From Bullets to Ballots: The Election of 1800 and the First Peaceful Transfer of Political Power

Chapter 6:

The Republicans Persuade

Economic Anti-Republicanism and Political Anti-Republicanism

If truth is not a necessary casualty of party warfare, it is (as Winston Churchill remarked when speaking of war pure and simple) sufficiently precious that sometimes it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies. One of the common features of partisan politics is that certain things come to be talked about with profitable imprecision, and this is no less true with parties of principle. Opinions are misrepresented for partisan advantage. Powerful but partial slogans and sound bites are coined. Similarities are denied. Distinctions are blurred.

One of the distinctions that the Republican party of the 1790s sometimes blurred in order to advance its popularity was that between the allegedly anti-republican, “monarchical” character of Hamilton’s fiscal policies and the more straightforward antirepublican position of defenders of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. John Adams, who in fact found Hamilton politically and morally suspect, and was not a fanatical supporter of Hamilton’s fiscal system, nevertheless was placed by Republican writings into the same frame as Hamilton. Republicans portrayed Adams as an advocate of hereditary forms of government. Adams was in truth no such thing. Nevertheless his falsely-alleged monarchism was used in a fallacious way as evidence to prove the monarchical intentions of Hamilton. Of course, Hamilton himself was known to have spoken in the secret debates of the Constitutional Convention in favor of considering life tenure for presidents, and Republicans did not fail to draw attention to this when accusing Hamilton of monarchism. But there is a great difference between tenure for life (or for “good behavior”) and hereditary offices: as Madison’s Federalist Number 39 points out, tenure for good behavior in some offices is fully compatible with republican government. So if Adams could be convicted of favoring hereditary offices, he would be a more vulnerable target than Hamilton for Republican suspicions about the promotion of monarchism.

Hamilton’s economic “monarchism” seemed to Republicans to be more dangerous than political monarchism, because it was less open and avowed, and therefore less immediately vulnerable to attack. The insinuating crypto-monarchism of Hamilton consisted of the unrepublican spirit of speculative profit-making at the public expense, made possible by fiscal policies that in turn had been enacted only because the Treasury scheme’s corruption of a sufficient number of representatives had prevented the wishes of the people from being followed or even from being consulted. Economic monarchism was an attempt to transplant the corrupt and corrupting British way of governing into the heart of the American republican regime, and it was dangerously close to succeeding, because of popular inattention to the danger. Or so the Republicans believed, and so their story went.

Adams’ reputation on this subject dated back to 1789, when he, as vice president (presiding over the Senate), together with an Anti-federalist Senator from Virginia, led the Senate to agree to honorific forms of address for the highest elected officials in the new government (e.g. “His Highness” the President). This would have embarrassed Washington had it been approved. The House of Representatives had decided to reject any such idea, and to address Washington simply as “President of the United States.” The Senate soon agreed with the House, and the matter was settled. However, Adams’ support for titles–which he thought would have been perfectly republican and quite useful in enhancing the dignity of the republic at home and abroad–got him into trouble with a press and a people for whom the universal fashion was for republican simplicity, and earned him a great reputation for anti-republicanism. (The fact that Adams had sons–unlike Washington, Jefferson, Madison, or indeed any other president until Andrew Jackson–may have added some plausibility to the absurd idea that Adams hankered after hereditary monarchy. In 1800 there was even a rumor that he had tried to get one of his sons married to one of King George III’s daughters, to set up an American royal dynasty!)

In 1790 a French diplomat in America reported that Adams’ part in the debate about forms of address, plus Adams’ criticism of the French Revolution, had made Jefferson rather than Adams into the heir apparent to Washington–a premature conclusion, but ultimately not all that inaccurate. In a series of articles in the Gazette of the United States in 1790 and 1791, Adams criticized constitutional developments in France for their too hasty and too levelling egalitarianism and for their rejection of such prudent constitutional arrangements as bicameral legislatures. At this time many Americans were still looking on revolutionary France as a republican soul mate, so there was potential for Adams’ articles to make him more unpopular. In fact, he expected they would.

What most helped actualize that potential was a step taken–inadvertently, it seems–by Thomas Jefferson, in an incident that was the first stage in the breakup of the friendship of Adams and Jefferson. Jefferson’s praises for Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were published (without Jefferson’s intention) as a blurb in the first American edition of that book. Paine’s book defended the rationality and justice of the French Revolution against the attack by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on it, and denounced the intrinsic injustice of all hereditary forms of government. Jefferson noted that he was “extremely pleased to find

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