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During the tumultuous presidential election campaign of 1800, fearful Federalists predicted that victory for the Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, would destroy the constructive gains of twelve years of Federalist rule: power would be returned to the states; commerce suffer; the judicial power lessened; Alexander Hamilton’s financial system dismantled; the army and the navy ruined in the guise of economy in government; and Jefferson’s pro-French attitude might mean war with Great Britain, the nation’s leading trading partner. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson tried to calm these Federalist fears while at the same time attempting to put the genie of party politics back into the republican bottle of the “common good”: “We are all Republicans—we are all Federalists,” the new President asserted.
Jefferson’s conciliatory address probably won few converts; most Federalists continued to regard the new President with suspicion. Moreover, it is doubtful whether many of Jefferson’s ardent Republican followers, exhilarated by their triumph in the bruising campaign, took his words very seriously. Once Jefferson turned to the task of governing, it became clear that his vision of a simple, agrarian American republic had little room in it for the elements of Alexander Hamilton’s grand economic design.
So what, in the new President’s opinion, was the “common good” for the young nation? First of all, the Alien and Sedition Acts were allowed to lapse. Jefferson also told his Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, to work toward liquidating the public debt that had been at the heart of Hamilton’s financial scheme. The internal taxes so beloved by the Federalists, like the excise tax on whiskey, were either abolished or reduced; the new Republican-controlled government would rely on tariffs for its primary source of income. Frugality and economy in government became watchwords of the new regime: despite the unwillingness of France and Britain to accept American claims to neutrality in their contest to control Europe, Jefferson’s administration also reduced the army and navy to a skeletal size.
A number of lower-ranking Federalist office-holders were removed and replaced by good Republicans, which of course delighted Jefferson’s supporters and infuriated the Federalists. To the surprise of some Republicans, the new President did not immediately set out to destroy the Bank of the United States. The Bank continued to prove so useful, even to a Republican administration, that, when its charter came up for renewal in 1811, during the first administration of Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, a move to prolong its life came very close to winning the support of the Republican-controlled Congress. (This refusal to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States would return to haunt Republicans—and the nation—during the War of 1812.)
Surely the new President’s most sincere effort to enact a measure for the “common good” of the agrarian republic he envisioned came in 1803, when he asked Congress to authorize the purchase from Napoleon of Louisiana, despite the silence of the United States Constitution on the question of acquiring foreign territory. For the bargain basement price of $12,000,000, Jefferson’s administration doubled the size of the country, providing what must have seemed to the President at the time an inexhaustible supply of land for his beloved “yeoman farmers,” while, not coincidentally one suspects, offering those agrarian republicans a strong incentive to continue supporting the party of Jefferson.
Unfortunately for this grand Jeffersonian domestic vision, although Britain and France had shared an uneasy peace between 1801 and 1803, they renewed their hostilities for supremacy in Europe. Once again, the world’s leading neutral trader found itself in a dilemma: both great powers were willing to trade with the United States, but neither wanted the United States to trade with the other.
Britain, which controlled the sea, issued a series of “orders in council” permitting the Royal Navy to seize American ships destined for France or those parts of the Continent under French control. The British further enraged American opinion with another practice, the “impressment” of the nation’s seamen. British captains stopped American vessels and took onto their own ships American crewmen they believed to be British subjects. The attitude and actions of France were little better. Napoleon, whose armies dominated Europe, issued several decrees authorizing the seizure of American ships reaching areas he controlled if they had called at British ports on the way.
A crisis arose in 1807, when a British warship, the Leopard, disabled an American naval vessel, the Chesapeake, and impressed several of its crew members within sight of the American coast. President Jefferson attempted to resolve the dispute by employing economic coercion rather than military force, just as the American colonies had done in the years before 1775 when confronted with British tax measures. Boycotts had worked then, Jefferson reasoned, so why not now? Besides, the President did not believe war with Britain was inevitable, and his policy of strict economy in government had rendered both the army and the navy inadequate for fighting a war with either of the world’s most powerful nations, let alone with both of them.
The result was “Jefferson’s Embargo” (1807-1809), which forbade American vessels from engaging in foreign trade, prohibited all American exports, and denied entry to certain British manufactured goods. The embargo depressed the country’s agriculture and devastated foreign trade, while stimulating American manufacturing. Evasion of the embargo was rife, especially in New England, which both depended upon trade and shipping and was the home of most of the nation’s remaining Federalists, who were pro-British. The Administration responded with the Force Act of 1809, which reminded some people of the policies pursued in the 1770s by George III and Lord North against the “freedom-loving” American colonists.
