America’s Long Journey: Monroe, the French, and the Federalists

Monroe, the French, and the Federalists

Before Randolph, it had been James Monroe’s turn to fall from favor.

And here we see the combined advantage and disadvantage of working from future back to past. Working backward, we already know that Randolph would lose his cabinet post, but we haven’t yet come to the story of the disruptive Citizen Genet. Those living at the time were ignorant that Randolph would fall (let alone that Hamilton would be continuously and covertly feeding Cabinet secrets to the British representative), but Citizen Genet was fresh in their memory.

We’ll get to Genet. For the moment, suffice it to say that he, in his ham-fisted way, poisoned the American politics of the 1790s and beyond. Before Genet, the nascent Federalist and Republican parties already viewed each other as rivals advocating significantly different economic and political futures. After Genet, they saw each other as subversive organizations acting on behalf of Britain or France, respectively. Washington attempted to hold the balance, like Adams after him, and like Adams after him, he had to do so pretty much alone among one-sided partisans.

In 1794, he requested Monroe to become Minister to France, replacing Gouverneur Morris, who in his disapproval of the French revolution had made himself highly unpopular with the French revolutionary government. Monroe obligingly resigned from his Senate seat and proceeded to Paris, where he met an enthusiastic response. For one thing, he was not his predecessor. For another, he was known to be partial to France, and his selection by Washington was taken as a reassurance of American neutrality. And perhaps the fact that Monroe was partly French by descent helped, who knows? When he was presented to the National Convention, right after the fall of Robespierre, the presiding officer kissed him on both cheeks.

Monroe’s speech to the convention was criticized by his superiors as being inappropriately over-exuberant. However, taking advantage of his popularity with the French government, Monroe was able to obtain freedom for Americans held in French prisons. Unfortunately, to be popular in Paris meant to be suspected in Philadelphia. In Genet’s aftermath, Monroe’s most innocent actions would be viewed with suspicion by Hamilton and company. (Of course, as an avid and influential Republican, he would have been under the Federalist microscope in any event. But the super-heated atmosphere of the time made every situation more volatile.)

So, for instance, Monroe obtained the release from prison of Thomas Paine. Paine had been arrested for opposing the execution of King Louis XVI, but the revolutionary government agreed to release him, provided that he be deported to the United States. Republicans and others remembered Paine’s tremendous service to the patriot cause during the revolution. His pamphlet “Common Sense,” which was published in January, 1776, which presented the case for independence in a style that anyone could understand, attained a huge circulation. Washington had it read to all his troops. But Paine’s atheism and his anti-British bias made him unpopular – to put it mildly! – with Federalists, regardless of past services, and anyone helping him fell under suspicion.

Secretary of State Randolph’s instructions told Monroe to improve relations with France, and this was a task dear to Monroe’s heart. He assured the French that Washington’s policy was one of strict neutrality between France and Britain, which of course they were happy to hear, but weren’t sure they could believe. And then came word of Jay’s Treaty.

As discussed below, it was a bad treaty. Possibly it was as good as Americans could expect to obtain under the circumstances, but the impossibility of doing better didn’t make it good. To France, it must have seemed a slap in the face, if not a stab in the back. And where did it leave Monroe? All the time it had been under negotiation, he had been reassuring the French that Jay would not be allowed to make any commitment contrary to the U.S.-French alliance that had been signed in the aftermath of the Battle of Saratoga. All during that time, Jay refused to give him any information on the progress or content of the negotiations.

He had told the French that American policy did not favor Britain. Jay’s Treaty showed otherwise. The French were angry, and alarmed, and it was up to Monroe to soothe them as best he could, regardless of the fact that he agreed with them. A minister represents his country, not his own feelings. When necessary, he defends positions he feels to be indefensible, and argues cases he doesn’t believe in. So do lawyers, and Monroe was a lawyer. But this was too much for his discretion. He felt that he had been employed to deceive the country he was accredited to.

Then, in early 1796, the French determined to send a special envoy to sever relations, which, had it happened, might easily have led to war. Such a development would have further strained – perhaps ruined – Washington’s policy of neutrality. Hamilton would have been pleased, one imagines, but not Washington. Monroe prevented this calamity, talking them out of it, but in so doing, he went too far. Writing to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he implied that the problems between the two countries might be removed by the outcome of the presidential elections of 1796. There was only one way to read that: Monroe was as much as saying, your hope is in a Federalists loss. Naturally the word spread.

