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

Chapter 7:

Foreign Affairs Delay the Republican Victory

Republicans believed they had won the House elections of 1792, and hoped that this would be sufficient to achieve their goal of ridding the federal government of anti-republican policies, and therefore that principled partisanship would not need to be repeated. But things did not work out that way, so Republicans not only had to repeat their victory of 1792 in later House elections, but also had to gain control of the presidency and the Senate, before they could achieve this aim. From 1793 to 1800, foreign policy disputes and their domestic repercussions erupted onto the scene even before the Republican-controlled House produced by the elections of 1792 convened. This eruption showed that the Republicans had to make a more sustained and more comprehensive partisan challenge to Federalist control of the federal government. The events of 1793-1800 had the effect of making this partisanship seem more necessary, even though these events also made both parties more deeply and bitterly opposed to each other.

The New Democracy and Old World Diplomacy

Throughout the 1790s, but especially after Britain and France went to war in 1793, Americans defined many of their partisan political opinions with reference to these two countries. But these two conflicting superpowers did not pay all that much attention to America and Americans. American policy was not nearly as high on the British and French governments’ agendas as European policy was on the American government’s agenda. European inattention to American affairs had the effect of prolonging the period of the American parties’ preoccupation with foreign affairs. If the British and French governments had been paying more attention to America during the 1790s, American differences with them might have been settled more quickly, and the intensity of the American concern with European affairs might have ended in the early 1790s instead of lasting as it did to 1800.

American political history from the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth intertwined with conflicts among European powers, and Federalists’ and Republicans’ attractions to and repulsions from Britain and France in the 1790s have to be understood in the light of this longer history. In the space of five decades, Americans had two wars with France and two wars with Britain. They fought (with Britain) against France (1756-1763), then (eventually with France) against Britain (1775-1782), then against France (1798-1800), and then against Britain (1812-1815).

During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between Britain and France–known in British America as the French and Indian War–American colonists fought with the British against the French and their Indian allies. (The young George Washington’s military abilities began to be recognized during this war.) In 1764 the colonists began resisting British rule, and in the 1770s they (apart from the many loyalists among them) chose to fight for their independence from Britain. For this purpose they agreed to a military alliance with the French in 1778. The formal peace treaty between the United States and Britain in 1783 included agreements that both sides failed to follow up. Britain failed to evacuate military posts in the American northwest (the very lucrative fur trade was probably the main motive for this), and failed to provide compensation for slaves that had been taken away by the British army. The British justified these nonperformances by (accurately) complaining that, also contrary to the treaty, several American states were preventing the collection of debts owed to British citizens, and were harassing former loyalists. Britain also dragged its heels in establishing proper diplomatic relations with the new American republic, and (as mentioned) imposed damaging restrictions on American maritime commerce, inspiring Madison and others to call for a trade war by way of retaliation.

After Britain and the new French republic went to war in 1793, Britain gave even more serious reason for American grievances by attacking and confiscating American ships and cargoes, on the bare suspicion of intending to trade with France. Because of this, in 1794 the American government made preparations for a new war with Britain, but also sent a minister (John Jay) to negotiate the two countries’ differences. A new treaty (the Jay Treaty), ratified in 1795, secured for America the northwest posts as well as compensation for Britain’s attacks on American shipping. In return Britain got ways of settling British creditors’ claims, and American agreement not to retaliate against British commercial restrictions.

The Jay Treaty provided an excuse for the French government to insult Americans and to authorize its navy and privateers to attack American shipping. America fought a naval “quasi-war” with France from 1798 to 1800, which resulted in a formal end to the alliance of 1778. France then decided not only to make peace with America but also practically to give America the huge territory of Louisiana. During the presidencies of Jefferson (1801- 1809) and Madison (1809-1817), commercial conflict with Britain resumed, America set up a commercial embargo, and finally another war (the last) between the two countries was fought from 1812 to 1815.

So the new American republic resembled other new nations not only in its executive successor problem and its wariness of internal party divisions but also in its having to pass its earliest years in a world of rivalry and war among greater powers.

