In his 1796 Farewell Address to the American people, Washington gave his final thoughts on foreign policy, trade, and national unions.
Discuss the central claims of Washington’s Farewell Address
- Washington’s Farewell Address, written near the end of his second term, is considered one of the fundamental documents in American history.
- In his address, Washington announced his intention to decline a third term and reflected on the emerging issues of the American political landscape in 1796.
- Washington also expressed his support for the government, defended his administration’s record, and gave valedictory advice to the American people.
- Washington denounced the factionalism between Democratic- Republicans and Federalists, arguing that political unity—not political opposition—was necessary for an efficient federal government.
- Finally, Washington cautioned that permanent foreign entanglements should be avoided at all costs and defended his position of neutrality in foreign affairs.
- Federalists lauded the Farewell Address as an attack on Democratic-Republicans, while Jeffersonians used the address to justify the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the trade embargo against Great Britain in 1806.
- Jeffersonians: Followers of the Democratic-Republican Party, one of two dominant political movements in the United States from the 1790s to the 1820s.
- Farewell Address: George Washington’s 1796 letter to the people of the United States, written before his retirement to his home in Mount Vernon.
- factionalism: Conflict between small organized groups.
Washington’s Farewell Address
George Washington, who had been reelected in 1792 by an overwhelming majority, refused to run for a third term, thus setting a precedent for future presidents. His Farewell Address, a letter written near the end of his second term to “The People of the United States of America,” announced his intention to decline a third term and reflected on the emerging issues of the American political landscape in 1796. In his address, Washington also expressed his support for the government (eight years after the adoption of the Constitution), defended his administration’s record, and gave valedictory advice to the American people.
Washington’s Farewell Address became a classic statement of republican principles (such as education and religion) and public morality. Washington argued that religious values promoted the protection of private property, harmony, and public happiness, which he viewed as the foundations of a just body politic. Furthermore, Washington warned Americans of the political dangers they should avoid in order to remain true to their values.
Unity and Sectionalism
Washington posited that the American people’s independence, safety, prosperity, and liberty, as well as peace at home and abroad, were dependent upon the unity between the states. Washington pointed to two treaties acquired by his administration—Jay’s Treaty and Pinckney’s Treaty—as models of the benefits of unity. These treaties established the borders of the United States’ southern and western territories and secured the rights of western farmers to ship goods along the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Specifically, Washington argued that these treaties were proof that a united federal government would act in the best interests of the American people and could only gain fair concessions from foreign countries as a united nation.
The Farewell Address also proclaimed Washington’s support for the new constitutional government, calling it an improvement on the nation’s original attempt in the Articles of Confederation. In particular, he lauded the system of checks and balances and the separation of federal powers as important means of preventing a single person or group from seizing control of the country. He reminded Americans that although they had the right to alter the government to meet their needs, they only should do so through constitutional amendments. He argued that violent takeovers and rebellions should be avoided at all costs; he believed it was the duty of every member of the republic to follow the Constitution and submit to the laws of the constitutional government until it was constitutionally amended by the majority of the American people.
Foreign Relations and Free Trade
Perhaps the most seminal piece of advice in Washington’s Farewell Address was one that dealt with foreign policy. He vehemently emphasized his belief that permanent foreign entanglements were to be avoided at all costs. Drawing on the bitter divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans that occurred during the conflict between Britain and France, Washington defended his Proclamation of Neutrality, which kept the United States from entering the revolutionary wars on the side of France, despite the Treaty of Alliance of the 1770s.
Washington argued that permanent entanglements, such as the Treaty of Alliance, created unreasonable attachments to—and animosities toward—nations that eventually would render governments impotent in determining the course of their own foreign policies. Although temporary foreign alliances might be necessary in times of extreme danger, Washington believed that permanent entanglements would only draw the United States into wars that had no justification and no purpose beyond simply defending other favored nations.
