America’s Long Journey: A bill of rights

A bill of rights

We all shelter under them, or at any rate, still did by the end of the twentieth century. But how many of us could name them, or tell their significance, or say how they got there, and why?

The “why” is simple enough. Adopting the Constitution meant adding a new layer to the government, something unknown. This new “federal” government may have struck the people of the States the same way the specter of the United Nations governing America haunts some people today, except, this was really going to happen. Somehow, before it was too late, the people would have to insert some safeguards, however fragile.

This fear was not confined to a few nuts on the fringe. In three states, ratification was obtained only on the promise that a bill of rights would be attached. The fear of federal encroachment was shared, ultimately, even by James Madison, the new constitution’s primary architect. So he proposed a set of clarifying amendments, an even dozen of which were approved by Congress and ten of which were ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the states.

The thing to remember is that this is a list of limitations. Whereas the body of the Constitution spelled out how the new government’s powers were to be divided, the Bill of Rights specified boundaries to those powers. Notice, the amendments provided protection from this new layer of government, but did not apply to States vis-à-vis their own citizens. (Madison’s proposal to apply parts of the Bill of Rights to the states was rejected by the Senate. Only after the Civil War were these protections held to apply to actions of State governments as well.)

The Bill of Rights, by enumerating federal limitations, thereby enumerates individual freedoms. It limits the federal government to the powers enumerated, and reserves for the people or the States all rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

It was a nice set of protections, while it was followed. But although documents and traditions can serve to buttress freedom, in the absence of pugnacious and effective resistance to encroachment, they will become only empty fortresses, mocking us by reminding us of what was sought and lost.

Our lost protections:

  1. “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
  2. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” (The connection here between the militia and arms seems to imply that this amendment was meant to prohibit the federal government from disarming the State governments.)
  3. “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
  4. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
  5. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” (The fifth amendment lost some public support in the 1950s, when the public saw how accused mobsters used it to shield themselves and their activities, but in retrospect the value of these protections should be obvious.)
  6. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” (Happy the nation without lawyers, but when you need one, you really need one. The alternative is “justice” behind closed doors.)
  7. “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
  8. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” (Another amendment that lost some public support, particularly in that it was used to abolish the federal death penalty. Again, the value of the amendment should be apparent in hindsight.)
  9. “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

10. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (This amendment was the logical corollary to the division of powers within the federal government. This one tried to set limits between the new government and the States.)

It was a splendid set of protections.

America’s Long Journey: Jefferson as Secretary of State

Jefferson as Secretary of State

By the time he left Washington’s Cabinet, Jefferson was a partisan, working with Madison and others to organize opponents of Hamilton’s policies. But he didn’t enter into his office in that way. He entered, at Washington’s request, as a patriot working with other patriots to construct a new government, and for the first two years, his relations with Hamilton were civil, and even reasonably cordial. This, even after Jefferson started to become alarmed at the implications of Hamilton’s economic program It was only after England entered into the war against France that Hamilton decided that Jefferson was a threat to the republic, and in attacking him, made him into the recognized leader of the opposition.

We have seen how that happened. Let us look at the earlier phase of Jefferson’s tenure.

He arrived in Virginia from France in late 1789 on what he thought was a leave of absence from his post in Paris. Instead, he found waiting for him a request from President Washington that he accept appointment as the first Secretary of State under the new Constitution. Despite having reservations about the job, Jefferson didn’t feel that he could say no to the president’s request. (This was a common response among these men when Washington asked for their service!)

His was a natural, almost an inevitable, appointment. The only Americans with diplomatic experience comparable to Jefferson’s were John Jay, who would be named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Adams, who had already been elected Vice-President, and Benjamin Franklin, who at 84 was too old. (And in fact, Franklin would die in April, 1790, age 84, about a month after Jefferson’s cordial last conversation with him.)

In his five years as Minister to France, Jefferson had had a uniquely favorable position from which to watch the last days of the old regime and the beginning of the revolution. He was known to the movers and shakers and, like Franklin 10 years earlier, was known as a man of science and culture, not merely as a political representative. Besides, his warm admiration of French culture was well known, and his pointed criticisms of the French aristocracy and government had been kept tactfully quiet, as befitted both his diplomatic status and Jefferson’s natural reluctance to engage in controversy.

