Home    Table of Contents     Next Chapter  

 

The Tribes and the States

W. J. Sidis

 

CHAPTER XXIX

DOWNFALL OF FEDERALISM

        177. American Neutrality.  In the general European war that resulted from the French Revolution, maintaining American neutrality was at best a difficult problem. If the Democratic-Republicans, the opposition to the new government in America, were strongly pro-French because they followed the French Revolution a bit too closely for the good of their movement, it was equally true that the Federalists, including their leader George Washington, were just as strongly pro-British. Washington still "loved his king," to use the expression he used to the New England minutemen in 1775. Of course, any opposition to the French Revolution had the sympathy of the Cincinnati conspirators and their followers. To speak of the "rights of men," or quote the preamble of the Declaration of Independence was, during Washington’s administration, a sign of being an enemy to society, and the ruling group used to label such persons "Jacobins." The idea was circulated that "liberty" meant really national independence, but that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were the work of an irresponsible mob. Even so, it was found essential to use the expression "liberty" to catch the attention of the American public, and, in the election campaign of 1796, resulting on Washington’s retirement, the Federalists used extensively the motto, "Adams and Liberty." Patriotic songs praising the virtues of military obedience, and advocating resting on the laurels of the War for Independence, were circulated widely, as an offset to the popularity of the "Marseillaise" among the opposition party. Songs like "Hail Columbia" and "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" are samples of the sort then composed, while another, less known now, but then used extensively as a campaign song, was entitled "Adams and Liberty," and ran to a popular drinking tune ("Anacreon in Heaven").

"Ye sons of Columbia, who bravely fought
For those rights, which unstained from your sires had descended,
    May you long taste the blessings your valor has brought,
And your sons reap the soil, which your fathers defended.
    Mid the reign of mild peace,
    May your nation increase,
With the glory of Rome, and the wisdom of Greece,
    And ne’er may the sons of Columbia be slaves,
While the earth bears a plant, or the seas rolls its waves."

        What particularly involved American neutrality was the issue of the searching of American ships by belligerent nations. Both sides held up and searched neutral ships on the Atlantic for goods destined to their respective enemies. In addition, French ships of war used to demand "enrollment papers," specifying the name and nationality of the members of the crew, and, for lack of this requirement (not demanded by the American government) they were treated as pirate ships, and captured. Similarly the British navy made a practice of shanghaiing sailors off American ships on the claim that they were deserters from British ships, or that they were British subjects, and could be drafted into the British navy. Between the two sides in the war, justification could have been found for the United States to declare war on either side. But Washington preferred to buy his way as before, and remain neutral; and it was mainly this to which he referred in his parting speech, on retiring from the Presidency, when he advised the United States to keep clear of entangling alliances. Washington himself was strongly pro-British, and even went so far as to break diplomatic relations with France, but he did attempt to maintain a neutrality. On the other hand, when Adams became President, he at once took a very belligerent attitude. It was, of course, made easier by the attitude of the French revolutionists in trying to propagandize America from the outside. Adams did attempt to resume diplomatic relations with France by sending a diplomatic envoy there, whom the French Republic refused to recognize, but who was approached by unofficial representatives of the French government with the proposition that recognition might be had if the United States would grant a loan to the French Republic.

         Although it is true that Great Britain granted United States as little recognition as France did, the Federalist regime was looking for a chance to pick a quarrel with the French Revolution, especially since the government’s opponents were using the French Revolution as a model. French dismissal of the minister sent by Adams was therefore taken as an insult to American honor, and, though Congress would not issue an actual declaration of war against France, the President undertook to start hostilities without consulting Congress. As a result, a de facto state of war existed during Adam’s administration between the United States and France, during which many naval battles occurred, though there was no official declaration of war on either side.

         178. Sedition Laws.  The main activity of the Federal government, however, in connection with this unofficial war with France, was to use this rather perfunctory fighting as an excuse for ruthless suppression of all political opposition at home, and creating a war hysteria which would keep the new regime indefinitely in the saddle. Federalists mobs in various parts of the United States were threatening foreigners in general, and the French in particular; while the Federal government passed a series of laws that ran directly counter to the "Bill of Rights" amendments to the Constitution―amendments which, as we have seen, the Cincinnati and their followers the Federalists had not intention of obeying.

         In the first place, naturalization of foreigners was made more difficult, by impeding a requirement of fourteen years’ residence. Then, to prevent foreigners not acceptable to the officials from acquiring this residence, an "Alien Act" was passed, authorizing the President to give any foreigner twenty-four hours’ notice of banishment from the United States, so that deportation of foreigners became a summary process, no reasons for it having to be assigned.

         The Administration was gradually gaining in this way a tighter grip over the expression of opinion in America, but the Alien Act was being denounced in various quarters as violation of the Bill of Rights, and therefore not within the limits of Federal authority. To this statement of opinion President Adams replied by passing through his Congress a "Sedition Act" imposing heavy fines and prison sentences on anyone criticizing the President or Congress in any way, whether by speech, by writing, or in print. The actions of the government immediately following show that this act was intended for the complete suppression of all political opposition whatever. This law passed Congress on the anniversary of the French Revolution, Saturday, July 14, 1798.

         Editors of opposition newspapers were quickly rounded up and sentenced to heavy prison terms for various remarks interpreted as derogatory to the administration, while the authorities began to pick up anyone suspected of opposition to the Federalist party, on any charge that suggested itself; and any defendant that was found to believe in democracy was thereafter practically convicted of any charge that may have been laid against him. The issues were generally tried in Federal instead of State courts, and it was noted at that time that the charges were for remarks against the President, the warrants were sworn out and served by a marshal appointed by the President, tried before a judge appointed by the President, and, in most Federal courts, the jury was chosen arbitrarily by the marshal, and anyone who did not fully endorse the Sedition Act was automatically disqualified from serving of jury duty. Even opposition to the Sedition Act, or advocating its repeal, was considered by some Federal courts to be punishable under the Act.

         Popular resistance took a different form in the South from the demonstrations in the North, but it was present in both regions. In the South, the issue was merely that of encroachment on State authority, whereas in the North the issue was that of individual rights. The Legislature of Virginia passed resolutions declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, and beyond the authority the States had granted to the Federal government, and suggested that, in some vague unexplained way, the States should unite agreeing another constitutional convention to remedy the situation. The Kentucky Legislature followed suit, and, since it had been supposed that the Virginia resolutions were suggested by the Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, they prevailed on Jefferson to draft a set of resolutions for them. In the Kentucky resolutions, it was not merely stated that the laws in question were unconstitutional, but it was further stated that the remedy was nullification by the full force of State authority, which was to be used in order to protect violators of these laws; and the Kentucky resolves further hinted that, if no other remedy would work, secession from the Union should be considered as a last resort.

         The legislative resolutions of Virginia and Kentucky were sent to the other State legislatures, but met no affirmative response. In the North, the State governments were still too strongly afraid of the Shays Rebellion, especially in Massachusetts, where, even in 1798, the Commonwealth authorities could still remember all too vividly the winter of 1786, when the Commonwealth regime narrowly escaped being completely wiped out by that unprecedented popular uprising. Even in the Carolinas, which would normally be somewhat sympathetic to Virginia, some such consideration prevailed as regards the legislatures, since a movement of sympathy for the Shays Rebellion had gained some headway there in 1786 and 1787. The Northern legislatures, especially that of Massachusetts, therefore replied negatively, and in no uncertain language, to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798―because the spirit of democracy was still strong among the people, and the State governments were afraid of the people.

        Though the administrations in the Northern States were solidly behind the Federal Government in the matter of the Sedition Act, it was precisely there that the real resistance came. In Virginia and Kentucky, there was merely a dispute between authorities―State against Federal―in which the people took practically no part. But in the North all opposition was from the people, who had to face State as well as Federal opposition.

        In this way a sort of civil resistance arose in the North, a passive resistance by individuals defying the laws that were claimed to be unconstitutional as violative of the rights of free speech and free press. In Vermont an editor was imprisoned for stating that he could support an executive who maintained constitutional rights, but not one who would not. Almost immediately following on this, a revival of the old-time "liberty poles" spread through New England, starting in the southwest corner of Vermont and in the section between Boston and Providence. In this case, these liberty poles were poles set in the ground, surmounted by red, or by red, white, and blue, and bearing placards containing anonymous denunciations of the Alien and Sedition Laws. There was an organization behind these, that called itself the "Men of ’75," and claimed to be reviving the old-time idea of civil disobedience, but whose membership was never precisely known to the outside public. Where the original passive-resistance and liberty-pole idea sprang from, or who inspired it, never became known, and it seems to have become one of those leaderless rebel movements which were so common in the New England history. The uprising centered around a certain section of southwestern Vermont, including Bennington and Wallingford; and it may be a mere coincidence that, in the center of that district, lay the town of Arlington, which numbered among its citizens Daniel Shays, who had been so prominent in Massachusetts rebel activities in 1786.

         In Massachusetts this activity centered around Dedham and Walpole, from which centers it was able to spread to Boston and Providence, and the road between Boston and Providence was almost plastered with liberty poles. Around Hartford, a similar activity prevailed. The Federalists began to organize societies for the special purpose of cutting down liberty poles, and in Dedham a general free-for-all fight among the entire population resulted.

         Thomas Adams, the editor of the Boston Independent Chronicle, and a distant relative of the President, wrote an editorial on this incident, stating that, some twenty years previous, liberty poles denouncing administrative oppression were encouraged by the United States as patriotic; that it was true that in ’75 the British cut down these poles, but that they were tyrants for doing it; that in ’98 the American Federal Government was doing the same thing, but were not tyrants for doing it, because the Sedition Act forbade their being called so. For this editorial, Thomas Adams received a severe prison sentence. One of the men in Dedham who had been prominent in setting up the liberty pole there that caused so much commotion, was arrested in Andover, and brought to Boston for trial, where he received a prison sentence, especially since it turned out that he was poor and unable to pay a fine; this man turned out to have been one of the actual minutemen of 1775.

         Then the Federalists began to find a "plot" to select opponents of the administration to the legislatures, and attempted to arrest ringleaders of the opposition for conspiracy to violate the Sedition Act. By this time, though all Northern State administrations were firmly upholding the Sedition Act, there were signs of resistance even in those circles. In Vermont, judges were being impeached and ousted from office for refusing to enforce the Sedition Law.

         In Pennsylvania, where the seat of the Federal government then was, editorial criticism of the administration was not lacking―criticism that seems to have been largely provoked by the Alien and Sedition Laws―and the four-year sentence imposed on a Philadelphia editor brought about widespread sentiment throughout Pennsylvania, as well as in the rest of the United States, that he was a martyr to the right of free speech. On a rumor that opposition was organizing in Easton, federal troops were sent there to enforce the Sedition Act; but they ran into something different from words or ink. They were met in Easton by a group of irate women who threw scalding hot water in their faces. A few of these women were arrested; but on the whole it proved an ignominious rout for the Federal troops, and they were withdrawn from Northampton County, where Easton is located. The passive resisters in Dedham, Massachusetts, on hearing the news from Pennsylvania, worked up the story and circulated it through New England as a new "Northampton insurrection"―taking advantage of the name of the Pennsylvania county to bring reminders of that unprecedented insurrection in 1796 that started the Shays Rebellion at Northampton, Massachusetts.

        In Dedham, Massachusetts, one of the storm centers of the Sedition resistance, there was suddenly discovered at this time, hidden in the wood-pile of a man just deceased, an old book telling about a trial in New York in 1735 involving an old British sedition law and bringing out the issue of freedom of the press. Subscriptions were at once taken up, and the book was reprinted and circulated widely as a disguised bit of propaganda against the 1798 Sedition Act. The "Men of ‘75" were unable to tell their story to the public directly, but opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts (the "Gag Laws" as they were called), was gaining, among the common people in the North, and among the politicians in the South. As was stated by one of the opponents at that time, if the Congress had been deliberating on how they could make themselves most hated they could not have done better than they did when they passed the Sedition Act.

         179. The Dispute with Georgia.  We have seen that the Yazoo region, long disputed between the United States and Spain, was claimed by the First Republic as part of Georgia, but by the Second Republic as part of West Florida specially ceded by England, and therefore Federal territory, which George Washington called the Mississippi Territory. Georgia, having claimed this territory, was therefore brought into the conflict with the Federal government, which that State showed in other directions.

         One of the items of Federal court jurisdiction, according to the Constitution of the Second Republic, is controversies "between a State and citizens of another State." Under this provision, several suits had been brought in the United States Supreme Court against State governments, and no question was raised as to Federal jurisdiction. But, when such a suit was brought against Georgia in 1792, no appearance was made by any representatives of that State, which simply defied all attempts to enforce Federal jurisdiction, even after a judgment against the State had been rendered by default. Georgia was asserting itself territorially against the Federal government, and the State administration did not intend to agree that it could be bound by Federal courts on any questions. The actual issue before the Supreme Court was one of a private contract, but Georgia made an issue out of the question of Federal jurisdiction in that case, which the Supreme Court decided against Georgia. Under Washington’s administration, it was definitely intended to bring all State governments under complete submission; and this was one of the means planned in the Cincinnati conspiracy. Georgia’s representatives in Congress proposed a constitutional amendment covering this point; it read: "The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another State, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign State."