Moreover, American government, even before party government was in place, had to pay more attention to public opinion than European governments did when making foreign policy. As a democracy, America was less able and less willing to engage in old-world style, balance-of-power diplomacy and war. Old world powers had to pay relatively little attention to public opinion to justify action, inaction, or quick changes of allegiance. This was not so in America. Even though the American government stayed neutral in Europe’s conflicts, American commerce was still targeted by the conflicting European powers. This, along with ideological sympathies for and against the French Revolution, made American public opinion respond to European conflicts, swinging one way or the other as events unfolded. This unstable response exacerbated the partisanship that had emerged in 1792. Partisan tensions greatly increased when the French Revolution’s intensification of European conflicts made American relations with Europe more dangerous. As Jefferson wrote to Madison in June 1793, the war between revolutionary France and England that began in that year “brought forward the Republicans and Monocrats in every state,” making their “relative numbers” easier to see.

Republican Party Strategy Adapts to the French Revolution

The newly-intensified public attention to foreign affairs that began in the spring of 1793 made an effective Republican strategy more difficult to calculate and to maintain. At first there was a great temptation among Republicans to assume that the new French republic’s self-assertion in Europe could only help the Republican cause in America, by helping America challenge both British commercial power and the British political and economic model. But they soon learned that they could not rely upon the advent and the actions of the French Republic to make American public opinion more consistently sympathetic to the Republican party. On the contrary, the presence of foreign policy disputes in American party politics from 1793 to 1800 had the effect of delaying the electoral victory of the Republicans, by providing temporary and artificial props to Federalist popularity. It was understandable therefore that Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address should echo earlier speeches by Washington and Adams by warning against “entangling alliances,” since foreign entanglements had proved to be such a barrier to the emergence of the Republican party’s underlying electoral strength. Republican leaders throughout the decade remained reasonably confident that the majority of the American electorate favored their side in their battle against the Hamiltonian project, but they had to learn that foreign affairs had to be removed from the top of the political agenda in order for this underlying support to show itself.

The French Revolution resembled the American Revolution in some ways. Both involved violence, war, and enthusiasm for republican government. However, the French Revolution soon embraced principles alien to American republicanism, principles more akin to the radically ideological revolutions that brought totalitarian governments to power in the twentieth century. Many French revolutionaries saw no limits to governmental authority once it had been legitimated by popular consent. They easily justified a cold-blooded terrorism against public enemies, and French republicanism soon transformed itself into the absolute rule of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte. In this way, the French Revolution paved the way for later regimes that denied human equality by denying rights to certain (often ill-defined) categories of humans (“Negroes,” “bourgeois,” Jews, etc.). In contrast, all American republican (including those who joined the Federalist movement in support of energizing the federal government) saw that the natural rights of all human beings set limits to the legitimate power of any government, however thoroughly based on popular consent. Jefferson reaffirmed this in his First Inaugural Address, when he promised that the enhancement of popular consent by means of the first democratic partisan electoral revolution would not overthrow the “sacred principle” of American republicanism “that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” As we have seen, even the quasi-monarchical authority of George Washington did not threaten but enhanced the principles of limited government and the rights of all, because Washington always spoke and acted with an abiding loyalty to constitutionalism and the rule of law.

However, some Americans perceived these great differences between American and French republicanism less fully and less quickly than others, so the partisan divisions within America became deeply affected by passionate admiration and more farsighted but equally passionate criticism of the French Revolution.

Washington’s Proclamation of April 1793 was the first official American response to the new war between France and Britain. France had declared war on Britain, therefore was not fighting a defensive war, so the treaty of 1778 did not require the United States to fight with France. Washington’s proclamation of American “impartiality” between the two sides remained the official policy for the rest of the 1790s (and beyond), but it took many Republicans a long time to accept this as the right policy, because Republicans (now much more than Federalists) were tempted to agree with Thomas Paine that the cause of revolutionary France was “the cause of all mankind.” Before Washington issued his proclamation, Secretary of State Jefferson had advised him that even if the treaty of 1778 were to be suspended, the “moral duties” of nations might still give France claims on America’s support. And during the spring and summer of 1793, in spite of Washington’s Proclamation, much enthusiasm for France and Franco-American solidarity was expressed in political speeches and demonstrations. However, by the middle of 1793 Jefferson saw that neutrality probably was the best policy in this case, and moreover that foreign affairs were quite capable of turning public opinion against the Republicans very quickly if the Republicans identified themselves with the cause of France and that cause then became less popular. He warned other Republican leaders that as popular enthusiasm for France melted away, this would “damp that energy of republicanism in our new Congress [to meet in December], from which I had hoped so much reformation.” Republicans soon learned that it was far safer to continue attacking Federalists for their Anglophilia than to depend on a popular Francophilia lasting for long. So when Jefferson retired from his cabinet post in January 1794 he could remain confident that the mandate given to the Republican anti-Hamiltonian cause by the elections of 1792 remained in place.