But the new Department of State that he joined, on March 22, 1790, was more than its predecessor in the Confederation government, the Department of Foreign Affairs. Congress had included in the new department many domestic duties that today would be included in other departments. As one example, State was entrusted with the care of state records.

On January 8, 1790, President Washington in his first annual message to Congress, called for “uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States,” and the House of Representatives requested Jefferson to draw up a plan for a uniform system of weights and measures. In July he submitted his “Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States,” which gave them two alternatives: one that merely refined and simplified their accustomed English measurement, and one that would be decimal, like the currency he had recommended. The scientific and mathematical basis of his proposed system was impressive, and as a scientifically based decimal system of weights and measures, his predated the metric system that would soon be devised and adopted in France.

We won’t go into it, because Jefferson’s proposal was not adopted, despite having the support of Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Monroe. The Senate dawdled in considering it, and a few years later, events overtook it, when Congress enacted the survey grid system for the Northwest Territory. It is merely a sample of the nature of the duties that came with the office in those days. Another example is that he was held responsible not only for registering patent applications, but for testing the new inventions and deciding whether they were practical! The responsibility to make judgments that he recognized himself as incompetent to make drove him crazy. (And, a bit later, though too late to help Jefferson, Congress flip-flopped on the issue and decreed that patents would be accepted without examination. It was only several decades later that the present system was adopted.)

But, these duties aside, the Secretary’s main function was, of course, to serve as principal adviser to the President on foreign policy. His routine duties were not onerous. When he took office, the entire department consisted of four clerks (officers charged with correspondence, including but not limited to messages to overseas posts) and a messenger. Overseas, the United States maintained two diplomatic and ten consular posts. (The diplomatic service centers on politics; the consular service centers on commerce.) Jefferson initiated the practice of requiring American diplomats and consuls to file periodic reports.

In discussions with the first British Minister to the United States, he sought to get the British to admit that they were violating the Treaty of Paris, and to cease doing so by vacating the posts they were manning in the Northwest Territory, and indemnifying the United States for slaves taken by British troops during the war. He got nowhere. He also attempted – equally without success – to force treaties of commerce with Spain and England, but mostly his time and attention went to keeping the United States neutral in the war between England and France.

Hamilton and Jefferson both agreed with Washington’s policy of neutrality. The issues between them were not matters of patriotism or loyalty, but of judgment. In what did neutrality consist? And how was it to be achieved? Those issues remained very much unsettled when Jefferson resigned his office and returned to Monticello, thinking his public life over.

America’s Long Journey: Jefferson vs. Hamilton

Jefferson vs. Hamilton

When I looked into Jefferson’s three-year tenure as Secretary of State, I expected to find accounts of how he organized and systematized the department, and how he dealt with various foreign controversies and difficulties. Instead, I found that accounts centered on his escalating political struggle with Hamilton. So, as we are working our way backward, let us look first at that long bitter contention, and consider Jefferson’s official tenure in the following section.

However, in considering their differences, it is important to remember what they had in common. Both men were patriots, idealists who put in long unglamorous hours in the service of their country. Each one represented a section of society and each one contributed to the welfare of the whole. If each one underrated the other’s contribution, and questioned the other’s integrity, well, that’s life. They were pursued by the fear of what would happen if the other one prevailed, and people motivated by fear are not at their best. We at this distance should be able to do each man more justice than they did each other.

Jefferson and Hamilton clashed on nearly everything, because they had very different values. The key to their personalities and their politics is this. Hamilton valued order and feared social chaos; Jefferson valued individual freedom and feared tyranny. However, bear in mind, these were only relative emphases. Neither extreme is, or could be, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. (Ask Jefferson about his fear of servile rebellion. Ask Hamilton about his fear of economic or social insignificance.)