Furthermore, he argued that unlike the political systems of Europe, the republican nature of the United States was a political structure that required unilateralism (independent action in foreign affairs) because American leaders were responsible to the will of the people. Leaders, therefore, needed to be free of foreign entanglements to make decisions based upon the needs of their constituents rather than those of their European allies. Free trade with all nations would instead establish the links needed to maintain friendly relationships with foreign nations, and this trade would reinforce the world economic system. By remaining isolated from foreign conflicts, the United States would therefore be free to develop its own economy and expand within its own borders.
To this day, Washington’s Farewell Address is considered to be a fundamental document in American history and still speaks to some of the difficulties that the United States faces in the twenty-first century, such as problematic foreign alliances and wars and escalating deficits in the national budget. Federalists lauded the Farewell Address as an attack on Democratic-Republicans, while Jeffersonians drew upon Washington’s support of western expansion with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and used the Farewell Address to justify the trade embargo against Great Britain in 1806.
The Election of 1796
The election of 1796 was the first contested presidential election between two distinct political factions in the nation’s history.
Analyze the outcome of the 1796 presidential election
- The election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election and the only one in which a president and vice president were elected from opposing tickets.
- Because the writers of the Constitution had not envisioned competing political factions, the voting method in the Electoral College did not account for party tickets.
- The campaign was an acrimonious one, and partisan rancor over the French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion fueled the divide between the Federalists and Democratic- Republicans.
- In the election, Federalist John Adams defeated Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson by a narrow margin of only three electoral votes. Jefferson received the second-highest number of electoral votes and was elected vice president.
- The election led to an executive administration composed of rivaling men from two different parties, creating a bitter divide between the president and vice president during the Adams administration.
- The Election of 1796 signaled to Congress that the Constitution had provided for an inefficient system of electoral balloting. The Twelfth Amendment was accordingly drafted, which allowed for party tickets and running mates on the electoral ballots to prevent another result similar to 1796.
- Twelfth Amendment: Provides the procedure for electing the president and vice president.
- electoral college: Such a body chosen to formally elect the president and vice president of the United States, or the process of such election.
The Election of 1796
The election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election and the only one in which a president and vice president were elected from opposing tickets. The ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would render such a result unlikely in the future. When incumbent President George Washington refused a third term in office, Vice President John Adams became a candidate for the presidency on the Federalist Party ticket, with former Governor Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina as the next most popular Federalist. Their opponents on the Democratic-Republican ticket were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Senator Aaron Burr. At this point, each man from any party ran alone, as the formal position of running mate on a party ticket had not yet been established.
The Voting System
In 1796, voters only could cast ballots for electors in the Electoral College, not for the presidential candidates themselves, and not all electors publicly declared their political preferences. Some state legislatures even selected the members of the Electoral College. Moreover, the voting method in the Electoral College did not account for party tickets: The writers of the Constitution had not envisioned competing political factions. There was no way for the electors to cast one vote for president and one for vice president—the electors simply voted for two different people, and the candidate with the most votes became president while the candidate with the second-highest number became vice president.
Though there was no way for electors to differentiate between candidates for president and vice president, both parties informally designated a presidential nominee. The Federalists chose Adams, and the Democratic-Republicans chose Jefferson, with the intention that the entirety of each party’s electors would vote as a unit for the designated choices. This system of balloting was not changed until the Twelfth Amendment (1804), which allowed for the notion of a running mate by stipulating separate balloting for president and vice president.
Political Race and Outcome
Unlike the previous election, of which the outcome had been a foregone conclusion, each party campaigned heavily for its nominee. The campaign was an acrimonious one, and partisan rancor over the French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion fueled the divide. Federalists attempted to identify the Democratic-Republicans with the violence of the French Revolution, while the Democratic-Republicans accused the Federalists of favoring monarchism and aristocracy. Democratic-Republicans sought to identify Adams with the policies developed by fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton during the Washington administration, which they declaimed were too much in favor of Great Britain and a centralized national government. Paradoxically, Hamilton himself opposed Adams and worked to undermine his election.
