Posted: December 15, 2003
he Federalists are so hard to love. They come down to us in our gallery of images of the American past with all the wrong looks and with all the wrong clothes: in cocked hats and buckle shoes, with sword hilts poking out tentatively from under their cutaway coats; like George Washington at his inauguration, in yellow gloves, a black suit, and a useless dress sword with an equally useless white leather scabbard. To Federalist Fisher Ames, Washington's inaugural "seemed to me an allegory in which virtue was personified, and addressing those whom she would make her votaries. Her power over the heart was never greater." But to the anti-Federalist Pennsylvania senator, William Maclay, Washington, if he personified anything, personified discomfort. The President, in Maclay's relentless itemization of awkwardness, stumbled over places in his address, shifted the manuscript from hand to hand, put his free hand into his breeches pocket and in general created "an ungainly impression."
Ungainly impressions have been what the Federalists have been creating ever since. They had hardly even existed as a recognizable political organization before Richard Henry Lee was calling them "dangerous men" who "with their servile dependents...avariciously grasp at all power and property; you may discover in all the actions of these men, an evident dislike to free and equal government, and they go systematically to work to change, essentially, the forms of government in this country; these are called aristocrats...." For the Progressive historians a century later, they were still dangerous men, not so much for their aristocratic pretensions as for paving the way for rampant industrial capitalism. Vernon Parrington arraigned Alexander Hamilton—his model of a Federalist—as "a spokesman of the business economy" who "espoused the economics of capitalism, because he discovered in them potentialities congenial to his imperialistic mind." Even Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, who struggled as bravely as any recent historians to say pleasant things about the Federalists, found themselves agreeing that most historical maps locate the Federalists on the side of "elitism" and their opponents on the side of "an incipient democracy."
Ultimately, though, the greatest crime of the Federalists (I suspect) has been, like the Copperheads or the Mugwumps or the Whigs, their truculent occupation of the wrong side of the fence from one of the icons of American history, namely Thomas Jefferson. Of course, the fence itself was something of a Progressive confection anyway, since it imposed on Jefferson an almost Manichean distance from Hamilton, idealizing the Virginian in the style of Henry Nash Smith and Frederick Jackson Turner as the "first prophet of American democracy." As one Jefferson biographer wrote, "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." By extension, if the Sage of Monticello was right, then all of those moss-backed, money-grubbing Federalists were not only wrong, but politically unspeakable.
With so much stacked against them, it comes as something of a surprise to remember that the first two presidents—including our single greatest national icon, Washington—were Federalists; that the implementation of the national Constitution was largely the work of Federalist hands; and that both the Federal executive and the Federal judiciary as we know them today came from Federalist blueprints. It also comes as an unsettling afterthought to contrast the economic status of the Federalists and Jeffersonians, and to realize that Alexander Hamilton died in 1804 up to his ears in debt, that John Adams never owned more than the modest middling farmstead of the Adamses at Quincy, and that all the major Federalist political voices were, like Fisher Ames, lawyers with no independent family wealth who often ruined themselves financially in civil service. If it's aristocrats we want, clearly the best candidates on offer in the American republic were Jefferson, Madison, John Taylor of Caroline or John Randolph of Roanoke. As Fisher Ames bitingly remarked, the chief offense of the Hamiltonian economic program was that "a debt-compelling government is no remedy to men who have lands and negroes, and debts and luxury, but neither trade nor credit, nor cash, nor habits of industry, or of submission to a rigid execution of law." As a result, Ames, snarled, the Jeffersonians "cry 'liberty,' but mean, as all party leaders do, 'power.'"
Ames's suspicion that something is not quite right when well-to-do property owners offer themselves as champions of egalitarian politics has been echoed in some sharp re-evaluations of Jefferson from Winthrop Jordan, John Ashworth, Paul Finkelman, and (most dramatically) Conor Cruise O'Brien, especially touching on Jefferson's mealy-mouthed utterances on the subject of "lands and negroes." But do not mistake these criticisms as signs of a new appreciation for the Federalists: like Charles Beard's and Richard Hofstadter's, these barbs come from Jefferson's left, for his being insufficiently Progressive. They augur no new defense of Federalist politics and ideas in the first three decades of the American republic.
* * *
The Federalists were an attitude before they were a party, and one of the most surprising things is how optimistic that attitude was in 1789. They had, after all, saved the American republic from dissolution under the Articles of Confederation and the Continental Congress, and the unanimous election of Washington as the first president created what amounted to a Federalist consensus about national purpose and national opportunities. They were ready for an Augustan age, in which the stability of Federalist and constitutional politics would foster the flowering of arts, literature, and science, what the Enlightenment had always expected from America.