Hamilton understood economics far better than Jefferson or Washington ever did. As a boy, he spent several years working in a commercial establishment in the West Indies, which, while it must have seemed dreary and pointless to the boy at the time, proved invaluable to the man he became. He understood the relationship between banks and credit and business and trade and prosperity. He recognized that the new Union needed a dependable source of income, and saw that duties on imports was a relatively painless way to provide it. At the same time, he could see that a nation dependent upon other nations for its necessities could never be as strong as one that provided some if not all of its own manufactures.

Hamilton’s experience with the army during the long discouraging years of the revolutionary war indelibly impressed upon him the need for a strong central government capable of meeting its needs by taxation (rather than by begging the states for contributions). From this experience, and perhaps from his own innate predispositions, he proceeded to a theory of the need for a state to be governed by the few rather than by the many. While thoroughly in favor of independence from England, he was set against the social revolution that accompanied it and seemed to be continuing and strengthening. For Hamilton, it was a strong Union or a chaos of competing states; it was rule by the financially and socially established, or dissolution into mob rule.

Jefferson’s experience as two-term wartime governor of Virginia had shown him, as well, the evils of too weak a government. But his five years in Europe closely observing the manners and morals and tyranny of the French royal court had reinforced his convictions that social equality was preferable to hierarchy; that the small farmer was a firmer basis for society than the courtier or city-dweller; that it was in America’s best interest to become as little like Europe as possible.

(Interestingly Hamilton started from nothing. He was a bastard son, born in the West Indies, orphaned at an early age, with only his brilliance and ambition to spur him on. Jefferson, on the other hand, like Washington, was born into an accepted position in society. Yet Hamilton was the sincere advocate of social hierarchy; Jefferson the sincere advocate of democracy.)

Hamilton’s financial system was designed to put the country on its feet, and it did that. But it was also designed to favor the mercantile and manufacturing interests over those of the farmers and planters, and it did that, too. Having the federal government assume state and federal debt, and then funding it, did stabilize the new nation’s finances, but it threatened to fasten commercial interests upon the necks of everyone else, and to some degree it quickly did that.

But although Hamilton and Jefferson were at odds over the proper size and scope of the new federal government, this was not what brought them to sword’s point. That happened when, in 1793, Britain joined the war against France.

Even before the two countries went to war, Hamilton and Jefferson were at odds over what our commercial policy should be. Jefferson (and others) noted with irritation and anger that England blocked most American exports and closed off most of our traditional trade with the Caribbean islands. He wanted to institute a policy of economic reciprocity: Whatever another country did to us, or for us, we would do to, or for, it. This, he hoped, would bring England around. But Hamilton’s financial system was pegged to the tax on imports, and most of those came from England. He wondered, what if England, in response to American demands for reciprocity, drastically reduced its exports to the United States? What would the federal government do for revenue?

The European war brought matters to fever pitch. Hamilton was pro-British and anti-French; Jefferson was the converse. Each thought the other’s proposed path was dangerous to the country. Even today, nobody can prove that one course would have been better than another; how can you weigh the consequences of the path not taken? But they were both patriots, and they both wanted what they thought was best for the country. And here again, as so often, we see how fear magnifies suspicion, reduces understanding, and renders potentially productive cooperation impossible. It must have tested even Washington’s legendary patience.

America’s Long Journey: Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury

Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury

Alexander Hamilton served as the first Secretary of the Treasury for only a little more than five years, from on September 11, 1789, to January 31, 1795. Yet in that time, he did the work that established the nation’s finances, even though Gallatin would soon revise much of Hamilton’s structure.

In considering Hamilton’s role in the cabinet, it is worth remembering that he, like his colleagues, looked backward as well as forward. Their only applicable governmental models were British (because of their heritage) and Dutch (because that was a viable republic). Although we think of the Secretary of State as the senior Cabinet member, it was natural for Hamilton to look to the British model, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer rated only below the prime minister. Since Washington was head of state as well as head of government, presumably Hamilton would fall heir to certain responsibilities and perquisites that would otherwise be those of the prime minister. So when Hamilton meddled in the affairs of State and War departments, presumably he regarded his interference as proper. What Jefferson and Knox thought was another story. And in fact Washington did often request Hamilton’s advice and assistance in non-Treasury matters, in a sense using him in his familiar role as staff officer.

