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Early American Republic: The Forging of a New Nation
By what_is_history, 23 August 2007; Revised 23 August 2007
Category: Early Modern: Political History
The argument for and against nationalized government was one of the earliest and most passionate debates that our Founding Fathers faced. Here was a group of well-to-do men, fresh from their implausible victory over Britain, and now debating what they felt that victory meant. As Joseph Ellis states, “different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended.” Our early founders were not oblivious to this fact. Patrick Henry recognized that those involved in the revolutionary movement would not agree on everything. “Different men often see the same subject in different lights…” While it is true that our Founding Fathers were able to come together in a joint effort for independence, they rarely shared the same opinions when it came to the nation’s government.
Early on, the Articles of Confederation had been the governing body that loosely held the states together. Each state was fully vested with the powers to dictate its own affairs, receiving little guidance from the national body. This style of government appeared to be completely in harmony with the revolutionary ideals. Over time though, many states began to take advantage of their weaker neighbors. As Carol Berkin points out, “Animated by a heartfelt ill will and rivalry, state legislatures missed no opportunity to exploit the weakness of their neighbors. They rushed to enact tariffs and trade barriers, replacing the hated British restrictions with their own.” James Madison feared that if the American states remained separate, they would be doomed to repeat the sad history of Greece. “Had Greece, says a judicious observer of her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and preserved in her Union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome” This fear of stronger states imposing their will over the weaker ones became a major reason why many people felt a national government was essential if the revolutionary experiment was to survive.
Out of this growing fear there arose several prominent figures of the infant nation, who also wanted a stronger national government. It is clear that America’s first Commander in Chief, George Washington came to this realization when he stated, “if the powers of Congress are not enlarged, and made competent to all general purposes…the band, already too weak, which holds us together, will soon be broken, and anarchy and confusion must prevail.” Alexander Hamilton, who had served under Washington during the war, attacked the Articles of Confederation head on by calling them, “an abomination.” He also made the point that the Confederation had no federal judiciary and that, “Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation.” John Jay, one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, and our first Supreme Court Justice made the claim that heaven itself had endorsed a national government to rule the people. “This country and this people seem to be made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest of ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.” As a result, many prominent citizens endorsed a strong national government, and were determined to see it put into action.
This argument for a strong national government did not sit well with everyone. In many ways, the notion of a national government became the paradox of the infant nation. How could a nation that detested centralized authority actually consider establishing that very institution? Had not the Revolutionary ideology been to break away from such a system? To the anti-Federalists (those opposed to national government) the idea of national government set off all kinds of alarms. Men like Samuel Adams even argued that the establishment of a national government would only lead the country to civil war, due to the obvious differences between the north and south. Others felt that a massive change in government was not necessary, but that some simple changes to the already existing government would suffice. “Our present constitution, with a few additional powers to Congress, seems better calculated to preserve the rights and defend the liberties of our citizens, than the one proposed.” These apprehensions on the part of the anti-Federalists solidified the notion that not everyone was ready for a national government.
Another major fear of both those for and against national government had to do with the slavery issue. As Joseph Ellis points out, “slavery was woven into the fabric of American society in ways that defied appeals to logic or morality.” Under the Articles of Confederation, states were free to dictate their own policies on slavery. Many southern states feared that the establishment of a Constitution would hinder the institution, or possibly eliminate it. The northerners who argued to eliminate slavery during the Constitutional Convention were met with severe rebuke. As Carol Berkin states, “Any attempt to raise the moral issue of slavery was just as quickly rejected.” The debates over slavery continued to wage until a final compromise was reached in which slavery was to be protected and a new national government established. Despite continued hostilities to a national government, an adequate compromise had been reached and a new government established.
Philadelphia became the birthplace of the national government under the newly created Constitution. This new government, now vested with powers over the states, faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of legitimizing their role. Many anti-Federalists were still bitter about the Constitution and feared that this new government was a prelude to the nation’s demise. The Federalists knew all too well that to legitimize the national government and to create a smooth transition from the previous government, they would need a leader who was able to do almost the impossible. It was abundantly clear that the only man for the job was none other than the General who had directed the Revolutionary fight for independence.
George Washington had become the embodiment of the American Revolution. He was, “the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsodies in flesh and blood, America’s one and only indispensable character…the American Zeus, Moses and Cincinnatus all rolled into one.” If there was anyone capable of the job it was Washington, yet at the same time there was never a President more reluctant to assume the powers of the presidency. Washington even claimed that, “My movement to the Chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” Despite his personal feelings, Washington knew that to secure the revolutionary ideals the government needed to be legitimized. He was, in a very real sense, being asked to do exactly what he had done during the war: turn the improbable into the inevitable. While political rivalries remained hot, almost everyone could agree that Washington was the anchor of stability. Thomas Jefferson even stated that, “The prudence of the President is an anchor of safety to us”
Washington knew that the prevailing sense of apprehension over the new government meant that he would have to be extra careful about the decisions he made. Essentially, the president was forced to walk on eggshells. When war between France and England broke out, it is understandable why Washington acted the way he did. He immediately declared the United States neutral in the conflict. Washington understood that declaring neutrality was the most logical decision, since the United States was in no position to fight in another war.