         This proposed amendment passed through Congress in 1794, and was submitted to the State Legislatures, most of which were favorable, because it granted State governments a certain amount of immunity of which they had been deprived. But the passage through Congress was a difficult one, and largely tied up with the Yazoo territorial dispute. It was finally understood, though no definite agreement was made, that Georgia would obtain the constitutional amendment in exchange for a surrender of its over-mountain territorial claims to Federal jurisdiction. This exchange was accomplished in 1798, just before the Sedition Act; and Georgia received in part compensation a piece of the Federal strip that was still left over from the Southwest Territory, but actually in Cherokee possession; this was part of the strip originally surrendered to the First Republic by South Carolina, and should properly have been returned to South Carolina if the Federal Government was through with it; but the Second Republic preferred to bargain it over to Georgia, thus giving to Georgia some of South Carolina’s original territorial claims.

         The rest of the Cherokee strip, together with territorial claims given up by Georgia in exchange for the final passage of the Eleventh Amendment, was finally organized into what was now known as the Mississippi Territory, the name already unofficially given by the administration to the disputed Yazoo region. The farthest portion of the territory fronted on the Mississippi River, but most of it, especially the more accessible eastern portion, had its only feasible outlet in the ports of the Floridas, such as Biloxi, Mobile and Pensacola, and the attempt to organize and settle this region was bound to engender further disputes with Spain over the use of Florida ports, in the same way as trouble over New Orleans had been brewing for years.

         This constitutional amendment was a definite setback for the principle of Federalism, and may have had some connection with the Federalists’ trying that same year to bolster up their power by the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, it turned out that this simply resulted in a further setback for Federalist power.

         180. End of the Federalist Period.  We have seen that the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 provoked a state of affairs in the United States that amounted to opposition between State and Federal authorities in the South, and a state of almost armed resistance to authority in the North, especially in New England. Several other incidents combined with this resistance to weaken the power of the Federalist party, resulting in getting rid of the party, though not of the form of government imposed by the Cincinnati plot.

         Shortly after the passage of the Sedition Laws in the United States, there happened what the opponents of the administration took to be a crushing blow to their cause, when the French Republic collapsed through seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been supposed to be a great revolutionary leader. The Republic was maintained still, but only in name, with Bonaparte as "Director" with absolute control; and this left the Democratic-Republicans in the United States at a loss what to do about it. In France, a large proportion of the Republicans became enthusiastic supporters of Bonaparte, since he was part of their original revolution; but this tendency, though found in the United States, was much less common in America. The Democratic-Republicans had been basing everything on an appeal to the example shown by France in establishing democracy and human rights, and that was now collapsing before their eyes―they had either to give up the French example, or justify dictatorship. The majority simply had to go through with their opposition to Alien and Sedition Acts without preference to France, and, in so doing, disposed of the worst bugaboo that had been keeping them from gaining more support in America. In New England, particularly, where the people were only frightened by the fear of the guillotines and reigns of terror, a reversion to the examples of New England revolts in 1775 and 1786 brought about a favorable instead of an unfavorable reaction among the populace. As long as opposition to the administration meant advocacy of terrorism and dictatorship, it made comparatively little headway; but, cut loose from those bonds, and linked up with the principles of the American Revolution, and especially of the Declaration of Independence, no amount of governmental representation could stop it. In this way, the collapse of the French Republic proved to be the undoing of Federalist power in the United Sates.

        Another event for which the year 1798 was noted was the Irish Rebellion, which proceeded largely on the basis of figuring America and France prominently as examples of how a revolution could be conducted―especially the case of America, where the revolution was against Great Britain, the same power with which the Irish rebels had to deal. This was so prominently featured in Irish rebel propaganda of 1798 that the idea gained currency in Ireland that winning their revolution was not so important as getting to America in case they lost. Most of the Irish rebel hopes were focused upon the prospect of naval aid from America and France. In the view of the fact that France was being gradually brought under the control of a dictator at the time, and America was having its Sedition Law troubles against a pro-British administration, neither of those two countries sent any aid to Ireland as the rebels expected, resulting in a complete collapse of the revolution there, whose hopes were resting more in America than it their own country. That the main hope of the Irish rebels of 1798 rested in escape to America, can be seen from the last stanza of the main rebel song of that rebellion, "The Wearing of the Green":

"And if at last the shamrock should be torn from Ireland’s heart,
Her sons in shame and sorrow from the dear old isle will part,
I’ve heard whisper of a country that lies far across the sea,
And where an end’s forever put to Britain’s tyranny."