Hamilton’s tenure as Treasury Secretary is noted for five reports he sent to Congress.

First, in January, 1790, came his Report on Public Credit. Here he proposed that the federal government assume state debts incurred during the Revolution. We won’t go into the objections to the idea, voiced by Jefferson and Madison among others, save to say that serious questions were involved. Hamilton got his way by making a deal with the southerners, agreeing that the permanent national capital would be on the Potomac River, rather than in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

In April, Hamilton submitted a report on imports. Figuring that the United States required $3 million a year for operating expenses plus enough to repay the debt, he proposed increasing the average rate to between 7 and 10 percent from 5 percent, adding numerous items to the list, and passing an excise tax. Congress refused to pass the excise tax, but the tariff increases passed.

In December, Hamilton issued a second Report on Public Credit, often called the Report on a National Bank. Building on the theories of Adam Smith, studies of the operation of the Bank of England, and his own first- and second-hand banking experience, Hamilton suggested that Congress should charter a National Bank, privately held, but publicly funded, similar to the Bank of England, to serve several purposes: (1) monetize the national debt by issuing federal bank notes; (2) process revenue fees and perform fiscal duties for the federal government; and (3) provide a supply of money for businesses. The federal government was to appoint five of the twenty-five bank directors and hold 25% of the Bank’s stock, the money for which it would borrow the money from the bank, and repay in ten annual installments. Private investors would select the other directors and provide the other 80% of the stock.

Representative James Madison objected that Congress did not have the Constitutional authority to grant charters of incorporation. Washington consulted his cabinet as to the bill’s legality. Jefferson and Randolph said it went beyond the enumerated powers, but Hamilton issued a rebuttal that introduced the doctrine of implied powers. As Hamilton put it, “Necessary often means no more than needful, requisite, incidental, useful, or conductive to.” Washington signed.

In January, 1791, Hamilton reported on the Establishment of a Mint, which introduced a national currency. Since the Spanish dollar was the most circulated coin in the United States at the time, Alexander Hamilton proposed minting the U.S. dollar, in decimal form rather than the Spanish “pieces of eight.” Although he personally preferred a single gold standard, he proposed a bimetallic currency, deliberately overpricing gold so as to receive an influx of silver from the West Indies. Congress enacted his ideas in the Coinage Act of 1792, which authorized a ten-dollar Gold Eagle coin, a silver dollar, and fractional money ranging from one-half to fifty cents, and in the creation of the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Coining commenced in 1795.

Finally, in December, 1791, Hamilton issued his Report on Manufactures, which had been requested by Congress nearly two years earlier. In the report, he quoted from The Wealth of Nations but rejected Smith’s ideas of government noninterference; and said that if the United States remained predominantly agrarian, we would be at a disadvantage vis-a-vis Europe. He suggested that the government could assist manufactures by protective tariffs duties on anything that was also manufactured in the United States, and withdrawing the duties on raw materials needed for domestic manufacturing. His proposals for subsidies failed, but virtually every tariff recommendation put forward in the report was adopted by Congress in early 1792. These tariffs were somewhat, but not overly, protectionist: Hamilton didn’t want to discourage imports, because the duties on them were critical to the government’s income.

Historian John Chester Miller has pointed out that, by 1792, “the heavy war debt dating from the struggle for independence had been put in the course of ultimate extinction, the price of government securities had been stabilized close to their face value, hoarded wealth had been brought out of hiding, a system of debt management had been created, the power of the Federal government had been decisively asserted over the states, foreign capital had begun to pour into the United States, and the credit of the Federal government had been solidly established.”

Like Hamilton or dislike him, no one could dispute his ability and energy.

America’s Long Journey: The Whiskey Rebellion

America’s Long Journey: The Whiskey Rebellion

I know that “The Whiskey Rebellion” seems to promise an account of a drunken brawl, but it involved a serious conflict of principles and it had lasting consequences.

The rebellion stemmed from a tax conceived by Alexander Hamilton. As Washington pointed out in his farewell address, expenditures require taxes, and taxes are never popular. But some are more unpopular than others, and this was one of those.