Washington would not stay neutral for long though. When the President sent Chief Justice John Jay to England it became clear that Washington had chosen sides. The treaty that resulted became known as The Jay Treaty, and stated that England would vacate the posts they had maintained in the northwest sections of America, and American ships would be given trading privileges with England. Perhaps most important, it delayed war with England and allowed the United States time to lick its wounds from their previous fight. The Jay Treaty quickly became a major dividing issue for the nation. As James Sharp points out, “The treaty that Jay negotiated, and that Washington sent to the Senate divided the country like no other issue in the history of the young republic.” French supporters in America quickly went on the attack, calling the Jay Treaty an abomination as they burned John Jay in effigy. Thomas Jefferson who had been a long-time supporter of the French called the treaty, “a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislature and people of the United States.”
In the end, Washington saw the Jay Treaty as a shrewd bargain for the United States. Joseph Ellis gives support to this claim, stating that the United States greatly benefited from the Jay Treaty:
Despite all the wartime hostilities that had existed with England, Washington was able to see the benefits that an alliance between the two rival nations could give the United States in the long run.
Another major contribution that Washington made was to create a cabinet of qualified men to fill the various roles of the Executive branch. Men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Knox became immensely important players in America’s first presidential administration. Alexander Hamilton however, became Washington’s most influential choice. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton faced the tremendous burden of tackling the nation’s debt crisis. The Revolutionary War had left the states with massive debts, and many European nations were reluctant to establish credit with American merchants. To correct the problem, Hamilton proposed that the national government should assume the debts of the states, that a national bank be established, and that all holders of war bonds/securities be paid at face value. By assuming the states debts, Hamilton was essentially doing what he felt the national government had been given power to do. As Joseph Ellis points out, “the federal government was implicitly, even covertly, assuming sovereign authority over the economics of all the states.”
Opponents of Hamilton’s economic plan saw it as an evil scheme to wrestle power away from the people and to secure it for the national government. Some suggested that Hamilton was doing this by shifting the balance of power from the legislative branch (Congress) to the executive branch (the Presidency). Other opponents had a different take on Hamilton’s economic plan. Many saw it as a carbon copy of England, which would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Many southern leaders interpreted the plan as “the prostration of agriculture at the feet of commerce.”
There were also many in the public who lamented the fact that war bonds, which had been used to pay war veterans, were being bought up by rich speculators. These speculators were paying well below face value for the bonds, and then waiting for Hamilton’s plan to go into effect. These speculators knew they stood to gain huge profits once Hamilton’s plan was accepted. Critics argued that many veterans were being swindled out of their money. Congressman James Jackson called the speculators, “rapacious wolves seeking whom they may devour.”
Eventually, opponents of Hamilton’s plan (especially the Virginia elite) would lend their support for it, in exchange for the location of the new national capital to be located on the Potomac. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison used their political influence to sway public support in favor of Hamilton’s plan. In return, the new capital of the nation was established in Virginia. Many leaders within the government felt that this compromise “gave birth to combinations, parties, intrigues, jealousies…to such a degree to give serious alarm to the friends of the government.” Hamilton’s economic plan served as one of the first hurdles for the infant nation to learn to overcome. Whether the compromise was seen as a good or bad thing, it did prove that politicians with differing opinions could find a way to come to a compromise and get things done.
In 1796 President Washington decided to step away from public life. Despite the problems he faced during his presidency, Washington left office revered by the majority of a nation that was sad to see their hero go. The Washington Administration had successfully secured a great deal of legitimacy for the national government. In those eight years, the Washington Administration had established the nation’s first foreign policy, dealt with its first rebellions, and established a solid economic plan. Thanks to the Washington Administration, a great deal of security was added to the new nation. In his farewell to the nation Washington wrote, “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.” Clearly America’s first executive realized that the nation had grown to love the ideals of liberty that the American Revolution had developed. It is no wonder that our nation’s first president has become immortalized, having his face carved in rock and his name used to establish our capital. Then and now he has become legendary as the one and only, His Excellency.