In foreign policy, Democratic-Republicans denounced the Federalists over Jay’s Treaty. Federalists attacked Jefferson’s moral character, alleging he was an atheist and a coward during the Revolutionary War. Adams supporters also accused Jefferson of being too supportive of France; this accusation was underscored when the French ambassador embarrassed the Democratic-Republicans by publicly backing Jefferson and attacking the Federalists right before the election.
In the election, Federalist John Adams defeated Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson by a narrow margin of only three electoral votes. Jefferson received the second-highest number of electoral votes and was elected vice president according to the prevailing rules of electoral college voting. This election marked the formation of the first party system and established a permanent rivalry between Federalist New England and the Republican South, with the middle states holding the balance of power.
Despite its contention, the 1796 election marked the first peaceful transfer of power between administrations. Washington, who had been reelected in 1792 by an overwhelming majority, refused to run for a third term, thus setting a precedent for future presidents. The following four years, however, would be the only time that the president and vice president of the United States were from different parties. It caused much discord between Adams and Jefferson, with Jefferson leveraging his position as vice president to attack President Adams’ policies and Adams alienating Jefferson from all cabinet and policy decisions.
The 1796 election provided the impetus for the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On January 6, 1797, Representative William L. Smith of South Carolina presented a resolution on the floor of the House of Representatives for an amendment that would allow the presidential electors to designate which candidate would be president and which would be vice president. Although this amendment was not adopted until after the 1800 election, the events of 1796 signaled to Congress that some minor adjustments to the Constitution were necessary in order to make the electoral system more efficient and to prevent opposing political factions from holding executive positions at the same time.
The Adams Presidency
John Adams, the second president to hold office, believed in a strong federal government and an expansion of executive power.
Describe the general tenor of Adams’ presidency
- As the second president to hold office, Federalist John Adams followed Washington’s example in stressing civic virtue, republican values, and a strong centralized government.
- During his term, Adams retained the Federalist cabinet members who had served under Washington, continued to expand Hamilton’s economic policies (for example, building a strong national economy), and greatly increased the size of the navy and army.
- Although Adams ideologically identified with the Federalists, he remained quite independent throughout his presidency, disagreeing with the Federalists as much as he did the Democratic-Republicans.
- When Federalists clamored for war with France after the events of the Quasi-War, Adams instead pushed for peace rather than continue hostilities. This decision alienated him from many Federalists and hurt his popularity with the American public.
- Democratic-Republicans described Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts as “the reign of witches,” arguing that Federalists were intent on establishing a tyrannical, aristocratic government that would silence the opposition through political persecution.
- Federalist: A statesman or public figure who supported ratification of the proposed Constitution of the United States between 1787 and 1789; a statesman or public figure who supported the administrations of Presidents George Washington and John Adams.
The Presidency of John Adams
As the second president to hold office, Federalist John Adams followed Washington’s example in stressing civic virtue and republican values. He shared the Federalist belief that the Constitution provided for a strong centralized government; to that end, he retained the Federalist cabinet members who had served under Washington, continued to expand Hamilton’s economic policies (for example, building a strong national economy), and greatly increased the size of the navy and army.
Ideology and Tenor
Adams ideologically identified with the Federalists, but he remained quite independent of both the party and his cabinet throughout his term, often making decisions despite strong opposition from both Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. Though Adams was often described as “prickly,” his independence demonstrated that he had a talent for making decisions in the face of hostility.
Adams’ combative spirit did not always lend itself to presidential decorum, as Adams himself admitted in his old age: “[As president] I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore.” Likewise, his term witnessed numerous upheavals and conflicts—not only with France, but also as a result of the growing breach between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists.
The president’s term was marked by disputes concerning the country’s role in the expanding conflict in Europe, where Britain and France were at war. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists supported Britain, while Vice President Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France. When Adams entered office, he decided to continue Washington’s policy of staying out of the European war.