Hamilton was largely responsible for the decision by the First Congress to assume not only the outgoing government’s debt of $54 million, but also the state debts of $25 million. This cleaned up the nation’s credit and (as Hamilton calculated) gave the moneyed classes a vested interest in the continuance of the new government, because they bought the interest-bearing bonds that funded the debt. But then there came a need for new sources of income, to pay the interest on the bonds.

The government’s primary source of revenue in those days was the tariff – duties on imports. But they were already as high as Hamilton thought feasible, so he proposed an excise tax on domestically produced distilled spirits. The bill passed in March, 1791. It was the first direct tax by the new government on a domestic product.

Hamilton seems to have thought he was imposing a sort of luxury tax. But for farmers living west of the mountains, distilling corn into whiskey was the only practical way to turn a bulky perishable item into a compact, easily transported, non-perishable item. Besides, on the frontier whiskey was often used as a substitute for cash, which meant that an tax on whiskey was, in effect, an income tax. And, for reasons we won’t go into, the law favored larger-scale distillers at the expense of smaller ones. (Big surprise, right?) and besides all that, the farmers maintained that the whiskey tax was taxation without representation. So from the first moment that federal marshals began coming around to collect the new tax, they met resistance.

Opponents of the tax met in Pittsburgh and sent a petition for redress of grievances to the state and federal governments, and the following year the tax was reduced. But the law remained, although violence inflicted on tax collectors and other officials rendered it largely uncollectable. In August, 1792, a second Pittsburgh convention, consciously harking back to Revolutionary War precedents, raised liberty poles, formed committees of correspondence, and to some degree paralyzed the court system. Those cooperating with federal tax officials often had their stills destroyed or their barns burned. In late November 1793, a wealthy tax collector was forced at gunpoint to surrender his commission. President Washington offered a reward for the arrest of the assailants, but got no takers.

In 1794, matters came to a boil. In May, the federal district attorney issued subpoenas to more than 60 distillers who had not paid the tax, and sent a U.S. marshal to serve them. In the resulting confrontation, a “rebel” was fatally shot, a miniature siege of the tax collector’s fortified house ensued, and yet another “rebel” was shot, this time while under a white flag. The spirit of rebellion grew. People talked of declaring independence from the United States.

President Washington asked his cabinet’s opinion on how to deal with the crisis. Secretary of State Randolph urged reconciliation. The rest of the cabinet recommended using force. Washington sent peace commissioners to negotiate with the rebels, and asked the governors of four states for militia. In October, he himself rode out from Philadelphia at the head of a sizeable force of 13,000 men, and the insurrection collapsed. By the time the army arrived, the farmers had gone home. No one was hurt, only 20 were arrested, and all of these were acquitted or pardoned.

So how much of this came about because of the general collision of forces (coincidence) and how much because Hamilton pushed it that way (conspiracy)? Those arguing coincidence say that any other interpretation overstates Hamilton’s control over events. Those arguing conspiracy say that Hamilton intentionally provoked the uprising to give the new federal government an excuse to use military force, to show the people that the government was in charge. Despite the wisdom of the saying that “one should never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity,” the circumstantial evidence points more to intent than to mere coincidence. But if Hamilton got what he wanted in the short run, it backfired badly in the slightly longer run.

The public apparently approved the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion. A major reason why the Constitution had been approved had been that people were tired of government too weak to enforce its laws. But the resentment behind the Whiskey Rebellion was not confined to Pennsylvania. The tax was resisted in western counties of every state along the mountains, from Maryland to Georgia, and in Kentucky, the only state wholly west of the mountains, the tax couldn’t be collected anywhere. Once Westerners gave up the idea of military resistance, they turned to political resistance. The emerging Republican Party spread among them like wildfire. They couldn’t quite turn out the Federalists in 1796, but they succeeded four years later, and forever. (When the Republicans came to power, they repealed the tax. As we have seen, Gallatin funded the government by strict economy, instead.)

