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A Sovereign People
The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism
By Carol Berkin
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Today the United States is the dominant power in world affairs, and that status seems assured. Yet in the decade following the ratification of the Constitution, the republic’s existence was contingent and fragile, challenged by domestic rebellions, foreign interference, and the always-present danger of collapse into mob rule.
Carol Berkin reveals that the nation survived almost entirely due to the actions of the Federalist leadership — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. Reacting to successive crises, they extended the power of the federal government and fended off foreign attempts to subvert American sovereignty. As Berkin argues, the result was a spike in nationalism, as ordinary citizens began to identify with their nation first, their home states second.
While the Revolution freed the states and the Constitution linked them as never before, this landmark work shows that it was the Federalists who transformed the states into an enduring nation.
WHEN PRESIDENT GEORGE Washington delivered his first inaugural address on April 30, 1789, he confessed that as a man of "inferior endowments from nature" who was "unpractised in the duties of civil administration," he feared his inadequacy to handle the challenges that lay ahead for the new federal government. Washington, however, was not the only man who felt the weight of those challenges. Along with the president, there were men who believed that the survival of the Republic rested on the Constitution and its government—and that the success of both depended upon them. The anxiety they shared with the president can be seen in the debates in Congress, in cabinet meetings, in newspaper articles, and in their private correspondence.
Like Washington, these men called themselves Federalists, but in spirit they were nationalists. They had written the Constitution or supported its ratification from a firm conviction that a strong government representing all the people of the Republic was the surest path to economic growth and prosperity, to civil law and order, and to winning the respect and recognition from foreign nations necessary to insure America's continued independence. They had met with fierce opposition at the ratifying conventions by men equally certain that the best way to protect the liberties and rights won in the Revolution was to keep power in the hands of the state governments. But the Federalists had won that hard-fought battle. And now, in 1789, the first president and the first Congress were preparing for the battles to come.
The stakes were high. If the federal government failed, and these men were well aware that it might, it would be their failure; if it succeeded, they hoped to be credited with that success. In short, Federalists tended to see themselves as the exclusive guardians of the federal experiment, the Constitution's true representatives and agents—and its only legitimate interpreters. They viewed anyone who opposed them, anyone who criticized them publicly or attacked their policies, as an enemy of the Constitution, of the federal government, and of the Republic.
There was opposition—in newspapers, in congressional debates, in memorials and petitions sent to the presidents, in outbreaks of open resistance and in challenges to the sovereignty of the United States by foreign powers. The laws passed by Congress and the policies set by the president were ignored by foreign representatives and resisted by citizens. Their policies were undermined by state officials protective of their own authority. And the Federalists in office were relentlessly accused of secretly plotting to destroy the Republic and create a monarchy in America. Federalists believed that this opposition would undermine their efforts to win the loyalty of the ordinary citizens to the Constitution and its government. Without the peoples' support, the Constitution was only a piece of paper.
Looking back from the twenty-first century, it is often difficult to imagine that the acceptance of the Constitution was ever contested or that the authority of the federal government was so widely doubted. But a closer examination of the decade after the ratification of that piece of paper reveals that attachment to the federal government grew slowly. As it did, a new identity emerged. Vermonters and New Yorkers and Virginians came to see themselves less as citizens of their home states and more as citizens of a nation. The Federalist economic and fiscal policies alone cannot explain this shift. Although Alexander Hamilton's economic plan ensured that entrepreneurs and commercial interests would have a vested interest in the survival of the federal government, it did not win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. The Federalists needed help to lay the foundation for a strong and enduring central government. They found it in the least expected places: crises of government legitimacy and sovereignty.
Some of these crises originated within the new nation's borders; others started abroad. In each instance, the Federalists resolved the crisis, and the process brought more Americans into the national fold. The central story of the 1790s is how patriotism came to be associated with this support for the Constitution and its government. If the Revolution freed the states and the Constitution linked them as never before, it was the Federalists in the 1790s, responding to one grave crisis after another, who established a nation on firm ground.
A Sovereign People tracks four of the crises of this founding era. It explores the context in which they arose, the nature of the challenge to the government, and how the Federalists chose to resolve the crisis. Unlike many accounts of these crises, this book does not focus on their role in the emergence of an opposition party led by Jefferson and Madison; instead, it scrutinizes the part these crises, and their resolutions, played in the emergence of American nationalism.
