The administrations of George Washington and John Adams, which came to represent the Federalist Party and their programs (most notably Alexander Hamilton’s economic proposals), generated growing criticism throughout the 1790s.
Much of this criticism and debate took place in the public sphere, as a number of Americans attended political meetings and read pamphlets or newspapers. Indeed, print culture, encouraged in part by Thomas Jefferson and other critics, played a key role in the growing dissatisfaction with the Federalist administrations and the eventual establishment of the first two formal political parties.
The majority of these publications did not aim to be objective. Rather, they served to broadcast the views or opinions of a certain individual or group of people.
EXAMPLEIn 1791, Thomas Jefferson approached Philip Freneau to help organize opposition to Hamilton’s program by publishing a newspaper titled National Gazette. Its sole purpose was to counter those presses that wrote articles in favor of Hamilton’s proposals and the Washington administration. Until it ceased publication in 1793, the National Gazette attacked Hamilton’s policies and the Washington administration relentlessly through articles with headlines such as “Rules for Changing a Republic into a Monarchy.”
Criticism of the Federalists and Hamilton’s economic program centered on the notion that the national government sought to enrich an elite few at the expense of everyone else. Thus, along with the flourishing of partisan newspapers, a number of critics formed Democratic-Republican societies.
Democratic-Republican societies championed limited government and individual liberty. For instance, the Democratic-Republican Society of Addison County, Vermont, declared, “That all men are naturally free, and possess equal rights. That all legitimate government originates in the voluntary social compact of the people.”
When expressing their fear toward centralized government, many individuals in these societies referenced their experiences during the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, when a distant, overbearing, and seemingly corrupt British Parliament attempted to impose its will on the colonies. The new Constitution, which, after all, had been written in secret by 55 wealthy men of property and standing (many of whom were now key figures in the federal government), ignited similar concerns. To opponents, the Federalists promoted aristocracy and a monarchical government — a betrayal of what many believed to be the goal of the American Revolution.
The Washington administration’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 further crystallized the fears of many Democratic-Republicans.
The tax, which Congress enacted in 1791, amounted to 7.5 cents per gallon of whiskey and rum. Many farmers produced whiskey from their grain for economic reasons. Rather than transport a bulky grain harvest to market without adequate roads or other means of transport, it was more cost-effective to distill grains into barrels of gin or whisky, which were easier to transport. For this reason, many farmers depended upon the sale of whiskey and interpreted Hamilton’s tax as proof that the new national government favored eastern commercial interests rather than rural, western farmers.
During the spring and summer of 1794, resistance to the whiskey tax became open and violent in western Pennsylvania. There, farmers tarred and feathered federal officials sent to collect the tax, intercepted the federal mail, and intimidated wealthy citizens. Some so-called “whiskey rebels” even planned to form an independent country. Many more, however, aligned themselves with the Democratic-Republicans. They saw the tax as part of a larger Federalist plot to destroy their republican liberty and, in its most extreme interpretation, turn the United States into a monarchy.
In response to the protests, the federal government lowered the tax. However, when federal officials tried to subpoena those distillers who remained resistant, trouble escalated still further. Washington responded by creating a 13,000 man militia, drawn from several states, to put down the rebellion. The whiskey rebels offered no resistance and the conflict subsided, but the fact that Washington raised such a force made it known, both domestically and to European powers that questioned the survival of the republic, that the Federalists would do everything in their power to ensure the survival of the United States under the Constitution.
Many Democratic-Republican societies disbanded by 1795 because Federalists blamed them for inciting the Whiskey Rebellion. Many of these members went on to become members of the emerging Democratic-Republican party.
George Washington served two terms as president. Yet, in 1796, he refused to run for a third term (setting an important precedent for future presidents) and, for the first time, members of two distinct political parties — John Adams (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) — ran against each other for the presidency. Adams won the election by a narrow margin of three electoral votes and ensured another Federalist administration.