By 1800 the political landscape had become divided on several issues. The Federalists were those that believed the future of America rested with the noble elite, who best knew how to run the affairs of the infant nation. They believed that government was an institution that existed, “to protect the people from themselves.” The Republicans on the other hand, believed that America’s future rested with the people, and that Federalist ideas were sure to repeat the domination of Britain. Thomas Jefferson, who was a strong Republican supporter, went as far as to call the Federalists “monarchists, Tories, and anti-republicans.”
The ongoing war between England and France was also a major dividing issue. Federalists still held on to their loyalty with England, while Republicans felt that the United States owed France their allegiance. The Republicans, through the efforts of men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were successful in persuading a large number of citizens to support the French. To men like Hamilton and his followers, this became a major fear and source of agitation. “The Republican leadership, men like Jefferson and Madison, were not the Hamiltonians’ greatest fear. What frightened them most was the popular following the two Virginians attracted and the fact that citizens had begun to publicly criticize and directly oppose Federalist policies.”
Further fuel was added to the already hot Federalist fire. Many French diplomats like Edmond Genet, who had come to the United States as representatives of the new French Republic, began gaining support from many American citizens. Several political societies began sprouting up. As Paul Newman describes them, “The societies styled themselves after the Jacobin Clubs in France and proposed to eradicate popular ignorance, that irreconcilable enemy of liberty.” To Hamilton and many other Federalists’ this was unacceptable. While Genet was successfully winning the hearts of many Americans, Hamilton endeavored to portray Genet and the various societies as threats to national security. “As these groups forged links with one another, Hamilton thought they might replicate the methods of the Sons of Liberty chapters that helped spark the American Revolution.” Certainly the Federalists’ were worried about losing political control, and possibly their heads like many French leaders did to the guillotine.
It was under these sets of circumstances that the Massachusetts lawyer John Adams became the 2nd President of the United States. Adams clearly had the credentials for the job. He had served the past eight years as Vice President to Washington and had been deeply involved with America’s quest for independence. As President, Adams faced the grueling challenge of trying to fill the shoes of a legend. Nearly everybody revered Washington for his numerous contributions to the nation, but not everyone felt the same about Adams. As a Federalist, Adams naturally faced opposition from the Republican supporters. This opposition was the catalyst for the majority of the problems that Adams faced as president. This difference in political ideology would also cause Adams to lose for a time the friendship of his comrade, Thomas Jefferson.
The ongoing struggle between England and France became a monstrous task for the new President. The mounting conflicts between French and American ships had irrupted into a quasi-naval war between the two nations. Diplomatic measures had not been able to remedy the crisis, and President Adams continued to find himself in deeper political turmoil. The Republican supporters never failed to waste a chance to wage war on Adams, calling him, “A man of great vanity…and of far less real abilities than he believes he possesses.” Adams must have been shocked at the intense accusations being made at him from Republican supporters, especially coming from his Vice President and friend Thomas Jefferson. It was just a few years earlier when Jefferson was calling Adams, “my senior from the commencement of our public life.”
Faced with the ongoing criticism of his administration, John Adams decided to create one of the most controversial acts of any president: The Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. One of the main goals of this act was to “provide punishment of any persons who unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government…” In a nutshell, the Sedition Acts made it illegal to say anything untruthful about the President or Congress. Federalist supporters felt that this act would serve to protect their political aims. After all, many Federalist supporters believed that government should be put in the hands of only the elite of society. A good example of this was Alexander Hamilton and his supporters. As Paul Newman states “Hamiltonian Federalists’ pessimistic view of human nature prevented them from believing that the mass of citizens possessed the innate virtue of self-governance.” Today’s society no doubt interprets Hamilton’s statements as ludicrous, but to Hamilton (and many others) they were perfectly legitimate. There existed no precedent to this style of government. In Hamilton’s mind, trusting the public on a local or state level was far too risky.
Republican supporters however, had a very different view on the Sedition Acts. Not only did they see the Sedition Acts as tyrannical, but they deemed the actions of President Adams as, “the most abominable and degrading [language] that could fall from the lips of the first magistrate of an independent people.” Republicans were quick to point out the First Amendment to the Constitution, claiming that the Sedition Acts were in direct violation of a person’s freedom of speech. Clearly the Republicans were not going to lie by the wayside and let the Federalists have their way.
To counteract the Sedition Acts, the dynamic duo of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison introduced the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These resolutions were designed to block the Sedition Acts, stating that a state had the right to decide the legality of a federal act. For Jefferson, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions became, “the one significant act of his vice presidency.” Jefferson assured the Republican supporters that, “the reign of witches would pass and the people would restore their government to its true principles.” Jefferson and Madison quickly allied a large number of supporters to their cause and despite some disapproval of their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, were able to successfully wage war on the Sedition Acts. Instead of sheltering the Adams Administration from hostile criticism, the Sedition Acts actually caused a greater political divide between Federalist and Republican supporters. In many ways, the handling of the Sedition Acts became a massive public relations nightmare for the Federalists. As James Sharp points out, “The Federalists believed that the opposition press presented a serious threat to their continuance in power, and therefore, to the stability of the government and the Constitution.” This move to suppress the voice of the people and the press became the eventual dagger that severely weakened the Federalist argument for many Americans.