The first crisis was a domestic challenge to the legitimacy of congressional legislation. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1792–1794, this was an armed resistance by western Pennsylvania farmers and distillers to an excise tax on the production and sale of alcohol. Frontier communities like these had a long history of resentment, first against the British and colonial governments and later against the state governments that they believed favored the more established eastern enclaves. In the early 1790s, Pennsylvania backcountry men nurtured a long list of such complaints, this time aimed at the new federal government. Chief among them was the government's failure to secure navigation rights to the Spanish-held Mississippi River that would have allowed them to ship their grain harvest to market before it spoiled. To preserve the value of their crop on the long haul across land, they distilled much of it into liquor. In 1792, however, the financially struggling federal government imposed a tax on the production and sale of this alcohol. The resulting rebellion is a reminder that the ghost of the American Revolution—with its call to citizens to rise up against tyranny—still haunted the land. The whiskey rebels, like the New England Shays' rebels of 1786, believed that they had a right to arm themselves and resist unfair legislation. And, like the Sons of Liberty and other radicals of the 1770s, they used intimidation and violence against the tax collectors and the members of their communities who dared to support the excise tax. Government failure to answer the whiskey rebels' challenge would set a precedent that made a mockery of its authority. The government's dilemma was how to end the rebellion, establish its legislative authority, and avoid fueling the public's fears of an abuse of power under the new Constitution.
The second crisis is known as the Genet affair. French ambassador Edmond Charles Genet arrived in America in the spring of 1793, armed with instructions from his country's revolutionary government to enlist US help in its struggle to spread an "empire of liberty" to other European nations. As the two republics in the Western world, France expected willing aid from the United States, just as France had aided the Americans in achieving their independence. Genet demanded that President Washington accept the French interpretation of the crucial 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce and Treaty of Alliance, an interpretation that would allow French warships and privateers to make full use of American ports and territorial waters in its naval battle with England. Genet also enlisted Americans to man French privateers and to join in the invasion of Spanish and British territories in North America. In his enthusiasm to achieve these goals, Genet ran roughshod over American sovereignty, ignoring the president's Proclamation of Neutrality in the European war and flouting the policies in place to ensure that neutrality. In effect, Genet's actions would have turned the United States into a satellite of France rather than an independent sovereign nation. The government needed to assert its control over foreign policy without alienating the many Americans who continued to be grateful to the French for their aid during the Revolution and who hoped to see the French Republic victorious.
The third crisis, the XYZ affair of 1798, posed a diplomatic challenge to American honor and to its ability to sustain the policy of neutrality as the war in Europe continued to rage. In 1794, Washington had acted to ease tensions and avoid war with Britain by negotiating what was known as the Jay Treaty. In 1798, his successor, John Adams, hoped to do the same with France. Relations between the two countries had deteriorated since the Genet affair; privateering against American merchant ships had increased, and, in 1797, France had refused the credentials of an American ambassador. Adams sent three envoys to Paris to reestablish a cordial relationship between the two republics. Before any formal negotiations could take place, however, the French minister's agents demanded a bribe for the minister and a large loan toward the French war effort. The bribe was seen as an insult to American honor; the loan was likely to draw the United States into a war with Britain. The challenge facing President Adams was whether the situation called for a declaration of war against France or a second attempt at the negotiation of a treaty.
The fourth crisis involved the interpretation of the Constitution and the powers it granted the federal government. It began when the Adams administration tried to take advantage of the popularity it enjoyed for the handling of the XYZ affair. Federalists decided to pass legislation that would silence the partisan press supporting the Republican opposition as well as laws that would slow the growth of that party by imposing tighter immigration and naturalization laws. These Alien and Sedition Acts prompted both Kentucky and Virginia to pass resolutions that denied the authority of the federal government to legislate against free speech or to interfere with the power of state governments to control immigration. Both states suggested that allegedly unconstitutional laws could be declared null and void. And both states challenged the idea that the Constitution had created a "consolidated" or national government rather than a union of sovereign states. The government's task was to defend not only the constitutionality of its legislation as necessary and proper but to persuade the public that the citizens of America, not the states, were the source of authority for the Constitution and the federal government.