For this and other reasons, Washington discharged Monroe as Minister to France, claiming his “inefficiency, disruptive maneuvers, and failure to safeguard the interests of his country.” This public criticism by George Washington was Monroe’s reward for helping to keep France from sliding into active hostility to the United States.

Monroe’s presence, his obvious partiality, and his intercession with the French government at critical times all furthered Washington’s steadfast policy of neutrality between the two contending giants. So there is considerable irony in the fact that Monroe fell from grace because he attempted to do what Washington sent him over there to do.

Hard-working, loyal James Monroe, born into the planter aristocracy but never quite in the inner circle, his ambitions repeatedly deferred, always having to wait his turn, always doing his best in impossible situations and then getting blamed for disappointing results. Probably that isn’t a fair assessment of his life, but it surely must have felt that way to him sometimes.

 

America’s Long Journey: Washington, Randolph, and Hamilton

 

Washington, Randolph, and Hamilton

Politics is a great disrupter of friendships. Sometimes, as in the case of Adams and Jefferson, the friendship can be re-established, but that’s rare. Mostly, a breach becomes permanent, especially when both sides feel wronged. That happened between Washington and Jefferson, as we shall see, and in 1795 it happened between Washington and Edmund Randolph, his second Secretary of State. In both cases, Alexander Hamilton was involved. When Jefferson resigned, Washington named Randolph to his post, and it was as Secretary of State that Randolph got into trouble.

Two of the four men in Washington’s initial cabinet were men of genius: Jefferson as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. To be his Attorney General, he choose Edmund Randolph, not a genius but a patriot of solid worth, known to Washington for many years.

Randolph, like Washington, and like Jefferson (Randolph’s second cousin), was a part of a small aristocracy. The Randolph family were extensive and influential. By the 1790s, Edmund had been one of Virginia’s representative to the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, and leader of Virginia’s delegation to the Annapolis Convention that created the constitution. He had served Washington as his aide-de-camp for a short while in 1775, and then handled several legal matters for him.

In short, Washington knew him, and shared his background as one of Virginia’s inner circle. So it was all the more devastating when he became convinced that Randolph had betrayed him and had, in fact, betrayed the country. But, did he?

We will go into the long duel between Jefferson and Hamilton in due course. Here we need only say that the two men were at loggerheads from first to last. Both men had Washington’s ear, and, at first, his trust. But as time went on, Washington more and more often chose Hamilton’s course over Jefferson’s, and in 1793 he accepted his Secretary of State’s resignation and named Randolph, the Attorney General, to replace him.

Randolph, like Washington, had tried to remain neutral between the two men, but as Secretary of State he found Hamilton encroaching on his duties and prerogatives, for instance in the matter of the Jay Treaty, where Hamilton devised the approach and wrote the instructions, leaving Randolph, who after all was the Secretary of State, only nominal responsibility. When in due course he got to see the treaty Jay had negotiated, he objected to provisions that would disrupt the trade of neutral countries, particularly U.S. shipping to France, and tried to get Washington to disown it. Washington was considering his advice when the British sent him some letters their navy had captured.

Written by French minister Joseph Fauchet, the dispatches accused Randolph of asking for money from France to influence the administration against Great Britain, and the letters implied that Randolph had exposed the inner debates in the cabinet to Fauchet, and told him that the Administration was hostile to France.

Upon receiving the letters, Washington decided to sign the treaty, and a few days later, in the presence of the entire cabinet, Washington handed Fauchet’s letter to Randolph and demanded that he explain it. The charge was false, but Randolph was speechless. He resigned on the spot. Because of embarrassment at having been indiscreet? Because of indignation at being accused? We don’t know, and historians don’t tell us. All we know is that he resigned, and later secured a retraction from Fauchet, and still later published A Vindication of Mr. Randolph’s Resignation. But he was out of the cabinet, and outside Washington’s circle of trusted friends and officials.

It was a sad injustice. Randolph was guilty, at most, of indiscretion. What Washington didn’t know was that Hamilton was doing exactly the thing that he accused Randolph of doing, and had earlier accused Jefferson of doing. He was divulging private discussions within the administration to one of the two European powers, only in his case it was Britain rather than France, and in his case, he didn’t get caught in his lifetime.

The dispatches of George Hammond, the British Minister to the United States, were published in the 1920s, and at that time we learned that Hamilton had told him of secret cabinet discussions over whether or not to join several European nations in a League of Armed Neutrality.

The Cabinet intended that decision to be kept secret. Instead, Hamilton gave it to the British government. It was a far grosser indiscretion than any committed by Randolph.

Hamilton, like so many great man in public life, was capable of petty and disreputable actions, and his partisanship for the British led him not only to undermine his fellow officials but to undermine his government’s policies whenever he disagreed with them.

It was fortunate for Hamilton, and unfortunate for Randolph, and, earlier, Jefferson, that Washington never knew.

 

America’s Long Journey: Pinckney’s Treaty

Pinckney’s Treaty

Sometimes a bad treaty can pave the way for a good treaty. That seems to be what happened when Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain got an assist from news of Jay’s Treaty with England.

Before the French revolution changed everything, Spanish policy was to restrict American trade and settlement as best it could. But by 1794, Spanish forces had experienced defeats both in the Caribbean and in Europe. The Spanish prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, wanted to restore peace with France, which meant extricating Spain from its alliance with Great Britain, but this risked antagonizing the British, which would put Spanish colonies in the Americas at the mercy of the Royal Navy.

When Godoy learned that John Jay was in London to negotiate a treaty, he worried about an Anglo-American alliance. That had to be prevented if possible. He requested that the United States send someone to negotiate a treaty. President Washington selected Thomas Pinckney, former governor of South Carolina, who had been serving as United States minister to Great Britain since 1792.

There were three major issues to be addressed: the Florida boundary, the right of deposit in the city of New Orleans (that is, free use of the port by American settlers using the Mississippi) and – on the Spanish side – the question of an alliance.

Pinckney arrived in Spain in June of 1795, and made swift progress. Godoy offered the right to free navigation of the Mississippi, and acceptance of the 31st parallel as the Florida border, in return for an American alliance with Spain. Pinckney said, no alliance. Godoy came back with the same offer without the alliance, but with Spanish insistence on the right to require duties for goods passing through New Orleans. Pinckney threatened to leave. The next day, Godoy agreed to Pinckney’s demands. The final treaty also voided Spanish guarantees of military support to Indians in the disputed regions, which of course greatly weakening their ability to resist encroachment.

The Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as the Treaty of Madrid, was signed in October, 1795, ratified by the Senate in March, 1796 and came into effect in August. Its official title is the Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation Between Spain and the United States. Whether it established a friendship is debatable, but it did give the United States a definite southern boundary to the south, and it did guarantee the right to navigate the Mississippi.

It is forgotten today, but Florida was not always in the hands of the Spanish. The end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, had caused major territorial shakeups. France had ceded what we know as the Louisiana Purchase territory to Spain, and Louisiana east of the Mississippi, except the city of New Orleans, to Great Britain. At the same time, Spain had ceded Spanish Florida to Great Britain. Thus, for 20 years, from 1763 to 1783, Britain ruled Florida, dividing it along the Apalachicola River for administrative convenience into West Florida, governed from Pensacola, and East Florida, governed from St. Augustine. During the Revolutionary War, Spain, as France’s ally, had captured Pensacola. In the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, the Floridas went from British to Spanish ownership.

But what good were they to Spain? Spain’s colonizing days were over. It sent a garrison for the new territory, but no settlers. As with Texas, as with the vast Louisiana territory, as with much of what became the American southwest, there were no settlers nor any plans for settlers. There were only lines on a map, and soldiers serving to garrison a useless territory. Useless, and potentially dangerous, because the boundary lines with the United States were in dispute. During the years of British possession, they had moved the boundary north, claiming a border at the latitude of present-day Vicksburg, and Spain claimed that the British border applied. The United States insisted on the old boundary at the 31st parallel.

The treaty accepted the American claim, and Florida receded as an issue. (This wasn’t quite the end of boundary controversies, however. In October, 1800, in a secret treaty, Spain transferred Louisiana and part of West Florida back to France. When France sold Louisiana in 1803, a new dispute arose over which parts of West Florida Spain had ceded to France, and therefore which parts of West Florida belonged to whom. Ultimately this would be sorted out by Andrew Jackson.)

As to the Mississippi, again good sense prevailed over theoretical discussions of sovereignty. The fact of the matter was that there were already more than 100,000 Americans in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, and they needed access to New Orleans as a port of deposit. They didn’t need it to be American territory, necessarily, but they did need to know that they could ship their produce down the river and get it transshipped to foreign markets. A few years earlier, in 1784, the Spanish had closed New Orleans to American goods coming down the river. There was just no way the Americans were going to live with that uncertainty. The treaty guaranteed navigation rights to both countries for the entire length of the river.

Now the border was settled, the two countries had a trade agreement, and the city of New Orleans was reopened to American goods. Those were important gains, and they came about because of the confluence of an able ambassador, a venal but gifted Spanish minister (Don Manuel de Godoy, the queen’s lover), and the implied threat of closer U.S.-British relations as reflected in Jay’s Treaty, which we will discuss soon. As one result of Pinckney’s diplomatic success, the Federalists ran him with John Adams in 1796, with unexpected results that we have already seen.

 

America’s Long Journey: Farewell

It wasn’t an “address” in the sense of being a speech. It was a letter that he wrote in 1792 with James Madison’s assistance, when he thought he would be able to retire. Four years later, he enlisted Alexander Hamilton’s literary skills, as well. Thus one of the most influential State documents ever penned profited by contributions from both authors of the Federalist Papers. But if some of the phrasing was theirs, the thoughts were his. The phrasing is in another’s age’s style of oratory, but his sincerity and common-sense wisdom shines through.

“The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States” runs more than 6,000 words. It was published in a Philadelphia newspaper in September, almost two months before the Electoral College would meet, then promptly reprinted everywhere, in other newspapers and as a pamphlet. In these days of inane sound-bites, it stands, as did Washington himself, as a giant surrounded by pygmies.

No one can adequately summarize it, nor is there any need to, in this age of computer searches. Even skimming it will give a better idea than reading someone else’s opinion. Here are a few of the points deserving to be remembered.

The value of the Union:

“The unity of Government … is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence …. But as it is easy to foresee, that … this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness ….”

The danger of factions, or political parties:

“One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

Care in political innovation:

“In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments, as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard, by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that … a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.”

How faction leads to dictatorship:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension … leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

On the need for religion and morality:

“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.…. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Knowledge and public opinion:

“Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

Taxes and spending:

“…it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant ….”

Foreign policy:

“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?”

The necessity for impartiality among nations:

“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”

Sharing the wisdom he had acquired in 20 years was the last service he could do for his country. He had provided leadership which, it was widely conceded, no one else could have provided. To his duty he had sacrificed his personal inclinations. No more. He was tired, and now he could go home.

 

America’s Long Journey: The Election of 1796

Many features of presidential balloting that we take for granted came to us only as the result of trial and (sometimes painful) error. We have seen that the election of 1800 showed the necessity of amending the Constitution to take political parties into account. It astonishes us that the founding fathers, with all their extensive theoretical and practical knowledge of government, should fail to foresee the rise of political parties. But think what else they had to learn the hard way. Take, as a good example, the election of 1796.

It was the first election without Washington, who was finishing his eight years of servitude and looking forward with longing to retiring to Virginia. Toward the end of the year he had published his final advice to the nation, which we will look at in the next section. But who could replace the father of his country?

The obvious candidates had been friends for 20 years, and for all that time they had been serving their country well. The rotund New Englander and the tall red-headed Virginian had many points of political difference, and each was at the head of a pack of snapping partisans who took every opportunity to try to establish or widen a breach between the two. In this first contested presidential election, the hounds didn’t quite succeed, but there were many straws in the wind, for those with clear prevision, or for us looking backward.

The election wasn’t held all on one day. That wouldn’t happen for decades. In 1796, voting among the 16 states stretched for more than a month, from Nov. 3 to Dec. 7. And the voting wasn’t what we’re used to, either. The Constitution said that presidential Electors should be chosen by the state legislatures, but it didn’t say how. Different states chose different methods. Some chose them by statewide election; other states were divided into districts, with voters choosing one per district; in others, the state legislature appointed them. Their world was much more local and independent than ours. To us, it seems an incredible hodge-podge.