What particularly excited the Federalists was the opportunity that lay before them for the creation of a unified republican state, with all the potential for reaching what the Enlightenment had regarded as the summit of political bliss: a non-monarchical regime, from which unnatural hierarchies had been banished, in which impartial public-spiritedness and patriotism would replace patronage as the glue of society, in which virtue would spring from acknowledgement of inherent political and moral truths rather than from sectarian and personal ambition, and in which power would have its hands prized away from the throat of liberty. Despite what his enemies would later say, there is no doubt about Hamilton's attachment to the republican ideal: Hamilton, after all, had been born illegitimate in the West Indies in 1757, and had no personal or propertied stake in American society. "We all, with equal sincerity, profess to be anxious for the establishment of a republican basis," he wrote in June 1788, "and I presume I shall not be disbelieved when I declare, that it is an object, of all others, the nearest and most dear to my heart." He was, if anything, the perfect candidate for a republican order in which hierarchy had been abolished and disinterested virtue made the prime recommendation.
Or at least, almost abolished. However aristocratic Jefferson might look on his mountaintop in Virginia, the appearances were purely relative. Nothing even at the apex of the old colonial order had seriously begun to approximate the power and status of the British ruling classes. But between the close of the Seven Years War and the outbreak of the Revolution, some segments of colonial society had achieved enough of a transformation in terms of status and wealth to begin to see themselves that way. A good deal of this aspiring elite had come to a swift and unhappy end by 1789. Anglicized urban elites like Thomas Hutchinson found themselves forced into outright Toryism and then finally into permanent exile from America. Other portions of the American elite cut deals with the revolutionaries which allowed them to retain their wealth at the expense of their status, or which saw them espouse the revolutionary cause as the price for maintaining their precarious leadership roles. Benjamin Franklin, for example, initially supported the Stamp Act and hoped for British preferment; but when the imperial bureaucrats in London gave his aspirations the short shrift, and when popular outrage at home made support for the Stamp Act untenable, Franklin adroitly redefined himself once again as the hard-working American Everyman and retained his place at the head of the leather-apron crowd.
Accommodations like that were even more common further South, since few of the great slave-holding landowners failed to grasp that hostilities with Britain would almost certainly see the British sponsoring some form of slave revolt against the American plantation elites. Even the young James Madison was aware that "if America and Britain should ever come to an hostile rupture," the first thing the British would promote would be "an insurrection among the slaves." Sure enough, British offers of freedom to slaves if they deserted their masters and enlisted in units like Lord Dunmore's "Ethiopian regiment" gave the plantation elites of the southern colonies no real choice but to throw in their hats with the revolutionaries and make the best they could of the new republican world.
As a result, the American republic came into existence with the fragments of a landholding elite still clinging to shreds of power, but enough power all the same to keep the American republic from fully realizing its independence. For Hamilton, the successful throwing-off of British imperial rule meant that the way was now open to create a republic in which hierarchy and deference would no longer be the confinements they had been in a monarchical society; but it also meant that further work had yet to be done in rooting out the last strongholds of the old elite; promoting the interests of the self-made (like himself) and removing the stigma of income-producing work; and imposing a powerful republican authority at the top which would level the social and economic playing field.
Uprooting that elite meant uprooting the last bastion of their power in the state governments, for Hamilton had seen during the Confederation how easily the jealous interests of landholders and land speculators in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut could choke the very breath out of the republic. Everywhere in the states Hamilton saw provincialism, small-mindedness, and oligarchy. And these could only be eliminated by ruthlessly subordinating the bickering state governments to a strong central government, or even reducing them to administrative units of the federal government, and valorizing an economy in which worth and achievement could be measured in the form most indifferent to hierarchies of color or inheritance—cash money.