The Federalists made many mistakes in dealing with these crises. Yet we can see the arc of a rising nationalism as they navigated their way through each of them. The public's commitment to the Constitution and the federal government began as little more than a desire to honor and to express its trust in the Revolutionary War hero, George Washington. It slowly evolved into a respect for the office rather than the man. It grew stronger as citizens began to acknowledge the value of a federal government that would speak to the outside world with one voice and a united purpose. It deepened when once again the French showed contempt for America and declared that the people could be separated from their government. And it solidified as Kentucky and Virginia insisted that they could reject particular laws but made their argument within the context of acceptance of—and loyalty to—the Constitution and a federal government. The disagreement was not over whether the Constitution ought to be accepted and admired, but over whose interpretation of that near-sacred document was correct.
Modern Americans often assume that nationalism was an obvious and even automatic response to the transition from colonies to an independent country after the Revolutionary War. But this assumption misses the reality that the core of nationalism—loyalty to a country and its government and a shared identity as its citizens—was the result of the hard work of governance. The governments of Washington and Adams did not find perfect solutions to the crises facing their country, but over the course of their administrations Americans came to acknowledge that the federal government was the best-equipped institution to deal with critical domestic and foreign problems.
THE DECISIONS MADE by men like Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, members of an executive branch committed to a strong, active central government, ensured the survival of the young Republic during its critical first decade. Today, however, many Americans doubt the wisdom of what these eighteenth-century leaders called an "energetic government." We have seen an ebbing of confidence in government's capacity to play a positive role in our society. Nationalism has become closely associated with a call for limited government, and patriotism often takes the form of jingoism and empty chauvinism. A closer look at the 1790s will remind us that nationalism and patriotism once carried more positive meanings—and give us reason to believe they can do so again.
THE WHISKEY REBELLION
NONE OF THE seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rebellions by American farmers and slaves ended in success—except of course the American Revolution. The frontier participants in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 failed to wrest power from the tidewater planters of Virginia. A New York slave revolt in 1712 ended with the brutal execution of many participants. North Carolina farmers were roundly defeated and their Regulator Movement crushed in 1775 when they rebelled against the policy of taxation without representation enforced by the colony's elites. The 1786 Shays' Rebellion, an uprising of New England farmers protesting unfair taxation and the threat of foreclosure on their farms, was easily squelched. Yet the impact of several of these uprisings could be felt long after the defeat of the men who embraced their cause. Former Regulators frequently joined Loyalist regiments to fight against planter revolutionaries in the war for independence, and Shays' Rebellion so frightened leading revolutionaries that it paved the way for the convention in Philadelphia that produced the Constitution. Thus, even the defeated played a critical role in shaping our national history.
The Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s is part of this tradition of influential failures, for it presented one of the first challenges to the authority of the new federal government. The Pennsylvanians and Virginians who resisted paying that government's first excise tax had several understandable, although not entirely defensible, reasons to resent the Washington administration and its imposition of a tax on their liquor and distilleries. Yet it would be a mistake to attribute high-minded or pure motives to these westerners. The whiskey tax was inconvenient, but it was far from oppressive. The decision by these men to defy a law passed by a representative legislature did not make them revolutionaries; it made them insurgents, citizens who resorted to violence against the men appointed to enforce the law and who engaged in intimidation of their neighbors who wished to obey it. Although some accounts of this rebellion portray them as heroic, a case can also be made that they were simply lawless and disgruntled.
In previous accounts of the Whiskey Rebellion, the focus has often been on whether these rebels were heroes or villains, whether their cause was just, and whether the government that mobilized to crush their revolt was simply eager to flex its muscles. But perhaps this focus obscures more than it illuminates. No matter how historians and their readers judge the whiskey rebels or the government that defeated them, it is important to realize that President George Washington and his allies had good reason to believe these westerners posed a serious threat to the survival of the federal government. To Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, this rebellion, erupting at a moment when the affairs of the national government were not yet firmly established and the domestic enemies of that government were "as inveterate as ever," had created "a crisis in the affairs of this Country." Washington, too, believed the rebels' actions were "dangerous to the very being of government," and he saw it as his solemn duty "to check [the] daring & unwarrantable spirit" of the citizens of western Pennsylvania. These comments cannot be dismissed as empty political rhetoric, fear mongering, or elitist contempt for the common man; both men were truly devoted to and worried about the survival of the independent republic that had been placed in their care.1
To understand why the president and his secretary of the treasury decided to send troops to suppress the rebellion requires us to consider the context in which they acted. In the early 1790s, the power given to the federal government by the Constitution was still actively contested, challenged by influential former Antifederalist leaders in every state and by the many ordinary Americans, especially in the South, who shared their desire to restore the sovereignty of the individual states. The federal government Washington presided over was an untested experiment in sustaining the unity of a country of diverse economies, demographics, and forms of social organization through laws enacted by elected leaders. Under these fraught circumstances, the refusal to obey a law passed by Congress was, in effect, a denial of the authority and legitimacy of that federal government. To allow the rebels a victory would be to concede that other segments of American society could pick and choose which laws to obey and which laws to ignore. To men like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, who had labored to forge a nation rather than a loose confederation of sovereign states, this challenge was at once a threat and an opportunity. The defeat of the whiskey rebels would provide dramatic proof of the government's readiness to enforce its laws. It would reassure its supporters and send a message to those who still opposed this embryonic national government that it would demand respect. In a sense, this crisis, like those that followed, was both a challenge and an opportunity; only by facing down such direct defiance of its authority was the federal government able to demonstrate its effectiveness and win the loyalty of the American public. Without these crises, it ran the risk of being ignored.
"The debt of the United States… was the price of liberty."
—Alexander Hamilton, January 1790
ON FEBRUARY 4, 1789, electors in eleven states cast their votes for the first president of the United States. Following the instructions set down in the Constitution, the state legislatures forwarded the ballots to Congress, where the House of Representatives was to tally the votes. It would be two months, however, before the results were reported, for neither the House nor the Senate had the quorum needed for their session to begin. It was true that winter snows had made travel to New York City, the seat of the new government, difficult, but this was not the sole cause of the delay. Many congressmen simply felt no urgency to leave their homes, plantations, farms, or legal offices to take their seats in a new, untested government that lacked the status of their more established local legislatures. The delay embarrassed those nationalists who hoped the Constitution marked the creation of what they called an "energetic" union of the states and who now found themselves prodding friends and colleagues to do their duty and make their way to New York. As Massachusetts representative Fisher Ames would lament as the delay dragged on, "The public will forget the government before it is born."2
At last, on April 1, 1789, the first session of the House of Representatives of the First Federal Congress was called to order. Five days later, the ballots for the presidency were at last counted. To no one's surprise, His Excellency George Washington, Esq., was unanimously elected. The news was greeted with a mixture of relief and delight, although Washington himself seemed more resigned and anxious than elated. He faced a task likely to prove as difficult—or perhaps more so—than the challenge of commanding the Continental Army.
In his April 30 inauguration speech, Washington made no effort to hide his trepidation. Nothing in his life, he declared, had filled him with greater anxieties than being summoned by his country to this new office. He confessed to doubts that he was up to the task ahead. Nature, he said, had given him "inferior endowments" and his experience as a military leader and a plantation owner had left him "unpracticed in the duties of civil administration." If he lacked confidence in his own skills, he expressed his certainty that the men of Congress would do the people's business without party animosities or local prejudices. He would soon have cause to revise this view.3
Washington may truly have doubted his own administrative abilities, but he did not doubt the magnitude of the responsibilities he had accepted. He believed the survival of the American experiment in republican government hinged on the success of the federal government. He saw clearly the problems facing him, as its leader: the embarrassing debt, the lingering opposition to the Constitution and to the powers it granted the federal government, and the challenge to demonstrate the legitimacy of a new, sovereign nation to the wider world. Daunting as these problems seemed, the president did not shy away from them. He quickly began to organize the executive branch. For his cabinet, he chose men of established talent and reputation, drawn from all regions of the country. But because he gave little weight to ideological consensus among his appointees, Washington brought the contest between nationalism and state sovereignty into this most intimate setting for decision making. His cabinet meetings would be contentious, and his cabinet members more given to conflict than to cooperation.
