The ‘Revolution of 1800’ and the Election of Thomas Jefferson

The Federalists won, but when the dust settled, Anti-Federalists could claim to have made their point.

By Dr. Joseph R. Stromberg
Emeritus Professor of History
Buffalo State College

To understand fully the “Revolution of 1800” we have to go back to the American Revolution and the ideology which drove it. That outlook has been called the “American synthesis” – a unique blend of early liberalism, “the rights of Englishmen,” and republican theory. Republicanism sprang up in ancient Greece and Rome, underwent a rebirth in Renaissance Italy, and came into England as an opposition ideology about the time of the English Civil War (Puritan Revolution). There, opposition Whigs–-and sometimes Tories–mixed republican ideas with liberal ideas about individual rights. Thus, the “synthesis” began over the water, but the American colonists were able to act upon it, unlike their British teachers.

From republican theory, Americans took the notion of the independent freeman on his own land, able to bear arms in his own defense and the defense of the republic. Militias made up of these freemen were the best, and safest, means of defending a free social order. Definite limits on power were essential, and patriots must stand on guard against “corruption”-–that is, policies tending to overturn the constitution. This must all seem very archaic and quaint to our modern rulers. But broad ownership of property and firearms, relative to conditions in Europe, meant that American reality did come near the republican ideal.

Jonathan Swift was a member of the Country Party / National Portrait Gallery, London, Wikimedia Commons

In English republican thought the sturdy proprietors were the “country party.” Their opponents, the “Court party,” would seek to unbalance the constitution by such means as standing armies, inflationary public debt, and the rigging of markets. By the time Americans emerged successfully from their Revolution, many of them equated the conflict of Country and Court with that between Liberty and Power. This synthesis made governing difficult for those who wished to establish on these shores an American version of British mercantilism resting on just those Court policies which American radicals viewed with suspicion.

Difficult or not, governments of a sort were created in all the states, loosely confederated under the Articles. Partisans of American mercantilism, together with people disturbed by such outbreaks as Shay’s Rebellion, launched a movement for a new constitution to create a more powerful federal government. During the ratification struggle, so-called Anti-Federalists raised the whole array of “Country party” arguments against the new charter, stressing the time-worn claim that only small states could remain republics. In time, the strengthened central government would lapse into tyranny.

The Federalists won, but when the dust settled, Anti-Federalists could claim to have made their point. The states announced their understanding of the new system in their ratifications and 10 amendments were added to address their concerns. On the other hand, Federalists thought they had made their point. In running the government they had created, they assumed they had full power to create an American mercantilism. This led their critics to coalesce as “Democratic Republicans” (sometimes plain “Republicans”). There was considerable continuity between the Anti-Federalists and Republicans, as their objections to Federalist policies show.

Under Washington, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton sought to tie mercantile and landed wealth to the new government via public debt and a national bank. To finance his measures, Congress pushed through various excise taxes, causing some to recall the pre-revolutionary distinction between “internal” taxes and “external” taxes. Worse, the excise on Whiskey called into being a mass movement of protest–the Whiskey Rebellion–in western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and elsewhere. The rebels essentially won, preventing effective collection of the tax, but they and their opponents agreed, in effect, to pretend that the administration had won a great victory for the central government.

The Washington and Adams administrations had a few other problems with which to deal. Hemmed in by European powers’ imperial holdings in North America, the federal republic was buffeted by foreign wars set off by the French Revolution, which began in 1789. A titanic struggle began between France and Britain, with both powers interfering with American shipping and trade. Initially, many Federalists wished to side with Britain, while many Republicans favored France, whose revolution they identified with our own. At a later stage, Republicans–including their emerging leader, Thomas Jefferson–lost their enthusiasm as the French Revolution spun out of control.

A British political cartoon depicting the XYZ affair / Wellcome Library, Wikimedia Commons

Other issues tore at the new federation. Westerners resented the government’s apparent inability or lack of interest in securing free navigation of the Mississippi River and talked of putting themselves under protection of Spain. The controversy over Jay’s Treaty, the XYZ affair, and the activities of Citizen Genet polarized the American political spectrum. Republicans increasingly saw Federalists as a “Court party” of pro-British crypto-monarchists, while Federalists denounced Republicans as French Jacobins, levelers, and anarchists.

Into this fray, in which material interests, foreign policy orientations, and ideology were mingled, came a corporal’s guard of exiled British radicals like Dr. Thomas Cooper, who threw themselves into the struggle as Republican propagandists. At the same time, Republicans were organizing so-called “democratic societies” or clubs, which to the Federalists looked like French revolutionary cells. The Republicans drew inspiration from the American Revolution’s Committees of Correspondence.

John Adams inherited this divisive situation when he came into office in 1796. An important faction within his own Federalist party was determined to enlist the US in Britain’s war with revolutionary France. Adams later wrote that his main achievement as President was to keep America at peace. On the other hand, Adams did not oppose it, when the Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in an attempt to silence the Republican opposition, crush the democratic societies, and deport foreign radical allies of the Republicans.

Republican editors, writers, and rank-and-file supporters were arrested and tried by partisan Federalist judges. One poor fellow, who had drunk too much patriotic cheer, was arrested for proclaiming that he would have his fun and fire his musket, even if the ball “went up John Adams’s a—-.” A near reign of terror began, matched only by Woodrow Wilson’s in 1917-1918.