The Alien & Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration served as a wonderful example that the American legacy did not reside exclusively with the elite. The national government, no matter how skilled, prominent, noble, or educated, would never be able to fully override the will of the people who strove to exercise their rights. No matter how pure their intentions, the Federalists would not be able to quiet the voices of their opposition. Despite their abhorrence of political parties, the separate ideals of both the Federalist and Republican factions had become a reality for America’s first generations. Now it was the task of the nation to learn to get along with one another despite the differences in opinion. As Thomas Jefferson stated, “We are all Republicans-we are all Federalists.”
If there is one lesson that can be learned from the early American republic it is this: that the revolutionary legacy meant something different to each person. America’s first generations became the beneficiaries of a new land, rich in new ideals. Those who supported and contested the idea of a national government, those who legitimized that new government, and those who clashed with the opposing political beliefs of the time became the founders of a new nation. It was their steadfastness in enduring the refiner’s fire of uncertainty that won the day, and in the end this is the true legacy of the American Revolution.
Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.
Orlando, Florida: 2002.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: 2004
Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: 1997.
Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: 2000.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: 2004
Hamilton, Alexander; Jay, John and Madison, James. The Federalist Papers. 1788. New York: 2003.
Henry, Patrick. Speech given at Henrico Parrish Church. Richmond, VA. 23 May, 1775
Newman, Paul D. Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution. Philadelphia: 2004
Sharp, James R. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. Yale University: 1993.
Washington, George. Farewell Address. Philadelphia. 17 Sept. 1796.
The Anti-Federalist No.7: Adoption of the Constitution Will Lead to Civil War. From the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advisor: Dec 6, 1787.
 Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 8.
 Patrick Henry, taken from his speech given at Henrico Parrish Church (Richmond VA), March 23, 1775.
 Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books Inc., 2002), 15.
 James Madison, The Federalist Papers: Number 18 (Originally published in 1787-1788; reprint New York: Random House Inc., 2003), 101.
 Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Random House Publishing, 2004), 140.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2004), 255.
 John Jay, The Federalist Papers: Number 2 (Originally published in 1787-1788; reprint New York: Random House Inc., 2003), 10.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 24.
 The Anti-Federalist No.7: Adoption of the Constitution Will Lead to Civil War (From the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advisor: Dec 6, 1787).
 Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 91.
 Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books Inc., 2002), 113.
 Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 121.
 Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Random House Publishing, 2004), 191. Ellis makes the claim that Washington wanted nothing to do with the Presidency. He states that Washington actually feared that the Presidency could end up tainting his ultimate legacy.
 Ibid, 182.
 Ibid, 189.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 54.
 Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Random House Publishing, 2004), 226.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 117.
 Ibid, 119.
 Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House Publishing, 1997), 188. Jefferson wrote this from Monticello. He was rallying republican support against the treaty from there. Since Jefferson was still serving as Secretary of State, it would have been very difficult for him to come out in open attack against the President.
 Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 136-137. Ellis argues here that the Jay Treaty was one of the biggest landmark events that helped to shape American foreign policy.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2004), 298. Chernow also states that Alexander Hamilton perceived that the accumulation of national debt “is perhaps the natural disease of all governments.”
 Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 58.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2004), 302.
 Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 65.
 Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Random House Publishing, 2004), 205.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2004), 303.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 38.
 George Washington, Farewell Address (1796).
 Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Random House Publishing, 2004), 270. The main point of this book is that Ellis believes that George Washington was the one and only indispensable individual of the American Revolution. He states that Washington had become larger than life through his achievements, and that without him it would have been much more difficult to establish the legitimacy of the national government.
 Paul Newman, Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2004), 50.
 Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House Publishing, 1997), 154.
 Paul Newman, Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2004), 52.
 Ibid, 55.
 Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2004), 438.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 166. Not only did the Republicans dislike Adams, but many Federalist supporters did as well. Sharp points out that many Federalists’ worried that Adams may divide the nation to a point that Civil War could break out.
 Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House Publishing, 1997), 195. Even though Ellis claims that Jefferson felt genuinely happy to see Adams win the Presidential election of 1796, he also claims that Jefferson supporters had been campaigning for Jefferson to win the presidency, and that Jefferson was not opposed to the support he received.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 177.
 Paul Newman, Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2004), 49.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 179.
 Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House Publishing, 1997), 212.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 189.
 James Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (Chelsea, MI: BookCrafters Inc., 1993), 218.
 Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House Publishing, 1997), 216.