And – what strikes us as even crazier — in these pre-12th-amendment days, there was no way to designate who was running for president and who for vice-president, so each of the two new parties had to run more than one candidate for president, hoping to win the top slot with their preferred candidate and bag the vice-presidency with their second-favored candidate. But this was tricky. If electors all voted for the party’s two candidates, you’d wind up with a tie, as indeed happened one election farther down the line. So the idea was that all the party’s electors would cast their vote for the man who was supposed to win, and a couple of them (but only a couple of them) would throw away their second vote on someone who couldn’t win, so that hopefully the result would be a one-two sweep in the right order. Politicians then being as trustworthy as politicians now, nobody quite knew if anybody (let alone everybody) would live up to his promises.

The Democratic-Republicans put up the same ticket they would win with in 1800, Jefferson and Burr, along with minor candidates Samuel Adams (Governor of Massachusetts), George Clinton (ex-Governor of New York), and John Henry (U.S. Senator from Maryland).

The Federalists named John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. Also running but with no chance of winning, were not one but two justices of the Supreme Court, Oliver Ellsworth (Chief Justice) and James Iredell. Also John Jay (Governor of New York); Samuel Johnston (a former U.S. Senator), and Charles Pinckney, U.S. minister to France and the brother of Thomas Pinckney.

If one emotion fueled the campaign, it was fear. What became the Federalist Party feared French-sympathizing Republicans as the enemy within the gates, to be trusted neither with domestic tranquility nor with preserving independence from the French. The Republicans, in turn, said that the Federalists wished to re-establish monarchy and aristocracy, and were not to be trusted to maintain the county’s interests against the British Empire they held in so much awe.

On election day, Adams received 54% of the vote, and Jefferson 46%, a clear decision. The vote divided pretty neatly geographically, with Adams carrying every state north of the Potomac River except Pennsylvania, and none below the river.

But the electoral count was muddled, as a result of Hamilton’s machinations.

Hamilton evidently suspected that Adams might be hard to manage. He convinced the eight South Carolina electors whose first choice was Jefferson to cast their second votes for Pinckney, hoping that Pinckney’s total would surpass those of Adams. But when word of the scheme got out, many Adams electors withheld their second vote from Pinckney, hoping to foil Hamilton’s scheme.

They sure did. The final electoral count was 71 for Adams, 68 for Jefferson, 59 for Pinckney, and 30 for Burr, with the remaining 48 electoral votes spread among the nine minor candidates. Thus Jefferson, rather than Pinckney, would go on to be vice-president under Adams. (That Hamilton, he was some shrewd politician, wasn’t he?)

It wasn’t yet as bad as 1800, when after another four years of fear and counter-fear the country seemed on the verge of civil war, but it was bad enough. And — what can be hard for us to remember at the end of so many decades — each of these early elections seemed the more perilous because there had been so few of them. It was all new. Could it be maintained? The people remembered Ben Franklin’s words on the day the delegates had voted to submit the Constitution to the voters. A woman stopped him on the street and said, “And what kind of government have you given us, Doctor Franklin?” “A republic, madam,” he said, “if you can keep it.”

In 1796, they were a long way from knowing if they could keep it.

America’s Long Journey: Haiti and the nightmare of slave revolt

The fear of slave revolt was ever present in the minds of everyone living in slave-owning territory. Rich or poor, whites living among large numbers of blacks apparently never rested easy. Read through the pro-slavery speeches and literature of the times, and you see one recurrent theme – abolition would mean servile rebellion, race war, and perhaps extermination of the white race throughout the South. Freedom for black men and women must, inevitably, produce another Haiti.

But, come 1865, what did we see? What actually did happen when abolition came to the South? Not only did Northern whites sympathize with the black slaves, they made abolition the law of the land. Not only were the slaves freed; the federal government armed them, and gave them the protection of the uniform and the flag! Not only were the slaves released from their condition of servitude, but their former masters were – for the moment — laid low, politically powerless, economically broken. And what happened? Extermination? Race war? All the nightmare horrors that troubled the sleep of the South through so many decades?

Of course not. We, living so far in their future, know that none of this happened. As it turned out, what slaves wanted was not revenge, but – freedom. Having acquired their freedom, by their own sacrifices and the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of white soldiers, they then set about figuring out how to live their new lives. But nobody knew it was going to turn out that way. For six decades, white Southerners lived in the shadow of a nightmare.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, French Hispaniola (called Saint-Domingue) was the richest and most profitable French possession, wealthy from growing sugar. Sugar depended on extensive manual labor, and that labor came from African slaves. But the white planters who sat at the top of the social structure knew they were also sitting at the top of a volcano. According to 1789 figures, the last reliable statistics available, 450,000 enslaved blacks outnumbered whites and free people of color combined (32,000 and 28,000, respectively) by a margin of ten to one. Chronically terrified, the establishment was not shy about using violence to maintain control.

But then came the French Revolution, and in May 1791, the new French government granted citizenship to wealthy free people of color in the colony. The plantation owners refused to comply. The slaves began to hear the grands blancs talking of declaring independence from France, and of course they realized that independence would mean that the plantation owners would be free to operate as they pleased. On the night of 21 August 1791, the slaves rose in revolt, and in ten days took control of the entire Northern Province. Within weeks, the slaves, now numbering 100,000, had killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed hundreds of plantations. By 1792, the rebels controlled a third of the island.

Beginning in 1791, white refugees from slave insurrections fled to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Charleston, bringing their stories with them. American slaveholders commiserated with the exiled French planters, and drew their own comparisons, especially when, in 1807, Haiti expelled or murdered remaining French whites. The government banned slave owners from bringing Haitian slaves with them, for fear that domestic slaves, hearing of the successful slave revolt in Haiti, would themselves revolt. Anti-slavery advocates favored the insurgent slaves.

Hearing of the revolt, the Legislative Assembly in France promptly granted civil and political rights to free men of color in the colonies – and dispatched 6,000 French soldiers. But then, another complication. In 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. By August 1793, there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island.

In February, 1794, France abolished slavery and granted all black men civil and political rights, but it was far too late. Under the military leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti defeated Napoleon. That is, an army led by Bonaparte’s brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc was decimated by yellow fever and destroyed by the insurgents.

(It is probable that we obtained the Louisiana territory from Napoleon only because Leclerc’s army in Haiti was lost. With that army gone, and Leclerc himself dead, there was no way to occupy New Orleans, or threaten the United States, or maintain either colony against England when war resumed. So, Napoleon sold Louisiana rather than have the British take it away from him.)

Although L’Ouverture was tricked into captivity and death in France, the French cause on the island was finished. Haiti, as the island nation was now to be called, gained formal independence in 1804. Haiti’s war began as a slave revolt and became intertwined with a war of empires. The situation in Haiti in no way resembled that in any part of the United States. Nonetheless, the specter of a successful slave revolt was powerful.

This slave-revolt-turned-revolution rebellion was never successfully emulated, but, in seeming to confirm the reality of a persistent nightmare, it had had consequences far larger than the compass of that unhappy island. Increasingly southerners bases their politics and their social institutions on fear. But America, it eventually turned out, was not Haiti. All those decades of nightmare had been just that, nightmare. Life after slavery was going to be hard, for North and South, black and white alike, though hard for each in different ways. But it was a continuation of something begun by the Declaration of Independence, not the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It took place in a country inspired and shaped by Washington and Jefferson, not Robespierre and Napoleon, and that made all the difference.

 

America’s Long Journey: Facing the French

For 20 years, while England and France fought to the death, small neutral countries did their best to stay out of the way, lest they be crushed by accident or design. The United States, chief among those smaller countries, received some protection by its position on the far side of the broad Atlantic (think what our position would have been if we had been located in Europe somewhere), but our Achilles heel was our merchant navy. Both the naval powers seized neutral ships that traded with their enemies, and we couldn’t very well cease to trade. (A dozen years later, after the French had been driven from the seas by Trafalgar and British attacks had become intolerable, Jefferson finally did try that tactic, as we have seen, but with indifferent success.)

President Washington, steering a careful course, had placated England to some extent with Jay’s Treaty, as we shall see. But anything that pleased England could only anger France (and vice versa), and so Jay’s Treaty brought us, in the first year of the Adams presidency, to the very brink of war with France, and in fact a little over the brink.