In the end, Congress passed, and President Jefferson signed, the repeal of the Embargo. Jefferson had overestimated the dependence of the British economy on the United States. The President also had counted too much on the willingness of Americans to cooperate in the Embargo (or, as he might have said, on the willingness of “virtuous republicans” to make sacrifices for the “common good”). New England saw the Embargo as a sectional and partisan conspiracy, even going so far as to quote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions against the President’s policy. Southern planters also were hurt by the Embargo, especially those growing cotton, as were western farmers who raised other crops for export.
Despite the failure of the Embargo, Jefferson’s Republican successor, James Madison, also was unwilling to abandon economic coercion. For the next three years, the President and the Republican-controlled Congress tried through both legislation and diplomacy to induce Britain and France to recognize America’s rights to trade as a neutral, but with scant success. In 1810, Congress passed a law restoring trade with both Britain and France, promising that when one of them recognized our neutral trading rights we would cut off trade with the other. When Napoleon indicated that he was prepared to recognize America’s neutrality (even though France continued to seize American shipping), the United States, in March 1811, cut commercial relations with Great Britain.
The remaining economic sanctions against Britain finally forced the British to repeal her offensive orders in council, on June 16, 1812, but word of the repeal did not reach the United States in time to prevent Congress, in response to a message from President Madison, from declaring war on Great Britain. Stonewalled by Britain, bamboozled by Napoleon, Madison decided that the nation’s honor, and the fate of republicanism, demanded a firm response.
The resulting conflict, the War of 1812, “Mr. Madison’s War,” was rife with irony. Our military and naval forces were woefully unprepared; our victories few and far between; and, if the Republicans were behind the war effort, at least in public, the New England Federalists were not, so the nation was badly divided. Despite this, we did not lose the war, but neither did we win it, though many Americans apparently thought we had.
The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, settled none of the issues growing out of British violations of American rights that had brought on the war, though, with Britain’s victory over Napoleon in Europe, the issue of our neutrality became unimportant. Moreover, Andrew Jackson’s decisive victory over the British army at New Orleans in 1815, which led many Americans to overlook earlier humiliating defeats and to believe we had triumphed in the conflict, was actually fought after the peace treaty had been signed but before word of the Ghent agreement reached Washington.
And, most ironic of all perhaps, the Federalists, who had led the nation during the first twelve years of its existence under the Constitution, resisted going to war with Britain and did everything they could to hamstring Republican conduct of the conflict, committing suicide as a political party in the process. They organized a convention at Hartford, Connecticut, to try to win concessions for New England from the beleaguered President Madison. The emissaries from Hartford did not reach Washington, D.C., until after news of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans arrived in the capital, which led both Madison and Congress to ignore Federalist demands for concessions and thoroughly discredited the party of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams by making them appear disloyal during wartime. Within a very few years, it would almost have been possible to rephrase Jefferson’s first inaugural to read, “We are all Republicans—there are no more Federalists.”
One scholarly survey of the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison sums up the gains of the War of 1812 as “economic independence, acceptance as a member of the family of nations, and recognition that republicanism was here to stay. . . . Independence had been corroborated, vindicated, confirmed.” (Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 1801-1815 [New York, 1968], p.324) Thanks especially to Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans, Americans emerged from the war with a spread-eagle sense of national—and republican—triumph. We were still, at least on the surface, an agrarian republic, and, thanks to Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, the nation had twice as much room for future generations of “yeoman farmers.”
The collapse of the Federalist Party in the wake of the Hartford Convention, the Battle of New Orleans, and the Treaty of Ghent seemed to vindicate a central tenet of republicanism: there could be only one way to attain the “common good,” which meant that there was no place for “factions” or “parties” in the young American republic. And, sure enough, James Madison’s Republican presidential successor, James Monroe, would usher the United States into what was called the “Era of Good Feelings,” where, at least superficially, everyone seemed to be a Republican. Within a very few years, however, all of those claims of “good feelings” and “we are all Republican” chest-beating would become doubts; the fate of the Republic—and republicanism—seemed to hang in the balance again.
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject: