Federalists in Power, 1789-1801
In April, 1789, the new government began with George Washington as President and John
Adams as Vice President. The Federalists also controlled both houses of Congress. The Anti-Federalists,
who had opposed the Constitution, had representatives in Congress but many wanted to wait and
see how this new government would be. Washington had been elected unanimously by the
Electoral College; he was the most respected man in the country.
When Washington assembled the government for his first presidential term, precedents
had to be set, for this was a quite different government from the one created by the first
constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Whereas the Confederation Congress had a presiding
officer who had little power, the Constitution written in 1787 and put into effect in 1789, had a
strong chief executive. Although many of his powers were enumerated, important ones were not.
Could he have a Cabinet? Using a loose interpretation of the Constitution, Washington argued,
with little dissent, that the clause allowing him to get advice in writing gave him that power. He
created a Secretary of State, of the Treasury, and of War. What was he to be called? He eschewed
fancy titles smacking of monarchy, such as "His Highness;" he preferred to be called "Mr.
President." He went to address Congress in person and so over awed members that he
subsequently sent written messages, a practice to be followed by his successors until Woodrow
Congress immediately fulfilled the promise made during the ratification debate to pass
amendments to limit the power of the national government. After a sometimes bitter debate, the
liberals won. By September, 1789, Congress sent twelve amendments to the states for ratification;
by December, 1791, they had ratified ten of them. These ten became known as the Bill of Rights.(1)
The Judiciary Act of 1789 created six justices for the Supreme Court, three circuit courts (
Supreme Court Justices would serve on the circuit courts), and district courts. It provided for an
Attorney General. The law specified that the federal courts could judge whether state laws were
Need to start the government on a sound financial footing, for this had been a problem under the Confederation. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, devised a series of measures which would not only provide revenue but also ally the wealthy with the government and demonstrate that the national government could tax individual citizens.
Hamilton got Congress to assume (fund) the national debt of $51 million, which the
national government had incurred from its operations and fighting the Revolutionary War.
Although members of Congress realized that the US had to pay its debts, some argued that they
should be paid at current instead of face value. Many of the original purchasers, often desperate
for money because of the disruptions of the war, had sold them at a deep discount to speculators,
who would now reap enormous profits. Some of the speculators were foreign. For the most part,
it was wealthy people who had been able to speculate. The measure would reward the wealthy
and tie them to the success of the new government, which is what Hamilton wanted. The measure
He also wanted to assume the state Revolutionary War debts to the tune of $20 million.
This created strong arguments in Congress. States which had paid all or almost all of their
Revolutionary War debt were opposed because they would get nothing. Virginia was one of these
state. In order the get the measure passed, the faction led by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia got the
national capital moved out of New York City, the commercial center, to the Potomac River
between Maryland and Virginia. The Jeffersonians thought they could keep a better eye on the
government if it were in the South.
To pay the costs government, including the debt it had assumed, Congress passed a tariff
bill to tax imports, another measure to tax foreign shipping at a high rate (thus trying to
encourage American shipping), and an excise tax on whiskey (1791). Back country farmers, who
normally supported the Jeffersonians, were the ones who would have to pay it. In other words,
they would feel the force of the national government. These farmers found it too expensive to ship
raw grains to markets because the roads were bad and freight charges high. To solve the problem,
they converted the grains into whiskies, thus getting more value by volume.
When western Pennsylvania refused to pay it and rebelled in 1794 (the Whiskey
Rebellion), Washington raised an army of 15,000 men which he and Hamilton commanded.
Advisers convinced him that he should not put himself in danger for the republic needed him too
much so he went back to the capital. When the army reached Western Pennsylvania, resistance
collapsed. Hamilton not only had proved the superiority of the national government and its right
to tax individuals, he also had the pleasure of demonstrating his superiority over Jefferson.
In 1791, Congress created a Bank of the United States over the objections of Jefferson
and his partisans. The Bank was chartered for twenty years with a capitalization of $10 million.
The US government owned 20% of the stock and private interests (some of them foreign) owned
the rest. Washington asked his treasurer and his secretary of state for opinions on its
constitutionality. Hamilton argued that the Bank was "necessary and proper," a loose
interpretation of the Constitution. Jefferson, using strict construction, argued that it was
unconstitutional, that no where did it give the national government to create a bank. Jefferson was
reflecting the fear of strong central government that so many Americans had; it was a cause if the
American Revolution. Washington agreed with Hamilton, however, and signed the bill.
Although Washington had tried to avoid conflict and rivalries in his presidency, appointing
Jefferson as Secretary of State, Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary
of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General, it was a pipe dream. The visions of
government of Jefferson and Hamilton were very different. Jefferson wanted a nation of self-sufficient farmers, a limited number of commercial farmers, and a merchant class just large enough
to supply the farmers' modest needs and wants. He believed that liberty was best preserved by
having most governmental power at the local and state level. Hamilton, on the other hand, wanted
a national government which acted directly upon the citizenry, could promote trade and domestic
manufacturing, and could stand up for itself in international politics. Hamilton wanted the
government to be headed by the rich and well-born. Jefferson wanted rule by an aristocracy of
meritorious white men. By the end of Washington's first administration, it was clear that the
country was factionalized and the Anti-Hamiltonians had become Republicans,(2) a name chosen as
a propaganda ploy to distinguish themselves from the "monarchist" Federalists. Even Washington
would be severely criticized during his presidency.