So, if the rebellion showed that the new government was strong enough to enforce its edicts, it also strengthened distrust between east and west, and between rich and poor, and helped contribute to the formation of the First Party System. Consequences, mostly unintended. And isn’t that a repeated theme throughout this long glance backward? Where we stand today is the result of many consequences built on circumstances that were themselves consequences.

America’s Long Journey: The Bastille and America

America’s Long Journey: The Bastille and America

We saw it in the 20th century. People’s reaction to the Communist revolution in Russia helped shape, and in turn was shaped by, domestic politics. People divided into sides, and became incapable of really seeing or hearing anything the other side did or said except through mental filters that sorted the world into “us” and “them.” Twentieth-century partisans defined each other as “left-wing” or “right-wing,” and few of them realized that they were echoing the quarrels of the late eighteenth-century. (Even the terms “left” and “right” came from the relative seating positions of French delegates in their national assembly.) That reflexive division seriously damaged the nation’s ability to deal with its problems rationally in the twentieth century, and it wasn’t any different in the republic’s first years.

Everyone knows a few things about the French revolution: its inspiration from the American revolution; the fall of the Bastille; the guillotine; the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the reign of terror; Napoleon; the Napoleonic wars. But not everyone knows the effect all that had on America. Americans looked on, from their safe distance, and depending on their philosophical and ideological leanings, they were fascinated and hopeful, or disappointed and horrified.

Thus, to conservatives it was a glimpse of the chaos that always lies latent beneath the social order. To liberals, it carried the hope of a world freed of past oppressive forces. Each side saw what it expected to see, and what its mental filters allowed it to see, perhaps forced it to see. There was truth in each view, but the larger truth of the situation – the fact that the world was larger and more complicated than their view of it – escaped the partisans.

Secretary of State Jefferson celebrated the revolution’s republican ideals. As minister to France, he had witnessed the hope-filled beginnings of the revolution, and had been surprised, upon returning home to become Secretary of State, to find his enthusiasm for the cause not universally shared. He began to think that there was an active party seeking to overthrow republicanism and replace it with a regime that would be more authoritarian, if not outright monarchist.

Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, always an advocate of a strong government to protect society against chaos, naturally suspected the domestic forces that sympathized with the revolution, and supported the British and other forces that were attempting to overthrow the revolution by military force. He pointed to the revolution’s track record.

That record was mixed at best. It was true that the revolution had swept away ancient injustices and outdated remnants of feudalism. But for five years, from the fall of the Bastille in 1789 until the end of the Reign of Terror in 1794, it had became ever more violent, extreme, and unstable. As in any reign of terror, the liberties of the people were swept away, as were institutional buffers, moderation, and tolerance. What remained, behind the fine words, was force.

With the well-deserved execution of Robespierre, the Reign of Terror came to an end, but what had been done could not be undone, and what Americans had witnessed could not be un-witnessed. The Directory that followed the Terror, and Napoleon, who followed the Directory first as First Consul, then as Emperor, could not undo the lasting impressions left by five years of mob rule. Those impressions hardened and strengthened Hamilton and the Federalists, and put Jefferson and the Republicans on the defensive. And, as we have seen, Citizen Genet, trying in his blundering way to bring the guillotine to America, only strengthened the Federalists and weakened the Republicans.

Jefferson and Hamilton became the nuclei around which the Republican and Federalist parties formed. The Republicans called the Federalists the “British party” and the Federalists called them the “French party,” and each exaggerated the other’s blindness and venality, as parties generally do.

Only Washington continued to put his country ahead of ideology. He saw that what was most important was not ideology, nor a matter of preference for one form of society or another. America’s interests were not best served by identifying with another country’s interests, be they French or British. Both powers had to be kept at arms’ length. Especially when the revolutionary wars expanded to include England and Spain in 1793, the United States had to remain neutral for its own protection.

Washington’s reward for his concern for his country’s welfare was to have his name used by the Federalists and abused by the Republicans. But the fact remains: Washington, almost alone among the statesmen of the 1790s, never took his eyes off the ball. For the safety of the fledgling American republic, the balance between France and England had to be maintained.

America’s Long Journey: Citizen Genêt

Citizen Genêt

He was young, but that doesn’t really excuse him. He was only a couple of years younger than Jefferson was when he penned the Declaration of Independence. The fact is, he was both highly intelligent and foolish.