Adams’ independent management style allowed him to avoid war with France, despite a strong desire for war among his cabinet secretaries and Congress. Although the Quasi-War was effectively a naval war fought between the French and the United States in the Caribbean, it was ultimately Adams’ decision to push for peace with France rather than continue hostilities. This decision, however, alienated him from many Federalists, hurt his popularity with the American public, and played an important role in his defeat in reelection.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the fifth U.S. Congress, in the midst of the French Revolution and the undeclared Quasi-War with France. President Adams signed them into law, and they were intended as a direct political attack on the Democratic-Republicans; essentially, they were codified attempts by the Federalists to protect the United States from the anarchy of the French Revolution and from seditious individuals seeking to undermine the federal government.
After the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Democratic-Republicans began to use the term “the reign of witches” to describe the Federalist party and John Adams. The acts, Jeffersonian democrats argued, were proof that Federalists were intent on establishing a tyrannical, aristocratic government that would silence the opposition through political persecution.
The Quasi-War was an undeclared naval war fought between France and the United States in the Caribbean Sea.
Analyze the Quasi-War between the United States and France
- The Quasi-War with France was one of the most ambiguous military engagements in American history and a source of contention between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
- The conflict developed out of deteriorating relations between France and the United States, stemming from Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality in 1795.
- The XYZ Affair, a scandal in which the French demanded bribes from American peace commissioners before agreeing to end hostilities on private American vessels, is credited with contributing to the Quasi-War. Congress authorized Adams to build a navy and standing army to prepare for war. Adams demonstrated initiative as the commander in chief and issued orders to the U.S. navy to seize any ships sailing to French ports without the approval of Congress.
- Proclamation of Neutrality: A formal announcement issued by U.S. President George Washington on April 22, 1793, declaring the nation neutral in the conflict between France and Great Britain.
- XYZ Affair: A 1798 diplomatic episode during the administration of John Adams that Americans interpreted as an insult from France.
During the American Revolution, the United States and France signed the Treaty of Alliance, in which both nations pledged mutual military support against Britain. By the mid 1790s, most Federalists considered the Treaty of Alliance to be null and void, as the French Revolution had toppled the regime that entered into the original agreement with the United States. In a practical sense, Washington, Adams, and other Federalists believed that the United States was too weak to enter into the French revolutionary wars and had too much at stake.
To that end, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in 1795, which declared the United States free from any military obligation to European nations and stipulated that the United States would continue to trade with both France and Britain. However, the U.S. government also negotiated Jay’s Treaty with Britain, which—in addition to clarifying several disputes that remained unaddressed in the Treaty of Paris—included several economic agreements that gave Britain special trading status with the United States.
The XYZ Affair
The Proclamation of Neutrality and Jay’s Treaty both outraged France, and the French navy began seizing American ships and harassing American traders in Caribbean and European ports. This resulted in substantial losses for American shipping. The French seized 316 American merchant ships by June of 1797, and the French Republic refused to receive the new U.S. minister Charles Pinckney when he arrived in Paris in December of 1796.
When Adams sent a three-man delegation—Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry—to Paris to negotiate a peace agreement with France, French agents demanded major concessions from the United States as a condition for continuing diplomatic relations. These included a demand for 50,000 pounds sterling and a $250,000 personal bribe to the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. The United States had offered France many of the same provisions found in Jay’s Treaty with Britain, but France reacted by deporting Marshall and Pinckney—both key Federalists—back to the United States and refusing any proposal that would involve these two delegates.
In April of 1798, President Adams informed Congress of how France had demanded bribes from the United States before it would discuss any peace settlement. Because Adams omitted the names of the French agents in the dispatches, referring to them as “X, Y, and Z,” the incident became known as the “XYZ Affair.” This led to widespread outrage and swelling anti-French sentiment (or Francophobia) in American public opinion.
Francophobia in the American public exploded, and support for war with France, led by Hamilton and the Federalists, mounted. War seemed inevitable as the French continued to seize private American ships in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean, and Congress authorized Adams to begin to build up the army and navy. However, Adams continued to hope for a peaceful settlement with France and avoided pushing Congress toward a formal declaration of war.