After winning the presidential election in 1796, John Adams oversaw a divided nation, one in which Federalists continued to face unrest and challenges to their political influence and to the legitimacy of a strong national government.
EXAMPLEIn 1799, led by John Fries, farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania — in order to oppose a property tax enacted by Congress — confronted tax assessors and released arrested individuals from local prisons. President Adams dispatched the army to the area, where they arrested Fries for treason and intimidated his supporters, which included a number of Democratic-Republican newspaper editors.
In the wake of suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion and other challenges to their authority in rural areas, Federalists continued to face criticism from Democratic-Republican presses, including many immigrant writers and editors. In response, Federalists enacted a series of measures known as the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. They included:
Of the three measures, the Sedition Act was the most significant because it was aimed toward editors and writers who criticized the Adams administration and appeared to violate the first amendment. Federalists looked down upon these individuals, viewing them as upstarts whose only goal was to incite political unrest.
In all, 18 individuals, most of whom were Democratic-Republicans, were indicted under the Sedition Act and ten were convicted. Among the most notable of these individuals was Matthew Lyon, a Congressman from Vermont who edited a Democratic-Republican newspaper titled The Scourge Of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth. Lyon was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,000.
The sentencing of Matthew Lyon under the Sedition Act was partly in response to Lyon’s background and his actions in Congress. Lyon was an immigrant who had arrived in North America as an indentured servant. He was also a former artisan and printer by the time he was elected to Congress. However, Federalists looked down upon Lyon’s class background because they believed that Congress should remain a realm for wealthier individuals.
In early 1798, Lyon spat in the face of Congressman Roger Griswold after Griswold had insulted him on the House floor. For a depiction of what followed, examine the 1798 cartoon “Congressional Pugilists,” provided below:
Griswold (right) attacked Lyon with a cane, while Lyon (left) defended himself with a nearby set of fireplace tongs. After the incident, Federalists attempted to censure Lyon but failed to gain the two-thirds majority to do so. Under the Sedition Act, however, a court convicted Lyon for giving slanderous speeches and writing articles that criticized the administration.
The Alien and Sedition Acts did little to stifle criticism toward John Adams and the Federalist administration. If anything, such measures strengthened it. Democratic-Republicans across the nation argued that the acts were evidence of the Federalists’ intent to squash individual liberties and, by enlarging the powers of the national government, crush states’ rights.
Moreover, in the winter of 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison raised important constitutional issues in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions:
The Kentucky Resolutions, authored by Jefferson, went even further by introducing the idea of nullification:
No other state adopted the resolutions and, in fact, many Democratic-Republicans opposed Jefferson’s proposal of nullification, even though it would go on to provide the foundation for the notion of states’ rights.
Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Alien and Sedition Acts was that opposition to the acts (and the Federalist administration behind them) contributed to the victory of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans in the contested presidential election of 1800. Before Jefferson won the election, however, he confronted an important constitutional crisis after he and his vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, received the same number of electoral votes.
Because of the electoral tie, the House of Representatives (in which the Federalists still enjoyed a small majority) was required to decide the election. However, after 35 ballots in which neither candidate received a majority and with the election having dragged into February 1801, Alexander Hamilton intervened on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson won the election.
Thus, the Revolution of 1800 refers to the first transfer of power from one political party to another in American history. That such a transition occurred following a contested election calmed contemporary fears about possible violent reactions to a new party’s taking the reins of government. The passing of political power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans without bloodshed set an important precedent for the history of the United States and for the world.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Congressional Pugilists, Public domain, http://bit.ly/2iU3v8N, Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, 4th ed., vol. 1 (2014), pp. 288-299, Gilje, The Making of the American Republic, 1763-1815 (2006), 155-159, Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.1 http://bit.ly/2jW67ER and 8.3 http://bit.ly/2iTYsoJ.. Some sections edited or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.2, “The New American Republic,” http://bit.ly/2iKI0vM. Some sections edited or removed for brevity. Democratic republican society quote retrieved from http://bit.ly/2nM4Hkm