My Weekly Reader 23 July 2019.

During and immediately following the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation had provided a framework for governing the country.  That framework proved unsatisfactory.  The current Constitution replaced it.  While the authors of the Constitution were experienced and practical men, it remained a theoretical system.  Would it work any better than had the Articles of Confederation?  Would it be able to foster a strong sense of national identity as well as provide effective government?  Could it overcome the distrust of the many Anti-Federalist who had opposed its adoption?  Carol Berkin has argued that four crises in the 1790s worked in various ways to legitimize the new system.[1]

The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794).  The new federal government needed revenue, both to operate the government and to pay off the national debt.  Congress passed a tax on distilled spirits.  Farmers living on the then-Western frontier of Pennsylvania and Kentucky often distilled rye and corn into whiskey.  That whiskey could then be traded for goods to merchants who shipped the whiskey east for thirsty consumers.  Both the farmers and the distillers resisted the tax, often violently.  Talking to them didn’t work, so President Washington finally led an army of 13,000 eastern militiamen.  The army cowed the rebels and asserted federal authority (although it didn’t stop moonshining).

The Genet Affair (1793-1794).  The French monarchy had provided vital aid to the American Republic during the War for Independence.  In 1793, the French Republic wanted American aid in its war with Britain and Spain.  Many Americans took sides for or against the French Revolution.  Ambassador Edmond Genet arrived in search of aid.  Before presenting his credentials to the American government and in defiance of a recent Neutrality Proclamation, he commissioned privateers to raid enemy shipping and recruited volunteers for an invasion of Spanish Florida.  Talking to Genet didn’t work.  Washington, supported by both Hamilton and Jefferson, demanded France recall its ambassador.  Which they did, planning to guillotine him.

The XYZ Affair (1797-1798).  Recalling Genet did nothing to solve the growing Franco-American conflict.  President John Adams sent off a delegation to negotiate with the French.  Upon arrival, various French diplomats demanded bribes before negotiations could begin.  Most of the Americans went home in a huff.  The Adams administration then published the reports of the delegation, with the names of French diplomats replaced by the letters X, Y, and Z.  Many Americans became yet more hostile to France and the Adams Administration pushed through more military spending.  A naval “Quasi War” with France began.  However, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans continued to favor the French Revolution and equated the Federalists with the old order.

The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798-1800).  The very divisive responses to the French Revolution and to relations with France embittered political debate.  The Adams Administration pushed through four Alien and Sedition Acts.  These extended the time to earn citizenship from 5 years to 14 years, allowed the government expel “dangerous” non-citizens, and allowed prosecution of those who made false statements that were critical of the government.  Under the guise of national security, the Federalists used the new laws in overtly political ways by prosecuting Democratic-Republican journalists, and by what amounted to future voter suppression.  (Many immigrants supported Jefferson’s party.)  Democrats attacked the Sedition law by invoking the First Amendment.  The reaction against the Alien and Sedition Acts helped spark the election of Jefferson as President in 1800.

[1] Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (2017).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s