Instead, the Quasi-War began in July of 1798. While there was no formal declaration of war, the conflict escalated, with both sides capturing ships and the expanding U.S. navy slowly pushing the French out of the West Indian trade system in the Caribbean. The success of these U.S. naval endeavors was due to the fact that Congress authorized President Adams to acquire, develop, and arm numerous new warships and train naval sailors. Hostilities continued until France experienced another regime change in 1799. American commissioners then negotiated the Treaty of Mortefontaine with Napoleon’s ministers in September 1800, which ended all hostilities.
The Quasi-War strengthened the U.S. navy, helped expand American commercial networks in the Caribbean, and enabled the development of the military powers necessary to protect these networks. This was a victory for the Federalists who sought to establish a strong American economic and naval presence in the Atlantic. However, the Quasi-War also had a negative affect on political relations between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Democratic-Republicans were pro-French and were dismayed by the Quasi-War, often voicing their opinions in political speeches and writings. In response, Adams and the Federalist Congress passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. This legislation, among other restrictions, prohibited treasonable or “malicious” speech against the government. Essentially, these acts restricted the free-speech rights of the opposing Democratic-Republicans by censoring anti-Federalist writings. As a result of the ensuing backlash against the Alien and Sedition Acts and Adams’s failure to unite the Federalists for a strong electoral campaign, Adams lost the 1800 election.
The Quasi-War remains an ambiguous precedent for the separation of military powers between the executive and legislative branches. Although Congress never officially declared war, it did authorize Adams to build a navy for the explicit purpose of attacking French warships that sought to capture American merchant vessels. However, Adams also demonstrated widespread initiative as commander in chief during the Quasi-War, authorizing—without congressional approval—the capture of any ships sailing to and from French ports. This ambiguity over the distribution of war powers between the executive branch and Congress has persisted well into the twenty-first century. In order to contextualize their arguments, advocates for and against the broad interpretation of executive military authority often draw on the Quasi-War as an example.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were a series of laws that aimed to outlaw speech that was critical of the government.
Analyze the Alien and Sedition Acts
- The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the midst of the French Revolution and the undeclared naval war with France, known as the Quasi-War. Despite the XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War inciting Francophobic sentiment in the majority of the American public, Democratic- Republicans remained supportive of the French and outspoken critics of the Federalist administration.
- Federalists used the Alien and Sedition Acts to target Democratic-Republicans and and other seditious elements seeking to undermine the federal government.
- A total of twenty-five people were arrested under the Acts; of these, eleven were tried, one died awaiting trial, and ten were convicted of sedition, often in trials before openly partisan Federalist judges.
- After the election of the Democratic-Republicans in 1800, President Jefferson pardoned many of those convicted under the Acts and the Acts were left largely unenforced.
- The Alien Act was used more than a century later to justify Japanese internment during World War II, and the Supreme Court was grappling with the constitutionality of the Sedition Acts as late as the 1960s.
- Alien and Sedition Acts: Four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the fifth U.S. Congress in the aftermath of the French Revolution and during the Quasi-War.
- Quasi-War: An undeclared conflict fought almost entirely at sea between the United States of America and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800.
- Matthew Lyon: A printer, farmer, soldier, and politician serving as a U.S. Representative from both Vermont and Kentucky.
- XYZ Affair: A political and diplomatic episode in 1797 and 1798 involving a confrontation between the United States and Republican France that led to the Quasi-War.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the midst of the French Revolution and during the undeclared naval war with France, known as the Quasi-War. They were signed into law by President John Adams and were intended as a direct political attack on the Democratic-Republicans.
The XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War incited Francophobic sentiment in the majority of the American public; however, Democratic-Republicans remained supportive on the French and outspoken critics of the Federalist administration, which they believed was unconstitutionally developing a tyrannical centralized government. The Federalists, on the other hand, were suspicious of the Democratic-Republican party’s affinity for France. This suspicion was heightened when the dispatches of the XYZ Affair were released, and agent “Y” boasted of the existence of a “French” party in American politics. The Federalist-dominated Congress believed that Democratic-Republicans, fueled by the French and French-sympathizing immigrants, posed a subversive threat to the United States. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed as a codified attempt by the Federalists to protect the United States from the anarchy of the French Revolution and from those seditious elements seeking to undermine the federal government.
Four separate laws constituted the Alien and Sedition Acts:
- The Naturalization Act repealed and replaced the Naturalization Act of 1795 and extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become citizens of the United States from five years to fourteen years.
- The Alien Act authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” It was activated June 25, 1798, with a two-year expiration date.
- The Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States. Enacted July 6, 1798, and providing no expiration provision, the act remains intact today as Title 50 of U.S. Code.
- The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or certain officials. It was enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801
Prosecutions and Resistance
Republican editors, Representative Matthew Lyon, and private individuals were targets of prosecution under the Sedition Act. Twenty-five people were arrested; of these, eleven were tried, one died awaiting trial, and ten were convicted of sedition, often in trials before openly partisan Federalist judges.
Many of those convicted under the Sedition Act were pardoned by President Jefferson after the election of 1800. The most controversial arrest made under the Alien and Sedition Acts was of a member of Congress. Matthew Lyon, an Irish-born former indentured servant who had purchased his own freedom and fought in the American Revolution, was a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont jailed under the Sedition Act for his anti-Federalist writings. Lyon accused the administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice,” and claimed that Adams had “a continual grasp for power.” While in prison, Lyon continued to write against the administration and conducted his successful reelection campaign from jail. Democratic-Republicans across the country united in support of Lyon, paying his legal fees and penal fines. Eventually acquitted, Lyon returned to Congress after his release.
Legacy of the Alien and Sedition Acts
The Alien and Sedition Acts were never appealed to the Supreme Court, which in the 1790s was composed entirely of Federalists who were openly hostile to their political opponents. However, the Democratic-Republicans mobilized against the Acts as part of their campaign strategy in the 1800 election, and they experienced success as most Federalists were voted out of office. Thomas Jefferson, upon assuming the presidency, pardoned all of those still serving sentences under the Sedition Act, and in 1802, the House Judiciary Committee denounced the Sedition Act as unconstitutional and authorized the refund of penal fines that victims had paid.
Jefferson and James Madison also secretly drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions denouncing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Jefferson even advocated nullification and state secession as a legitimate response to this tyrannical imposition by the federal government. Long after the collapse of the Federalist party, the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions remained an inspiration for states’ rights advocates and were used as models in drafting the declarations of secession by Southern states on the eve of the Civil War.
While the Alien and Sedition Acts were left largely unenforced after 1800, the Alien Act was later used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the Supreme Court was grappling with the constitutionality of the Sedition Acts as late as the 1960s.
Domestic Turmoil During the Adams Presidency
The Adams presidency was marked by several domestic conflicts that deepened the split between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
Explain domestic conflicts and upheavals during the Adams presidency
- During his presidency, Federalist John Adams continued to strengthen the central government and expanded the U.S. navy and army. The Naturalization Act, as part of the broader Alien and Sedition Acts, alienated many immigrants from the Federalist political party.
- In 1798, as part of an effort to pay for the Quasi-War with France, Congress levied unpopular new property taxes that were met with resistance. John Fries, an itinerant auctioneer, began to mobilize opposition to the new tax in Pennsylvania, detaining assessors and refusing to pay. In response, Fries was put on trial by a Federalist Congress eager to hang him as a traitor; however, Fries was later pardoned by Adams.
- Fries’s Rebellion served to further alienate the American public from the Federalist party, which came to be seen as increasingly tyrannical and elitist.
