics, and the strife in Europe was shadowed by the Federalist/Republican debate. Washington desperately tried to avoid participating in the war that sprang up between England and France by issuing the Neutrality Proclamation in 1793. Washington wanted the American economy to make money off the European war, but trade with the French antagonized the British, and Britain seized 300 US merchant ships from 1793-1794. Hoping that America would reciprocate France’s aid against England during the War for Independence, a French ambassador was sent to negotiate an alliance. Citizen Genet, as he was called, tried to rile up the American people after Washington’s neutrality rebuffed him. Washington ejected him from the country. The Federalists in power faced a delicate, delicate, delicate situation. Washington (and the next two presidents) realized America could not yet survive a major war with anyone.

The three 1795 treaties mentioned earlier helped to consolidate power, but Jay’s Treaty, with it’s provision that Americans should pay back their pre-Revolutionary debts, was extremely unpopular. By 1796, the country faced another crisis. The Indispensable Man retired, setting his next-to-last presidential precedent, the two-term limit. In the ensuing election, John Adams (who had been the Vice President and a staunch Federalist) won narrowly but with his arch-rival Thomas Jefferson winning as his Vice President!

George Washington’s last presidential precedent was writing an editorial in a newspaper now known as Washington’s Farewell Address. In this letter, he emphasized the evils of party factionalism even though his own Cabinet had spawned them. He foreshadowed the coming sectional conflict but said disunion would see the North, South, and West all pitted against each other (close, Mr. President). Then he gave his most important advice to the country—“steer clear of permanent alliances.” Washington established the foundation of American foreign policy in a firm isolationism. The Farewell Address, by the way, is read aloud to each new Senate as it convenes. They may have stopped listening.

John Adams inherited a mess. The election of another Federalist president drew French attacks in a strange episode called the Quasi-War with France. Now we had Britain and France seizing our ships as we tried to trade with both combatant nations. Adams sent a delegation to France in 1797. The Americans were met on the dock by three secret agents of the French Foreign Minister who would only identify themselves as X, Y, and Z. They demanded money from the American delegation before they would ever take them to see the Minister, and they said America should expect to pay even more to call off the attacks. The American delegates had the presence of mind to turn right around and get back on the boat home. When they learned of the “XYZ Affair,” Americans cried out, “Millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute!” The Congress revoked the treaty with France that existed from 1778, and an undeclared war broke out on the high seas.

While these events were exploding, Hamilton gave important state secrets away to the United Kingdom. Jefferson and Madison plotted to undermine support for Britain. Open brawling broke out in the Congress. All of these events and others were reported by the largest circulation of newspapers in the world. While there were only 100 newspapers in America in 1790, there were 230 by 1800. In 1810, 22 million copies of 362 newspapers sold. Political cartoons and editorials abounded. Many of them were critical of the government regardless of what party slant a paper had. The Federalist newspapers clamored for war with France, and the Republican newspapers clamored for war against Britain. Adams wanted war with no one.

Having a reputation of being “obnoxious and disliked,” Adams chafed under the mounting criticism. He worked with Federalists in Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. What drove him over the edge was a cartoon showing him stuffed down inside a cannon with a person about to light the fuse. These Acts, however, sparked more criticism. The Sedition Acts made it illegal to criticize the government and led to the arrest of newspaper editors. The Alien Acts increased the amount of time from five to fourteen years that an immigrant to America had to be in residence before he could apply for citizenship. Most immigrants quickly moved west and became farmers and exercised their voting rights by voting for the Jeffersonian Republicans. Federalists wanted to slow down the coming Jeffersonian Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison said both of these laws were unconstitutional. Instead of waiting for the Supreme Court to agree, Jefferson and Madison anonymously penned the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. These laws were passed by these states in 1798 and said the Alien and Sedition Acts were null and void in their states. Jefferson and Madison, therefore, are authors of the doctrine of nullification which proved to be one of the most dangerous ideas in American history. Nullification is a major cause of the Civil War. It raises the crucial question of ante-bellum America—“What is Union?” The Constitution was unclear, another cause of the Civil War



While that question was coming to the fore, John Adams was about to perform the most important service he ever did for his country. In this deepening crisis, he deftly wielded presidential power in a brilliant way that is almost entirely forgotten today. At the height of danger he prepared for war by pushing the Congress to create a navy. Thus, Adams became known as the Father of the US Navy. His Federalist Party desperately urged him to unleash the Constitution, the Constellation, and the Philadelphia on the French. But Adams rejected his own party’s will. He sent another delegation to France, instead, in an attempt to stave off war. This moment is Adams’s most impressive act. He swallowed his personal pride and sacrificed his political career by negotiating, this time with Napoleon who had risen to power since the XYZ Affair. Napoleon consented to stop attacking American shipping. He hoped to estrange the Americans from the British again. John Adams died many years later in near obscurity, but he said this was the most important step he ever took for peace. His party abandoned him, and he did not win another term as president. How many politicians would sacrifice their political futures to do the right thing, today? Would you?


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