         Thus, in 1799 and 1800, after the suppression of the Irish Rebellion, a flood of emigration took place from Ireland to "the country that lies far across the sea." An unexpected flood of rebel immigration was poured in on the United States, while this country was having a near-revolution of its own in the shape of the Sedition uprisings. Thus the Irish refugees naturally drifted into such groups as the Democratic Clubs all over the United States―particularly the Tammany Society in New York, while for the most part these associations were flooded with the volume of this immigration. This sudden, unexpected immigration of revolutionists into the United States added to the forces of opposition to the government, but it also helped to divert many of the opposition organizations from their original principles, by giving them a membership that had already attained their main objective, liberation from British rule.

         The new dictator of France naturally did not feel as antagonistic towards the United States as the French Republic had, and the Sedition Law events convinced him that the administration of the United States was something to be encouraged. Consequently he made overtures of peace to President Adams, who also decided that he had enough trouble at home without also fighting France. This policy was favored by Washington as well, who was the directing force behind both Adams and the Cincinnati Society. However, just at this juncture Washington died, and the Cincinnati group, being of military origin, insisted on prosecuting hostilities against France to the limit, while President Adams, not being himself a member of the Cincinnati, continued negotiating for peace. This resulted in a wide split in Federalist forces, which, following the internal difficulties in the United States, resulted in lessening the administration’s popularity all the more.

         It was at this time that the government moved to the new home being prepared for it on the Potomac. The city had been built to accommodate George Washington as a dictator of America; instead, the anticipated dictatorship had failed to materialize, and George Washington was dead when the first few government buildings (Capitol and Executive Mansion) were ready for use. President Adams went to what was then called "the palace in the wilderness" more a refugee from popular wrath than as a triumphant ruler.

         This was in 1800, and an election for President was due. The State governments duly appointed electors, and voted for President, the great majority of the electors being Democratic-Republicans, though a few Federalist electors were appointed by some of the northern States where the administration still controlled the State governments. Since, under the original form of the Constitution of the Second Republic, each elector had to vote for two names, the Democratic-Republican electors, by previous agreement, all voted for Thomas Jefferson (intending him for President) and for Aaron Burr of New York, whom they intended to have for Vice-President. On account of the split in the Federalist party, there was no agreement among Federalist electors, and their votes were scattered. Thus both Jefferson and Burr were majority candidates, and there was a tie between them, which left it to the House of Representatives to decide who could be President. The Federalists in Congress made an attempt to delay voting on the question until after Adam’s four-year term should expire, so as to give the President a chance to declare the Presidency vacant and seize control as the head of the army. This was prevented by the fact that the Federalists could not agree among themselves.

         Finally, on Monday, March 2, just before Adam’s four years were to expire, the Congress decided that the electors had intended to have Jefferson as President and Aaron Burr as Vice-President, and voted to arrange it in that way. At this point, Adams might have decided to go through with the original plan of holding on by force, but his lack of support, which had made things difficult all through his administration, rendered such a plan inadvisable, especially since most of the Southern state governments would be quite obviously willing to support the incoming administration with their militia, against whatever Adams could oppose against them, and against the incipient popular uprisings in New England. So the only move Adams made, on his last day in office, to hold power, was to continue Congress in session up to midnight of Tuesday, March 3, 1801, when the terms of office expired, and create new judgeships and other new Federal offices, and the hours from nine to twelve that night were spent in rushing through these laws and ratifying Federal appointments.

         However, the administration of the Federalists was at an end. The form of government created by the Cincinnati conspiracy of 1787 still remained, as it does to the present day; the economic system represented by this conspiracy still exists to the present day, the real power behind the government in the United States; but the Federalist party, and the Society of the Cincinnati, from 1801 on, ceased to be a political power in the United States. The Cincinnati became merely a super-aristocratic patriotic secret society, living in memories of the dear dead days when they were in the saddle, and of those still more remote days when they led the armies against the British; the Federalist party disconnected itself completely from the Cincinnati, and in its own way retired into itself more and more, but never recovered from the blow it dealt itself when the Sedition Act was passed. Yet the economic and political system, under new lenders, went on as before, because those new leaders still had the same framework of organization with which to deal, and therefore had to undertake to manage the same system as before, as anyone must who undertakes to take over an existing organization, or any part of it.

 

Home    Contents    Next