The new maritime belligerency of Britain in 1793 and 1794 brought a real threat of war, and helped Republicans get renewed proposals for commercial retaliation (by non-importation of British goods) through the House of Representatives. Such a measure had long been the centerpiece of Madison’s and Jefferson’s alternative to Federalist complacency about continued reliance on commerce with Britain, and they calculated that even if their proposal again failed, it would (as James Monroe wrote to Jefferson) “open the eyes of the eastern [New England] people respecting the conduct of their representatives.” In other words, even losing this fight in congress would enhance Republicans’ appeal in future elections. In 1792, Republicans had hoped that one partisan election would be enough, but they were now ready to contemplate another such battle if it proved to be necessary in order to win the war.

It did prove to be necessary. The Republicans’ bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate (by the casting vote of Vice President Adams). By the summer of 1794 the Republicans were in despair, Monroe declaring that “the republican party is entirely broken,” and Hamilton was celebrating the fact that all the Republicans’ “mischievous measures have been prevented.” The renewed threat of war, even though it would have been war with Britain (to whom the Republicans showed more antipathy than the Federalists), strengthened public support for the government and therefore for the governing Federalists. The Republicans fared much better both in public support and in congress when threats of war receded.

But when threats of war with Britain receded after the Jay Treaty was ratified in 1795, hostilities broke out with France. Only in 1800, therefore, when a settlement had been reached with both Britain and France, were the Federalists deprived of the support they had received from the danger of war, and the Republicans duly rewarded, the appeal of their persuasion finally being embodied in an electoral ascendancy that would last several decades.

However, the Republicans did not have to wait until 1800 for a second victory in House elections. Most of the elections of 1794-1795 were conducted while peaceful means of settling American differences with Britain were being explored, during several months of negotiations by John Jay in London. With dangers from foreign powers less prominent than they would be for the rest of the 1790s, the Republican campaigns of 1794 could expect success from a repetition of the 1792 theme that Hamiltonian Federalism had implanted principles of “corrupt selfishness” into American government. The result of these elections–the first partisan “mid-term elections”–appeared to conform to what is today the standard expectation that the loser will be the president’s party (as the Federalists could be called, though Washington would not have called them that). At the end of December, Jefferson assured Madison that the House elections were going well for Republicans and even the Senate was being purged of its “impurities.”

The Partisan Effects of the Jay Treaty

Confounding Jefferson’s assurance, the long delay between the elections and the resulting congress (the fourth, to convene in December 1795) again introduced a new issue that weakened Republicans both in congress and in the country. A furious public outcry against the Jay Treaty began even before the Senate (meeting in its customary secrecy) had approved it and its contents were fully leaked to the Republican press in June 1795. For several months, the treaty was very unpopular, because its settlement of issues between Britain and America seemed too favorable to British interests, and because it ruled out the Republicans’ favored option of starting a trade war with Britain. Threatening crowds assembled around Washington’s house in Philadelphia, demanding war with England and support for France. Other cities witnessed similar passionate scenes. Jay’s effigy and copies of the Treaty were burned; rioters attacked the British minister’s house; Hamilton was hit by a stone when he spoke in favor of the Treaty. The Senate’s approval of the Treaty was condemned as proof of the existence of an American “aristocracy” organized on the basis of Hamilton’s funding system.

But President Washington, in spite of having received petitions against the Treaty originating in every state, began to move public opinion the other way when he went ahead with ratification of the Treaty, which he judged to be not very unreasonable, and which he thought in any case was a good alternative to another war with Britain. Like John Adams, he saw that America might well have to challenge Britain militarily again, but that it would be in a much better position to do this after another decade or two had passed.