- Fries’s Rebellion: An armed tax revolt among Pennsylvania Dutch farmers between 1799 and 1800; also called the “House Tax Rebellion” and the “Home Tax Rebellion.”
- Naturalization Act: Part of the broader Alien and Sedition Acts; increased the residency requirement for immigrants to become citizens in the United States from five to fourteen years.
Domestic Policies During the Adams Presidency
President Adams, the second President of the United States, followed Washington’s lead in using the presidency to exemplify Federalist republican values and civic virtue. He continued to strengthen the central government and expanded the U.S. navy and army. In July of 1798, Adams signed into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which authorized the establishment of a government-operated marine hospital service.
Upon assuming office, Adams made the decision to retain all of the members of Washington’s cabinet. Many historians feel that Adams failed to see fully the political danger of retaining a cabinet loyal to Alexander Hamilton. The “Hamiltonians who surround him,” Democratic-Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson soon remarked, “are only a little less hostile to him than to me.” Although aware of the Hamilton factor, Adams was convinced that their retention would ensure a smoother succession. Adams’ economic programs maintained those proposed by Hamilton, who had regularly consulted with key cabinet members.
Naturalization Act Controversy
Adams’ presidency saw several conflicts that fueled domestic tensions. During the Quasi-War, Adams and Congress passed the Naturalization Act on June 18, 1798, as part of the broader Alien and Sedition Acts. The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for immigrants to become naturalized citizens in the United States from five to fourteen years. Although Federalists argued that such a measure was necessary for national security (as it would target any seditious immigrants, such as the Irish, who were sympathetic toward the French Revolution), most historians conclude it was really intended to decrease the number of voters who disagreed with the Federalist political party.
Rather than diminish the power of the opposing party, Federalists found that the Naturalization Act alienated their immigrant supporters, who began to turn toward the Democratic-Republicans. At the time, most immigrants (namely Irish and French) supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans in the domestic outcry over the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts became a focal point for the Democratic-Republicans’ election campaign in 1800.
When the Quasi-War with France threatened to escalate in 1798, Congress assembled a large army and authorized the expansion of the navy. To pay for it, Congress imposed $2 million in new taxes on real estate and slaves, apportioned among the states according to the requirements of the Constitution in July, 1798.
The largely German American population of southeastern Pennsylvania resisted this new Direct House tax, which called upon Pennsylvania to contribute $237,000. There were very few slaves in Pennsylvania, so the tax was accordingly assessed upon dwelling houses and land, determining the value of the houses by the number and size of the windows. The inquisitorial nature of the proceedings, with tax assessors going to each home and counting windows, aroused strong opposition from the population. Many refused to pay, making the constitutional argument that this tax was not being levied in proportion to population. John Fries (1750–1818), an itinerant auctioneer and native of Pennsylvania, who had served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, led the resistance.
Fries organized meetings beginning in February of 1799 to discuss a collective response to the tax. Many advocated tax resistance. In Milford township, assessors were unsuccessful in completing their tax assessments due to intimidation. In an attempt to diffuse tensions, government representatives called a meeting to explain the tax, but protesters—some armed and in Continental Army uniforms—waved liberty flags and shouted them down, turning the meeting into a protest rally. The assessors were determined to continue their work in Milford, so Fries led a small armed band that harassed the assessors enough that they decided to abandon Milford temporarily. In early March, a local militia company and a growing force of armed irregulars met and marched on Quakertown in pursuit of the assessors, whom they intended to place under arrest. They captured a number of assessors there, releasing them with a warning not to return and urging them to tell the government what had happened.
Opposition to the tax spread to other parts of Pennsylvania. Federal warrants were issued, and the U.S. Marshal began arresting people for tax resistance in Northampton, including Fries and the other leaders of the rebellion. Thirty men went on trial in Federal court: Fries and two others were tried for treason and sentenced to be hanged. President John Adams, however, pardoned Fries and the others, prompted by the narrower constitutional definition of treason. Adams later added that the rebels were, “as ignorant of our language as they were of our laws,” and were being used by “great men” in the opposition party. He issued a general amnesty for everyone involved on May 21, 1800.