Highly intelligent: By the time he was 12 years old, he could read French, English, Italian, Latin, Swedish, and German, and at age 18 he was appointed court translator. But too close a look at monarchy led to his becoming an avid republican, and in 1792 the revolutionary government appointed him minister to the United States.

Foolish: Thinking that he could appeal to the American people over the heads of their representatives, he defied Washington, he defied Jefferson, he defied the whole Cabinet. He was lucky to escape with his head.

The Franco-American Treaty of Alliance of 1778 obliged the United States to help France defend the West Indies. The problem was, a war with England and Spain was a recipe for disaster for the infant country. Instead, on April 22, 1793, Washington proclaimed American neutrality.

Two weeks earlier, Edmond Genêt had arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, aboard a French warship, calling himself “Citizen Genêt” to emphasize his pro-revolutionary stance. His government had charged him with several tasks: obtaining American help in defending France’s colonies in the Caribbean; obtaining advance payments on debts that the government owed to France; negotiating a commercial treaty between the two countries; and implementing the provisions of the 1778 Franco-American treaty which allowed the French to use American ports to base ships that would attack British merchant shipping.

For an experienced diplomat, Genêt showed few signs of knowing what behavior was acceptable or unacceptable in an envoy. As soon as he arrived in Charleston, he issued four privateering commissions, authorizing the holders to seize British merchant ships and their cargo, with the approval and protection of the French Government. (Granted, he had the consent of South Carolina governor William Moultrie, who didn’t have the right to give it.) Then he spent time organizing American volunteers to fight in Spanish Florida. On his way to Philadelphia, he stopped several times to try to drum up citizen support for the French cause.

All these actions endangered American neutrality in the war between France and Britain. Genet met a cool reception from the government when he arrived in May. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed him that the Cabinet considered the outfitting of French privateers in American ports to be a violation of the U.S. policy of neutrality.

While Genêt was in Philadelphia talking to Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson, his privateers were capturing British ships, and his militia was preparing to move against Florida. Meanwhile he asked, in effect, for a suspension of American neutrality. Jefferson refused, and told him that his actions were unacceptable. Genêt, angry that the Jay treaty limited American trade with the West Indies and accepted the British view that naval stores and war materiel were contraband, and could not be conveyed to enemy ports by neutral ships, persisted in his un-neutral actions.

Finally Washington, on the unusual joint advice of Jefferson and Hamilton, sent him an 8,000-word letter of complaint.

Genêt remained obdurate. He threatened to take his case to the American people, bypassing official government opposition. He outfitted a captured British ship as a privateer, the Little Democrat. He ignored numerous warnings to detain the ship in port, and when he allowed the Little Democrat to sail and begin attacking British shipping,

That did it. The Cabinet agreed to request Genêt’s recall. (Hamilton wanted to have him expelled, but Jefferson stopped short of that.) But by the time Jefferson’s request for recall reached France, power had shifted from the Girondins who had sent Genêt to the radical Jacobins. They were already dissatisfied with Genêt’s failures, though the failure were not his fault. (The administration had no interest in a new commercial treaty, and it refused to make advance payments on U.S. debts to the French government. What was Genet supposed to do about it?) Besides, the Jacobins suspected him of continued loyalty to the Girondins. In January 1794, the French government recalled him and demanded that he be handed over to the commissioners sent to replace him.

In a lovely irony, the advocate of the revolution decided to save his own neck from the guillotine, and asked Washington for political asylum. Even nicer irony, it was Hamilton who persuaded Washington to grant it. (Genêt married the daughter of New York Governor George Clinton, and spent the remaining 40 years of his life as a gentleman farmer in New York state.)

As a result of the Citizen Genêt affair, the United States established a set of procedures governing neutrality. Washington signed a set of rules regarding policies of neutrality on August 3, 1793. These rules were formalized when Congress passed a neutrality bill on June 4, 1794, and that legislation formed the basis for neutrality policy throughout the nineteenth century. So Citizen Genet’s mission did have some positive effect after all.