Washington’s decision to proceed with the Treaty infuriated some Republicans, and they got the House to request the president to send them copies of all of the papers concerning Jay’s mission. House Republicans also threatened to withhold enabling legislation. Did not the House, as the most republican body, have as much right to debate the merits of the treaty as the president and Senate did? The Republican press denounced the secrecy of the Senate and the president as monarchical practices. Jefferson privately wrote that the “infamous” treaty was “really nothing more than a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislature and people of the United States.” However, the president refused the House’s request, which he pointed out was unconstitutional (unless the House was contemplating an impeachment), since the Constitution gave treaty-making powers to the president and Senate (precisely in order to maintain the possibility of secrecy). And Republican congressmen soon learned from their constituents that their stand against Washington was no longer popular. Americans had realized that they were risking their prosperity and their chance to get the British out of the northwest posts by rejecting the Treaty, and Federalist defenses of the Treaty (especially a long series by Hamilton, writing as “Camillus”) made its reasonableness more apparent. Petitions now poured into congress from all parts of the union in favor of the Treaty. The Republican effort to refuse enabling legislation collapsed, and the legislation was passed at the end of April 1796.

The Republican stand against the Jay Treaty, the Senate and the president was a great liability in the House elections of 1796. The Republicans had enjoyed slight majorities in the House after the elections of 1792 and 1794. The Federalists won a clear majority in 1796 (again, difficult to count precisely, but something like 64 to 43), and they held their majorities in both the House and the Senate until 1801. For Republicans, the first lesson of the elections of 1796 (as it would be again in 1798) was that it was difficult to attack the government successfully in the presence of foreign policy crises. In 1796, the second lesson was that it was always going to be difficult if not impossible to get Republican policy enacted without a Republican president. The presidency, the “less republican” branch of government, had to become the primary goal of electoral campaigning. Some Republicans still gave in to the old whig instinct of trying to reduce the constitutional powers of the executive office, but that was too defensive. The more decisive stroke would be not to weaken the presidency but to partisanize it.

In 1796, Republicans could but console themselves in the face of Federalist policy and electoral victories by reflecting, as Jefferson wrote to Monroe, that Federalists had become completely reliant on “the colossus of the President’s merits with the people,” and that his retirement would clear the way either for a “monocrat” (Adams) who will be unable to resist “the republican sense” of public opinion, or by a republican (say, Jefferson), who will of course restore “the harmony between the governors and the governed.”

Republicans might have taken some consolation as well from the fact that in the Jay Treaty dispute even Federalists were now relying much more on the direct influence of public opinion on the government’s policy deliberations. That was the major innovation in American government that Republicans had intended from the very first. Federalists–many of them very uneasily–were now actually going along with this innovation. But it was the Republicans’ idea, and it would be the Republicans who would institutionalize this idea in party government.

Jefferson, Adams, and the Partisan Presidency

One of the few Republicans who hesitated to favor Jefferson for president in 1796 was Jefferson himself. He judged that it was not a good time to occupy that office. (He was right.) He thoughtfully suggested that Madison might consider the honor–a suggestion he did not repeat in 1800! Jefferson saw that the Jay Treaty would produce a crisis in American’s relations with France, and that no president, not even Washington, would find it easy to avoid being “shipwrecked” by this crisis. So he was not devastated when he learned that he had come second to John Adams in the electoral college, which by giving 71 votes to Adams and 68 to Jefferson elected a Federalist president and a Republican vice president.

Washington’s stepping down as president released personal rivalries within the Federalist party. The Republicans (like all other large political parties thereafter) also experienced this kind of rivalry, but proved more capable of covering them with partisan solidarity. In the contest to succeed Washington in 1796, Hamilton and a few other Federalists had intrigued to make Adams come second to Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina (who ended up in third place, with 59 votes). This helped open up the prospect of a rapprochement between the former friends, Adams and Jefferson. But here too we can see the Republicans, in the persons of Jefferson and Madison, displaying greater deference to the demands of partisan solidarity and ideology, as opposed to personal ties and friendship. Adams, perhaps even more than Washington, was conscientiously opposed to the temptations and disciplines of partisanship, in which he saw many vices and no virtues. He adored the pleasures of popularity when these occasionally came his way, but he was determined that his presidency would be like Washington’s in its disdain for courting electoral popularity and in its determination to resist popular opinions that were strong but wrong. If anything, Adams went farther than Washington in challenging public opinion; he often acted as if he felt that being out of step with others was evidence that he was right.

Some of Adams’ best friends were Republicans, and in letters to these friends between his election and his inauguration, Adams proposed a bipartisan cooperation with Jefferson and Madison. When Jefferson had retired from Washington’s cabinet in 1793, Adams had written to his wife that Jefferson’s mind was “poisoned with passion, prejudice, and faction.” Now he wrote to a go-between in praise of Jefferson’s “talents

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