The Fries’s Rebellion had lasting effects, however. It greatly alienated the German-American population from the Federalist party, and—because of the “unfair” taxes levied to expand a standing army—reinforced the Democratic-Republican argument that Federalists were tyrannical.
Gabriel’s Rebellion was a planned slave revolt in Virginia in 1800 that was quelled before it could begin.
Describe the demographic and political circumstances surrounding Gabriel’s Rebellion
- Gabriel Prosser —a literate enslaved blacksmith—planned the revolt that came to be known as “Gabriel’s Rebellion.”
- Although plans for the rebellion were interrupted before they could be executed, Gabriel’s uprising was notable because it demonstrated the potential for mass resistance and revolution in the American South.
- The rebellion had severe effects on the treatment of blacks in the American South; consequences included more rigid emancipation laws, restricted travel between plantations for slaves, and legislation designed to limit the growing free black population.
- Gabriel’s Rebellion widened the gap between the opposing sides of the slavery argument. White slave owners saw it as a sign that blacks needed to be forcibly contained and controlled, while antislavery proponents took it as proof of the inconsistencies of freedom within American society.
- Haitian Revolution: A slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue lasting from 1791 to 1804, which culminated in the elimination of slavery and the founding of the Haitian republic.
- Gabriel Prosser: A literate enslaved blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond, Virginia, area in the summer of 1800.
During the summer of 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved literate blacksmith, planned a revolt that would come to be known as “Gabriel’s Rebellion.” Although plans of this uprising were leaked prior to their execution, the event highlighted the potential for slave-organized resistance and revealed inconsistencies within American ideals of freedom. It also had a massive impact on the treatment of slaves in the American South.
Numerous black slave rebellions and insurrections took place in North America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Gabriel’s uprising was notable not because of its results—the rebellion was quelled before it could begin—but because it demonstrated the potential for mass resistance and revolution. In 1800, nearly 40 percent of the total population of Virginia were slaves, concentrated on plantations in the Tidewater area and west of Richmond. This ratio made white slave owners in the region particularly fearful of revolts such as the Haitian Revolution that began in the 1790s.
In addition to the large numbers of enslaved African Americans, the increasing number of freed slaves in Virginia made the region ripe for rebellion. From 1780 to 1810, the number of slaves freed in the Upper South had grown markedly. The French and Haitian Revolutions had encouraged the emigration of many slave-owning whites and free people of color to the American South. This prompted an influx of both zealous slave owners and free African Americans, and the very existence of free African Americans in Richmond challenged the condition of Virginia as a slave state.
The Rebellion and Its Aftermath
On August 30, 1800, Prosser intended to lead slaves into Richmond, set fire to the city, and capture the governor, James Monroe. Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, however, and Monroe called the state militia to action. Prosser and twenty-five followers were taken captive and hanged without trial.
Prosser had strategically planned the rebellion by using the relatively lax rules regarding the movement of slaves between plantations and the city: Many slaves were hired out as contracted hands, and others traveled to and from the city on errands for their masters. Prior to the rebellion, Virginia law also had allowed the teaching of slaves to read and write and had encouraged their training in skilled trades. After plans for the rebellion were quelled, many slave holders greatly restricted the slaves’ rights of travel. Further, the Virginia Assembly in 1808 banned the hiring out of slaves, and the Emancipation Law of 1806 required freed blacks to leave the state within twelve months or face re-enslavement.
Prior to Gabriel’s Rebellion, some Virginian slave owners were wary of the increasing number of free blacks and argued for stricter manumission laws. For many southern white slave owners, Gabriel’s Rebellion proved that slaves would tend toward rebellion and resistance if not kept forcibly contained and controlled. Antislavery proponents, however, took it as proof of the inconsistencies of freedom within American society. For many slaves and free African Americans, the rebellion proved the power of strategic organization and resistance.