The question of the constitutionality of these laws naturally arose. Here, Congress had passed laws which the courts, equally unconstitutionally, were enforcing. Was there a mode of redress or even an effective way to protest?

As heirs to the Anti-Federalists, the Republican leaders thought there was: action by the states. It must be remembered than in 1798 it was not deemed intuitively obvious that the US Supreme Court had exclusive jurisdiction over questions of constitutionality, much less final jurisdiction. Behind the scenes, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote resolutions soon adopted, respectively, by the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia, in which Republicans had majorities.

Alien and Sedition Acts / Wikimedia Commons

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions asserted: “the several states composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government….” Instead, the constitution was a “compact” between the states, each of which had the right and duty to judge infractions of it, in the absence of an agreed common judge. The resolutions stated flatly that the Alien and Sedition Acts were “altogether void and of no force.” The Virginia Resolutions asserted a state’s right of “interposition” to arrest the action of an unlawful federal measure. Faced with unfavorable responses from the other states’ Federalist-controlled legislatures, the Kentucky Resolutions of 1799, drawn up by John Breckinridge, went further and spoke of “nullification.”

This was not mere election-time sloganeering. Both sides in the contest believed that the future of the country was at stake. Hamilton spoke of leading federal armies into Virginia to settle things and Jefferson and John Taylor discussed the possibility of secession. No wonder today’s liberals want to kick Jefferson out of respectable society.

The Republicans’ well-organized clubs galvanized their potential voters into action and turned the Federalists into a minority party, permanently. As Dumas Malone, biographer of Jefferson, notes, there were some hitches: “The Federalists did not recover from their defeat in Pennsylvania [in state elections], but by obstructive tactics in the legislature, where they retained control of the Senate, they threatened to rob the Republicans of the fruits of victory so far as the approaching presidential contest was concerned. They blocked the Republican attempt to pass an election law, with the result that there was no provision for the casting of the electoral vote of this state. The Republicans, therefore, could only bide their time until the fall elections of 1800, in which they hoped to gain control of both houses.

Early in the year Jefferson himself recognized the possibility that Pennsylvania might be deprived of her vote in the presidential contest. This proved to be virtually the case, for the Republicans did not quite carry the state Senate in the fall, though they made gains there and were decisively victorious in other contests. To get ahead of the story, what finally happened was that, as a result of a legislative compromise, the Republican ticket got eight electoral votes and the Federalist seven, despite a clear Republican majority in the state.”

But that was not the only hitch. The hard-fought election landed in the House of Representatives, when Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Republicans ended in a tie in the Electoral College. The lame-duck House, voting by states with one vote per state, finally chose Jefferson, after at least twenty ballots. The Republicans had won a mighty victory, even if the workings of the constitutional mechanism obscured its extent. It was only in the Federal courts that the former Court party kept a foothold in government. John Adams had reinforced this hold by appointing Federalist judges just before his term expired. This became a sore point with Republicans.

Jeffersonian Triumph and Betrayal

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States / Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson did indeed reach across the aisle in his inaugural, saying famously “we are all republicans, we are all federalists.” But “conciliation” only went so far. Republicans fully intended, at first, to sweep away Federalist institutions, policies, programs, and personnel. They were particularly keen on impeaching federal judges like Samuel Chase, who had made bitter enemies of Republicans through heavy-handed enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The impeachments failed and, in the end, the Federalist institutional fabric largely survived, albeit with new personnel.

To an extent, Republicans did carry out their announced program of retrenchment, reduction of military spending, and repeal of internal taxes. In 1803, presented with one of the biggest real estate bargains in history by Napoleon Bonaparte, Jefferson undertook to double the land area of the country with the Louisiana Purchase. This, he admitted, was probably unconstitutional, but such opportunities seldom come around more than once.

Jefferson’s high-handed personal management of the treason trial of Vice President Aaron Burr does not look good on his resumé, either. The mercurial Burr, who had killed Hamilton in a duel, seemed to be involved in plans to set up a western republic, at the territorial expense of the Union and Spain alike. His trial ended in acquittal for lack of solid evidence.

Perhaps Jefferson’s worst excesses came in attempting to wage “economic warfare” against the global combatants, Britain and France. The end result was a draconianand unconstitutional embargo on American trade, which set off howls of protest and lawbreaking in New England, hit hard by loss of carrying trade. If the embargo was constitutional, then so had been the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson and his party were having it both ways.

Historian Forrest McDonald terms Jefferson’s policies “totalitarian libertarianism” – that is, libertarian in rhetoric, oppressive in practice. If that seems unduly harsh, consider that Jefferson’s chosen successor, James Madison, managed to commit America to a war in 1812, which had as its results the re-enactment of such parts of Federalist mercantilism as the Republicans had managed to abolish. Mr. Madison’s War nearly drove the New England states out of the Union.

In the end, as the late historian Arthur Ekirch Jr. wrote, a “Federalized Jefferson” had presided over the preservation of the Federalist legacy. McDonald observes that the powers of search and seizure, which Republicans enacted to enforce their misbegotten embargo, exceeded the worst of the Federalists’ measures.

Are There Any Lessons Here?

One lesson seems to be that politicians talk a better game of strict construction and limited government when they are out of power than when they are in–and we can think of many examples in our own century. Civil liberties, states rights, and freedom are much less appealing once one has those famous “responsibilities” of office. Many a man who might have been fairly inoffensive in private life has grown into a monster upon entering the White House. This is usually referred to as “growth” of character.

Originally published by the Mises Institute under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.