This was a much more unstable proposition than it looked. Not surprisingly, the Federalists won the hearts of urban merchants, and of the mechanics, shipbuilders, sailors, and artisans who were part of the merchandising networks of the early republic. But they aroused bitter opposition among major landholders, especially in the South. This was not only because, as in many of the conventional accounts of Federalism, Hamilton deliberately skewed his three great reports as Secretary of the Treasury toward merchant interests; but because the concentration of political power in Philadelphia necessary to promote the domestic manufacturing, national bank, and national debt that Hamilton advocated was immediately viewed as a threat to landholding interests, and especially to slavery. And Jeffersonian elites were able to appeal easily to a host of conventional, agrarian prejudices among rural farmers against mere "trade" and the "mercenary phalanx" of "stock-jobbers" and "money-men" to arouse resistance to a Federalist "aristocracy." In practice, though, the Jeffersonians had so much difficulty trying to define in what ways the Federalists were aristocrats that Jeffersonian pamphleteers often had to fall back on affective behavior, "such as the dictatorial air, the magisterial tone, the haughty countenance, the lofty look, the majestic mien." This tactic would sound more like paranoia than accusation if it was not shared in spades by the other Jeffersonians, and even to a certain extent by Jefferson himself, whose enconium of the farmer in 1787 as "the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he had made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue" would also be unremarkable except for the fact that most of the "Agriculturalists" with whom Jefferson and Randolph associated were, in fact, their own slaves.
* * *
It was slavery, ironically, that drove the Jeffersonians to the very egalitarian rhetoric which has enshrined them as the protectors of American liberty. Edmund S. Morgan pointed out 25 years ago that the revolutionary resistance to "slavery" and "tyranny" were honed appreciatively on the revolutionaries' own consciousness of the slavery they had fastened on their African bondsmen. But Morgan failed to appreciate the degree to which the Jeffersonian rhetoric about slavery had a sharp class edge to it. For the prominence of slaveholders among the Jeffersonian critics of Federalism is more than an irony: slaveholding was, in fact, central to the preservation, not just of a racial hegemony, but of a ruling class among whites in the South after the Revolution, and that ruling class preserved itself in the face of revolutionary egalitarianism only by pretending that slavery had, in fact, created a kind of white egalitarianism. By equating the slaveholder and the rural farmer as "agriculturalists" and allying them together in a white racial alliance which ensured that enslaved blacks could never become the "equals" of whites, Jeffersonians like Randolph, Taylor, and Jefferson himself ensured the support of white farmers, who cared far more about keeping blacks in bondage than about levelling white elites. They looked, in other words, to slavery to preserve gentility; and then insisted that the presence of blacks made all white men, ipso facto, into gentlemanly equals. Hence, in the 1790s, rural farmers in Virginia and Pennsylvania found themselves lining up behind a slave-holder in order to oppose merchant "aristocrats"; and in the 1830s, Northern workers would oppose those same merchant "aristocrats" and pay the same price by following Andrew Jackson and acquiescing in Southern slavery.
Slavery was thus not incidental to the political life of the Jeffersonians, as it is often portrayed. Despite Drew McCoy's description of James Madison's anti-slavery credentials as "impeccable," Madison advocated the spread of slavery into the territories in the 1780s and was still arguing against anti-slavery restrictions in Missouri in 1820. And though Jefferson often declared his interest in emancipation, he never actually lifted a finger to promote it—not during the Revolution, when he might have emancipated his slaves by enlisting them in the Continental Army and received a Congressional bonus for so doing; not when neighbors, like Edward Coles, proposed to emancipate their slaves; not even after his death in his will (unlike Washington, who posthumously emancipated his slaves, and who refused to sell slaves to pay off his creditors). Even Jefferson's most well-known restraint on the expansion of slavery, the Northwest Ordinance, actually did not ban slavery from the Northwest Territories, and slavery persisted in Illinois and Indiana until well after actual statehood (in the case of Illinois, until 1848). It was on just this score that the Federalists gave the Jeffersonians their greatest worry, inasmuch as Hamilton's vision of a centralized republic promised precisely the powerful government that could reach over the heads of self-protecting local elites and forcibly abolish the economic basis of their power—slavery.
As early as 1779, Hamilton urged John Jay, then the president of the Continental Congress, to allow John Laurens to recruit "two, three, or four battalions of Negroes" for the Continental Army, and he beat down objections with the insistence that "the Negroes will make very excellent soldiers," provided that "an essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their swords." Gouverneur Morris and Rufus King both opposed provisions in the Constitution that recognized slavery, and Morris denounced the "three-fifths" clause as a sell-out which
when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.
Federalist newspapers like the Salem Gazette preferred that "the Union be dissolved rather than extend slavery"; the Jeffersonian newspapers, by contrast, like William Duane's Aurora, continued to run advertisements for slave sales and runaways. In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society had only two Jeffersonian members; in New York, the New York Abolition Society counted Jay, Morris, and Hamilton among its members. Free blacks in Philadelphia and New York generally voted Federalist. Even Jefferson backhandedly acknowledged the Federalists' identification with antislavery politics in 1820 when he denounced the previous year's dispute over Missouri statehood as "a mere party trick" got up by the "leaders of Federalism" who, "defeated in their schemes of obtaining powers by rallying partisans to the principle of monarchism...have changed tack and thrown out another barrel to the whale...under the auspices of morality." Perhaps, to some extent, it was; but given Jefferson's short-sightedness about the morality of slaveholding in other contexts, we should not be too quick to accept his estimate of the Federalists on the point.
* * *
All of this might have given the Federalists better grounds upon which to fight for their vision of the new republic. But slavery was a powerful interest in that republic, far more powerful than we have given it credit for, as a close reading of the Constitutional Convention debates will reveal, and Federalism challenged that interest both directly and indirectly. What also played against the Federalists was the ease with which their mercantile program could be denounced as Anglophilic, especially after the Jay Treaty of 1794. To give such favor as Hamilton proposed to give to manufacture and finance almost inevitably meant making concessions and accommodations with the British, especially since 87% of America's import trade between 1787 and 1790 was conducted with Great Britain.
This grated severely on the Jeffersonians, and not just because Great Britain was still in American minds the Great Satan that had tried to tyrannize them politically. Virginia agriculture had been built, back into colonial times, on cycles of indebtedness to British middlemen, and Jefferson himself had written bitterly about the skill with which "British merchants on the tobaccoes" had got the planter "more immersed in debt than he could pay without selling his lands or slaves." The Revolution had offered an opportunity for repudiating those debts, and to Jefferson's despair, debt repudiation was precisely what Hamilton and the new Constitution prevented. To the contrary, from Jefferson's point of view, Hamilton's program only promised to fasten the obligations of debt more firmly on Southern planters, thereby endangering their status and, not incidentally, their slaves. Jefferson hammered away at the Federalist program as an unholy submission to British commercial dominance, and perhaps even a sneaking desire to press the United States back into the hierarchical social mold of the British, and the Jay Treaty only gave ammunition to that perception.
The Jay Treaty was only the biggest of the Federalists mistakes in popular image-making. "A weak and embarrassed government never fails to be unpopular," reasoned Hamilton in 1790; "it attaches to itself the disrespect incident to weakness, and, unable to promote the public happiness, its impotencies are its crimes...." In order to avoid all appearance of "impotencies," then, the Federalists embarked on a series of image-making projects for the federal government which made them look worse than "weak and embarrassed" by actually making them look ridiculous. A week before Washington's inauguration, Vice President Adams turned the attention of the Senate to the weighty question of how Washington should be addressed. Adams persuaded the Senate to address Washington as "His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties," but the House of Representatives sensibly and adamantly refused, to Washington's own personal relief. Then the Federalists proposed that, since European monarchs all had their heads engraved on their coinage, it would be appropriate to place the head of the American president on American coinage. This proposed equation of the presidency with monarchy also got the approval of the Senate, and died in the House. Neither the House nor the Senate, however, could prevent the Federalists from instituting formal levees for the president, where Washington stood at the end of one room and allowed a formal circle of visitors to be admitted, bowing them in and keeping his hands behind his back "as to indicate, that the salutation was not to be accompanied with shaking hands."
* * *
But no mistake that the Federalists made was as fatal as the anti-Jacobin legislation of the Adams presidency—the Naturalization Act, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts have been generally read the way the Jeffersonians read them, as a gigantically stupid example of crying wolf on the part of the Federalists; and it has to be said that the Federalists did everything they could to justify those conclusions. Proposed at the fever pitch of the Quasi-War with France, they were tolerable only on the presumption that France really posed a threat to American security; but the fact that the acts were unloosed principally on the Adams Administration's critics, taken together with Adams's own abrupt decision to return to negotiations with the French in 1799, made the war scare look like an illusion and the enforcement of the acts merely a cheap political trick for silencing Jeffersonian opposition. John Adams thus becomes in this reading the primal American model for Joe McCarthy, with Jefferson and Madison in the position of asking, through the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, whether the Federalists had no shame.
It is easy to miss in a version of events so politically melodramatic the possibility that the Federalists might have been on to something. Hamilton saw a great deal to be afraid of in the French republic after 1793, and not a little of it was more justified than we have usually been willing to grant. Jeffersonian political organization, in the form of the 35 Democratic-Republican clubs that sprang up between 1793 and 1795 in every state except Georgia and Rhode Island, bore an unsettling resemblance to the Jacobin clubs, with what conclusions almost anyone could draw. Hamilton suspected (and probably rightly) that the Democratic-Republican societies had been deeply involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, and when the French republic began sending emissaries like Edmond Genet, Jean Fauchet, and Pierre Adet to Philadelphia, Federalist anxieties over the French connections with the Jeffersonian clubs went through the roof. Hamilton charged Genet with "placing himself at the head of a political club," and a year later Hamilton attacked Genet's successor, Fauchet, for mingling with Jeffersonian clubs and "swallowing toasts full of sedition and hostility to the Government." Diplomats in their cups are not necessarily good proofs of treason, but Hamilton was also aware that Genet had been secretly negotiating with George Rogers Clark to outfit an expedition to attack Spanish posts along the Mississippi; that Fauchet had publicly applauded the Whiskey Rebellion; and that Adet was strongly suspected of plots to recruit New Englanders for raids into Canada and to detach Kentucky from the Union for use as the nucleus of a French satellite republic west of the Mississippi. Having witnessed the Reign of Terror and survived a back-country insurrection, and now watching French emissaries frankly meddling in American politics and trying to turn Americans against their government, the Federalists may indeed have panicked, not so much in passing the Alien and Sedition Acts as in how they administered them.
Whatever the reality of French subversion may have been (and anyone who dismisses it should remember that [a] only four years later Jefferson was having to deal with a Napoleonic plan to resurrect a French empire in the Caribbean and the Mississippi valley, and [b] most of the whites whom Lewis and Clark encountered along the Missouri in 1805 were Francophones), it is undeniable that the Federalists set new records in political clumsiness in implementing the acts. Jeffersonian journalists, not French provocateurs, ended up in jail, and when even an uncooperative Federalist Justice of the Peace like Jedidiah Peck of Otsego, New York, could be arrested and hauled to New York City in chains, the Federalists were inviting their own humiliation. Although only 35 arrests actually took place under the anti-Jacobin statutes, each one of them was turned into an anti-Federalist carnival. It remained only for President Adams to personally deflate the Federalist rationale for the acts by re-opening negotiations with the same French diplomats who had humiliated his plenipotentiaries in the XYZ Affair.
What killed Federalism was more in the nature of a self-inflicted wound than anything else. The era that had opened with such optimism in 1790 ended, for all practical purposes, in bitterness and disillusion 10 years later. Far from imposing aristocratic rule on America, many of the Federalists (like Robert Morris of Philadelphia) had beggared themselves trying to acquire the trappings of leisurely gentility. Hamilton had already left the government in 1796: sternly refusing to use his insider information as Treasury Secretary to speculate in western land, he ended up mocking himself as one of "those public fools who sacrifice private to public interest at the certainty of ingratitude and obloquy." The election of Jefferson in the "Revolution of 1800" appalled him. "Mr. Jefferson is distressed at the codfish having latterly emigrated to the Southern coast," he sarcastically wrote to Rufus King in 1802, "lest the people there should be tempted to catch them, and commerce, of which we already have too much, receive an accession." He never comprehended Jefferson's "womanish attachment to France" or his equally "womanish resentment of Great Britain," and he certainly never understood why Americans could side with Jefferson, the owner of slaves and ten thousand acres, in the name of liberty and equality. "Am I a fool," he plaintively asked King in 1795, "or is there a constitutional defect in the American mind?"
Ironically, the great "Revolution of 1800," which began a quarter-century of Jeffersonian control of the presidency and the steady erosion of the Federalists as a national party, was far less a Jeffersonian victory than the Virginian hoped for. As president, Jefferson pulled off one of the most remarkable land-deals in recorded history, the Louisiana Purchase, to provide what he expected would be an unlimited supply of land for his beloved "agriculturalists." But he was spectacularly unsuccessful in undoing Hamilton's economic program, something which he illustrated all too painfully when he imposed a commercial embargo on "merchandising" which backfired into something close to a national bankruptcy. Jefferson was, as Hamilton remarked in 1792, "a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination," a president who (as Richard Hofstadter sardonically remarked) abandoned the Federalist goal of a strong mercantilist state and detached the economy from political oversight at just the moment in the great market revolution when that oversight might have done it some good.
It was Jefferson, not Hamilton, who wanted to leave every American alone and free to pursue commercial development—or commercial exploitation—as he wished. By detaching the patterns of economic life from social and political life, Jefferson not only sanctioned laissez-faire by default but made it operate as a defense of slavery. The re-integration of these economic, social, and political patterns would be delayed by the Jeffersonian ascendancy and by the strength of the slave states until after the Civil War, and even then only realized in partial measure before the mid-20th century. Seen from that vista, the Hamiltonian agenda, and not the Jeffersonian one, really embodied the American future.