The French Revolution and its wars caused a split so deep that the Republicans and the
Federalists came close to civil war. The Revolution, one of the most decisive events of modern
Western history, began in 1789 when French noblemen forced the king to call the Estates-General
to decide who would be taxed; it quickly became a successful move the create a constitutional
monarchy. Many Americans applauded this revolt against a king for they saw their own
experience in it. When the Revolution turned radical in 1793 and the French started spreading
their revolution by force, the conservatives were alarmed; it justified their belief that revolutionary
change led to mob violence and the wrong people assuming power. In its radical phase, the
French Revolution confiscated property, executed noblemen and women, outlawed Christianity,
and even changed the calendar as it tried to rid France of the past. The Federalists opposed the
French Revolution and became even more pro-British. They had created a government similar to
the British monarchy and now they saw that monarchy as a bulwark of stability and the leading
nation trying to stop French revolutionary ideas from spreading. Although the radicalism gave
Jefferson pause, he and his supporters liked the Revolution and its emphasis on liberty, equality,
and the brotherhood of man
When Europe went to war in 1793, Washington issue a Neutrality Proclamation. In doing
so, he had to violate the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 but he understood that the weak United
States could be crushed if it got into a war, that there was too much internal dissension, and that
there were benefits by staying neutral. He recognized the new French government. As the war
created an insatiable demand for American goods, the country prospered. However, the French
ambassador, Edmond Genêt, misread the American people, believing that they were
overwhelmingly in favor of the French Revolution. He began illegally commissioning privateers to
raid British shipping. Incensed, Washington had him recalled. The Citizen Genêt affair hurt
Britain was the greater problem for US neutrality and shipping. Whereas the US
contended it could trade with anyone, the British invoked the Rule of 1756 which declared that
trade closed to a nation in time of peace could not be opened in time of war. Since Britain was the
strongest naval power in the world, it had no difficulty in seizing hundreds of American ships or in
removing sailors from American ships.(3) These ship seizures and impressment of sailors infuriated
Americans. So, too, was the fact the British had never fulfilled the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
Washington was beset with numerous problems during his second term. Opponents were
launching personal attacks against him. Political factions were arguing with each other and, at
times, were on the point of violence. The Spanish controlled the Mississippi River and the port of
New Orleans which Americans in the Northwest territories needed to ship their goods to market,
and refused to recognize the boundary of the southern part of the United States. And then there
were the British.
Washington sent John Jay to England to negotiate a solution; he failed. Jay's Treaty
(1795) agreed to withdraw from frontier posts by 1796 and agreed to reimburse Americans for
good seized by the Royal Navy but Britain refused to accept the American definition of neutral
rights and got Jay to accept the Rule of 1756. Moreover, it would continue to impress sailors
from American ships. Washington submitted it for ratification, believing a treaty was better than
none, but it passed the Senate only by one vote. Many Americans were furious, convinced that
Washington and the Federalists had sold out to the British. Even the Spanish thought that the
Americans must have made a secret deal with the British, a deal aimed at Spain and its territory in
America. Having failed to separate parts of the US and unable to stop US territorial aggression,
Spain signed Pinckney's Treaty (1796). Thomas Pinckney had gotten free navigation of the
Mississippi River, the right of deposit (to warehouse goods) at New Orleans, and the 31st parallel
as the boundary between the United States and the Floridas.
Washington was glad to leave office and return home in 1797; John Adams had been
elected president over Thomas Jefferson by a vote of 71-68, and Washington was comfortable
with Adams, a moderate Federalist. Adams, however, had to deal with the problems left by
Washington and, in doing so, alienated the Hamilton wing of the Federalist Party.
The French, mad at Jay's Treaty, started seizing American ships. Hamilton's faction
wanted to go the war with France but Adams sent three commissioners to France to modify the
Franco-American alliance of 1778 and avoid war. The French, who had been winning victories,
demanded a loan from the US and bribes before Talleyrand would even receive the Americans.
The commissioners, Charles C. Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry, refused to pay and
reported the incident to Adams. When Adams reported to Congress, he did not use the real names
to protect the Frenchmen but, instead, used the initials X, Y, and Z. The Hamiltonian Federalists
and some others demanded war with France, for US honor had been insulted. Adams refused
although he fought an undeclared naval war with France from 1798-1800. In 1799 Adams tried
negotiation again and achieved the Convention of 1800. His action had alienated Alexander
Hamilton and he knew he was risking re-election by going against him.
In the furor surrounding foreign policy, the Federalists, who controlled Congress, tried to
suppress dissent and reduce the potential membership of the Republican party by passing the Alien
and Sedition Laws (1798). It became a crime to criticize a US government official or hinder its
functioning in any way. The number of years required before one could become a citizen was
raised to fourteen from five; immigrants tended to join Jefferson's Republicans. Further, Adams
was granted the power to deport people. Clearly, these measures were contrary to American
tradition. Jefferson and James Madison had the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia pass
resolutions condemning these acts ad arguing that a state had the right to interpose its authority to
protect citizens against the violation of their civil rights. When Jefferson became president in
1801, he had the laws rescinded and pardoned those imprisoned.
Federalists feared the Jeffersonian presidency, convinced that Jefferson would lead the
country to wrack and ruin. Instead, the
1. The rejected amendments concerned apportionment of the House and congressional
2. Not to be confused with the modern-day Republican party. Its predecessors were the
Federalists and Whigs.
3. Impressment of US sailors is more complicated than it seems. British seaman, who often
had the same accents as Americans or near enough, often joined American ships when they
deserted and then claimed that they were American. In addition, Britain did not fully recognize
that the United States was a sovereign nation and, citizenship was not as carefully defined as it is
today. "Between 1793-1811, the British seized an estimated 10,000 sailors from US ships,
especially English-born US citizens...The peak years were 1808-11 when 6,000 were pressed into
service... But it should be noted that US merchant marines and navy encouraged British naval
deserters to enlist, offering higher wages and much better treatment compared with the strict
discipline on British naval ships and also aided British seamen in securing false naturalization