Ideological Challenges

The partial victory of the Jay Treaty and the triumph of Pinckney's Treaty vindicated Washington's policy of neutrality. These diplomatic achievements, however, did not solve the dilemma of a politically divided nation. Jefferson and Hamilton, having resigned their posts, were replaced by less able men. Washington decided that two terms as president were enough. In his farewell message to Congress in 1797, he condemned the formation of political parties and warned against entangling alliances with other nations, urging the United States to stay out of Europe's quarrels. His isolationist remarks influenced American foreign policy for more than a century.

The election of 1796. Despite Washington's condemnation of the formation of political parties, the Federalists and Republicans had developed into full‐blown rivals by 1796. Although the Federalists dominated Congress and the presidency, the Republicans grew in strength, recruiting support from Irish immigrants and French refugees from Saint Domingue. John Adams, vice president under Washington, was the Federalist candidate for president; Thomas Pinckney ran for vice president. Thomas Jefferson was the Republican presidential candidate with Aaron Burr for vice president. The popular vote for this election was not recorded—nor would votes be recorded until 1824.

The process of selecting a president under the Constitution did not provide for partisan elections. When the Electoral College votes were counted, Adams had 71, Jefferson 68, Pinckney 59, and Burr 30. Because the individual with the second highest total in the Electoral College became vice president, Adams had to serve out his presidency with Jefferson, the opposition leader, as his vice president. This glitch was not remedied until the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804, requiring the electors to vote separately for president and vice president. The problem caused mischief again in the election of 1800.

During his term, Adams had to deal with a politically divided nation and opposition from his own political party. There was still considerable support for France, but Jefferson's defeat in the 1796 election prompted French aggression against American ships. More than three hundred merchant ships were seized by the French navy. In this hostile atmosphere, Adams sought to continue Washington's neutrality policy and avoid war with France.

The XYZ Affair. The American peace commission, which arrived in Paris in 1797, ran into difficulties almost immediately. Charles de Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, refused to meet with them. He referred the members to three unnamed agents who suggested that negotiations could begin as soon as Talleyrand received $250,000 and France obtained a $12 million loan. When the commission submitted its report to Adams, the letters X, Y, and Z were used to identify the French agents.

Congress responded to this outrage against American diplomatic efforts by voting to arm fifty‐four ships to protect American commerce. Between 1798 and 1800, U.S. and French ships fought an undeclared war in the Caribbean, with American ships capturing ninety‐three French vessels and the French just one American ship. The Federalists also expanded the regular army to a force of ten thousand men, even though it was highly doubtful that a land war with France would take place. Republicans feared the use of the army against them should a civil war break out, while the Federalists considered civil war a possibility for which to prepare.

The Alien and Sedition Acts. Using the possibility of a war with France as an excuse, the Federalist‐dominated Congress passed a set of laws allegedly to protect national security but really directed toward silencing political opposition. Taken together, the laws were called the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Three of the laws affected noncitizens, but the fourth applied to U.S. citizens and provoked a tremendous outcry of protest.

The Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to expel aliens considered likely to commit acts of espionage or sabotage. It remained unenforced until the War of 1812. The Alien Friends Act (which expired in June 1800), empowered the president to expel any foreigners considered dangerous to the nation. No proof of wrongdoing was necessary. Republicans claimed the real intent of the law was to silence any immigrants who opposed Federalist policies. Republicans also protested against passage of the Naturalization Act, which extended the naturalization requirement for U.S. citizenship from five to fourteen years, the last five of which required residence in the same state. The law was clearly meant to prevent immigrants, especially the Irish, from voting because they were likely to support the Republicans.

The Sedition Act made it a crime to “combine or conspire” to oppose any policy of the United States or to intimidate public officials. It was also illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything deemed false or scandalous about the government of the United States, including Congress or the president—a clear violation of the First Amendment. Under the law, which the Federalists used to suppress opposition to their policies, healthy political dissent was lumped with inciting rebellion. On the possibility that they might lose the election of 1800, the Federalists set an 1801 expiration date for the Sedition Act so it could not be used against them.

Republican newspaper editors became the main target of the Sedition Act. Ten editors and writers went to prison on charges of sedition, among them Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon. Besides writing an article criticizing Adams, Lyon had spit in a Federalist's eye and wrestled him to the floor—not the best example of political martyrdom—but the Republicans made the most of his imprisonment.

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Republicans protested against the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts. Writing anonymously, Jefferson and Madison created philosophical justifications for states to oppose federal laws they believed unconstitutional. Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, and Madison wrote the Virginia Resolutions; both were endorsed by the respective states in 1798. The manifestos claimed that state legislatures had the right to protect the liberties of their citizens by taking a stand against unconstitutional federal laws; this view was called the doctrine of interposition. Another concept, nullification, was the right of states to cancel, or nullify, federal laws they found unacceptable. None of the other states endorsed the Kentucky or Virginia Resolutions, which took the position that federal law was not the supreme law of the land. However, the philosophical underpinnings of these resolutions would surface again in the nullification controversy of the 1830s and the efforts of John C. Calhoun to justify states' rights.

The election of 1800. In 1800, Jefferson again ran for president with Aaron Burr as the vice‐presidential candidate. John Adams was the logical candidate for the Federalists, but his party had split into two factions. The “High Federalists” considered Alexander Hamilton to be their leader, and they favored such extreme measures as declaring war on France as a ploy to win the election. Adams opposed such ideas and took a moderate position toward France, supporting negotiation.

Voters wanted to avoid war with France and blamed the Federalists for drastically increasing taxes to support an army that had no war to fight. Federalist strength plummeted just two years after the triumph of the 1798 congressional elections. United against the Federalists, the Republicans cast an equal number of electoral votes (73) for Jefferson and Burr, with Adams and Charles Pinckney receiving 65 and 64 votes, respectively. The tie threw the election into the Federalist‐controlled House of Representatives. When Burr decided to challenge his running mate, Alexander Hamilton used his considerable influence to back Jefferson, who was elected on the thirty‐sixth ballot.

The election of 1800 is viewed as a major watershed in American politics, marking the beginning of Jeffersonian democracy. However, in 1800, white men who did not own property could not vote, and women had no direct voice in politics at all. Native Americans were clearly seen as an impediment to American expansion, and their lands and rights were shrinking before the advance of the frontier. For African Americans, the years following the American Revolution at first seemed positive. Several northern states abolished slavery, and it was prohibited in the Northwest Territory. But the Constitution accepted slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 denied even free blacks the protections in the Bill of Rights. The success of cotton as a cash crop in the southern states, provided in part by the efficiency of the cotton gin, increased the demand for slave labor. Jefferson had become president, but it made little or no difference to the conditions of blacks, slave or free, Native Americans, or women.