From the largest and richest of the southern states, he chose his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to serve as secretary of state. It was a risky choice, for Jefferson had not supported the ratification of the Constitution. He had argued that the federal government it proposed was potentially as dangerous to liberty as George III and his Parliament had been, and he had urged his own state's ratifying convention to reject it. Despite Jefferson's known preference that power reside in state governments, Washington persuaded him that his diplomatic experience was needed in managing America's relationships with the other nations of the world. As secretary of war, Washington named the Massachusetts bookseller-turned–artillery expert, Henry Knox, an avowed nationalist, whose friendship the president valued and whose innate military genius he respected. Knox's primary duties would be establishing domestic law and order and protecting the country's borders. As attorney general, Washington once again drew on a Virginian, a former aide-de-camp, a distinguished lawyer, and a man with executive experience as governor of the Old Dominion, Edmund Randolph. Despite the fact that Randolph had presented the Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention, he fluctuated between a states' rights position and a commitment to the authority of the national government. But it was the president's choice of thirty-four-year-old Alexander Hamilton of New York to serve as secretary of the treasury that reflected Washington's own ardent nationalism. Hamilton was an unabashed nation builder, eager to see the United States gain a seat at the table among the greatest European powers. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton did not fear that a strong national government would increase the threat of tyranny. Instead, he saw the greatest danger to America's survival in the jealous protection of the states' prerogatives. In the years following the Revolution, Hamilton had seen the results of political provincialism—the competition among the states that hindered economic recovery, episodes of social unrest and the continuing threat of slave revolts, and the inability to secure the country's borders. For him, the creation of a strong and active national government was the remedy to America's ills; state autonomy was the disease.
Washington appointed Hamilton on September 11, 1789. It would fall to him to set the nation's floundering finances in order and establish its public credit. Anyone who knew the brilliant and brash New Yorker was certain of one thing: he did not lack for confidence in his ability to set the country on the path to fiscal stability. He would soon be given the opportunity to prove himself, for less than two weeks after Hamilton took up his portfolio Congress directed him to evaluate the country's finances and prepare a plan to pay the country's staggering debts. No one was certain how great those debts were, to whom the money was actually owed, or, for that matter, which debts were the responsibility of the new government. There were loans outstanding from foreign allies; there were promissory notes, or "Continentals," given to Americans who had contributed supplies to the army and to soldiers in lieu of pay. Then there were states that had not repaid their Revolutionary War debts. Were these debts to be included in the federal government's burden? And, finally, where was the revenue to come from that would allow the government to honor its debts?
Hamilton had answers to all these questions. With truly remarkable speed, he completed an exhaustive report on strategies for handling the public credit. The report was Hamilton at his best, relentlessly and closely reasoned, offering several alternative plans for payment of the foreign and domestic debts, every paragraph reflecting the urgency he felt to set the country's financial reputation aright. There were three key elements of Hamilton's plan: the federal government would fund its debt, setting aside a specific portion of all revenue to ensure regular payment installments; it would assume responsibility for the remaining Revolutionary War debts of the states; and it would pledge to repay this consolidated domestic debt to current rather than original note holders.4
Hamilton's proposals created a firestorm within the House of Representatives. The more astute congressmen realized that the secretary's goal was grander than the establishment of the US public credit. With his Report on Public Credit, and other reports that would quickly follow, Hamilton intended to bolster the importance of the federal government and to set a commercial trajectory for the new nation's political economy. What came to be known as the Hamiltonian system would give shape to much of the political controversy in the early Republic, and it would spur the emergence of an anti-administration party.
There was much to protest in Hamilton's report—and members of the House were skilled at protesting. Representatives like Maryland's Michael Stone saw the assumption of state war debts as a move to tip the balance of power between the states and the federal government in favor of the latter. Like most eighteenth-century men, Stone was well aware that the power to raise revenue and decide its uses was the sine qua non of any government. If the states were relieved of their outstanding war debts, they would have no justification for raising taxes. This was a consequence devoutly desired by a nationalist like Hamilton but just as devoutly opposed by states' rights men like Stone. At the same time, representatives from states that had retired their war debts balked at shouldering the burden of their less fiscally responsible neighbors.
- "A Sovereign People is right that Americans--against the odds--forged a strong and lasting nationalism in the 1790s."
--James Basker, President, Gilder Lehrman Institute of America
"Carol Berkin's masterful new book guides readers through the turbulent first decade of government under the Constitution. The decisions of the nation's first congresses and presidential administrations ensured the nation's survival and set precedents for our enduring national values. As we confront the challenges facing America in the 21st century, there is much we can learn from the crises of government legitimacy and sovereignty faced by the nation in the 1790s."
--Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director, The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource)
--Douglas R. Egerton, author of Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America
"No one tells the American story better than Carol Berkin, who has written captivating narratives about the colonial era, the Revolution, and the Constitution. Her compelling new book reveals that by 1800, the sovereign American people had emerged with the Constitution as their true foundation, although they would debate its meaning for centuries to come."
--Linda R. Monk, Author of The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution
- On Sale
- May 2, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Basic Books