In March 1797, just after assuming office, President Adams learned that France had seized American merchant ships in the Caribbean, and that Paris had refused to accept Charles Pinckney as minister. Federalists took a hard line on France, as always, and, as always, Republicans expressed solidarity with the ideals of the French revolutionaries. In late May Adams told Congress that he had decided to send a special commission to France, to try to adjust relations, consisting of Pinckney, John Marshall and independent Elbridge Gerry. Adams also called for expansion of the Navy to protect our interests. (By June, 1797, French ships had seized 316 American merchant ships, and cruised the Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed, because the last American warship had been sold in 1785, leaving only revenue cutters.) Once the commissioners were approved, Adams instructed them to negotiate similar terms to those that had been granted to Britain in the Jay Treaty.

But dealing with the English and dealing with the French were two very different things. The English never varied: The king (or, during the king’s periods of insanity, his son as regent) worked with the small number of aristocrats who maintained control of parliament. Whigs or Tories, what you had to deal with was predictable and understandable. Not so the French after the Revolution. In the years since the Revolution in 1789, the form of government had changed repeatedly, and with every change of regime, the rules, the attitudes, and the expectations changed.

In 1797, France’s executive was not one man, but a five-man Directory. Two years later, it would be Napoleon as consul, then a few years on, Napoleon as Emperor of the French. Running through all these regimes, a crooked man pursuing a crooked path, was Foreign Minister Talleyrand, the man foreigners had to deal with before they could deal with the ostensible authorities. Unhappy the envoys from a relatively straightforward republic trying to come to honorable agreement by straightforward means.

Case in point: As soon as the three American envoys arrived in Paris, three of Talleyrand’s secret agents (named X Y and Z in the official report that was later issued), issued a series of demands, including a large official loan to the French government and a £50,000 unofficial bribe to Talleyrand. This, before formal negotiations could begin. This was accustomed practice by then, and the Americans knew it, but they didn’t like it, and they said so. Then, when a peace treaty ended the War of the First Coalition, and France was temporarily at peace with most of Europe (though not England), the agents returned. Now they were threatening war. Pinckney responded in words that became famous: “No, no, not a sixpence!”

The commissioners met with Talleyrand informally in March, and he agreed to forget about a loan, but he would talk only with Gerry. Marshall and Pinckney left in April, but Talleyrand told Gerry that if he left France the Directory would declare war. So he said he would remain, but only until someone could replace him. He refused to engage in further substantive negotiations. His exchanges with Talleyrand laid groundwork for the eventual end to diplomatic and military hostilities, but the Federalists suspected him of disloyalty, and did their best to make him a scapegoat.

In March 1798, Adams received the first dispatches from the commissioners. He told Congress of their apparent failure, but held the dispatches themselves secret, fearing a Congressional and popular backlash. But Federalist hawks demanded the release of the commissioners’ dispatches, and when he turned them over in March, the public learned of XYZ, and the Federalists howled for war.

And the Republicans? They had joined in the demand to have the dispatches published, because they had thought that Adams had exaggerated the situation. Now they learned better, and it put them on the defensive.

The Federalist-dominated Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man as many as 12 vessels of up to 22 guns each. It was the rebirth of the American Navy, which turned out to be just as well, a few years later. In July, Congress annulled the 20-year-old alliance with France, and authorized attacks on French warships. But Adams refused to let them stampede him into asking for a declaration of war.

The consequences kept on showing up. Because the affair discredited the French, it could be made to discredit the Democratic Republicans, who were pro-French. Hence, the Alien and Sedition Acts.

In France, publication of the dispatches led the Directory to try to get the truth out of Talleyrand, which was more than mortal man could do, but did put him on the defensive, and led him to confess to Gerry that the men had been his agents, and that, regardless what he had just testified to the Directory, he was interested in reconciliation between the two countries. Gerry told Adams, and Adams bore it in mind. When Talleyrand made diplomatic overtures to U.S. minister William Vans Murray in The Hague, Adams sent negotiators to France who eventually negotiated an end to hostilities. And so what is sometimes called the Quasi-War did not become a real war, which might have left the Alien and Sedition Laws in effect, might have prevented Jefferson’s revolution, therefore might have prevented the Louisiana Purchase…. It might have changed everything incalculably, as wars are in the habit of doing.