George Washington served two terms as President. He stepped aside in 1797. Washington twice had been the unanimous choice of the Electoral College, but by the end of his administration some of his policies, particularly on economic matters, had led to deep ideological divides about the appropriate powers of the national government and the future of the country. Those divides widened under Washington’s successor, John Adams.
Two of Washington’s top advisors, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, personified important policy choices facing the United States. For example, Hamilton advocated creation of a national bank, while Jefferson believed the power to charter banks should remain in the states. Hamilton believed the national government should assume the debts of the states from the Revolutionary War. Jefferson thought that idea would benefit an elite band of dealers in paper money. The two also disagreed over the extent of Congress’ powers to regulate interstate commerce and the scope of Congress’ taxing powers. These disagreements masked more fundamental questions about the future of the country.
Should the United States remain a largely agrarian society of independent farmers and small businesses, or should it strive to develop a national commercial economy capable of competing in the international marketplace? The choice sometimes was characterized as a fight between simple republican virtues and capitalist elitism. The disagreements extended to the field of foreign affairs. The Napoleonic Wars between France and Great Britain mobilized Americans on opposite sides. Jefferson and his supporters wanted the United States to back France, in part because France had come to the colonists’ aid in the Revolutionary War. Hamilton and his supporters wanted the United States to back Great Britain, because of America’s strong cultural and commercial ties. President Washington’s declaration of neutrality could not hold.
Two broad-based political parties formed around these and similar issues. Disagreements went to the meaning of the Constitution and how it should be interpreted. Jefferson’s followers, who by then included James Madison, forged the nation’s first political party, under the name Republicans (also known as Jeffersonian-Republicans and soon thereafter Democratic-Republicans). Hamilton and his followers took the name Federalists. These nascent political organizations were by no means powerful party systems, but the election of 1800 featured candidates for President and vice-president supported by political parties. Federalists supported the re-election of John Adams, who had succeeded Washington as President. Republicans supported Thomas Jefferson and his promise of a populist rejection of Federalist policies that favored the wealthy.
The election of 1800 was a nasty affair, even by modern standards. During the campaign, Democratic-Republicans called Adams a “hypocrite,” a “fool” and a “tyrant.” In an era in which character was at least as important as political platforms, Republicans demeaned him as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” They warned that Adams had plans to create an American dynasty by marrying his son to a daughter of King George III. They accused him of wanting to attack France, America’s closest ally in the Revolutionary War.
Adams also had signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, a series of four acts that Pro-Administration forces, now known as Federalists, had passed in the name of national security in response to political upheaval in Europe sparked by the French Revolution. The Sedition Act in particular inflamed Republicans by criminalizing speech critical of the government, a direct attack on the freedom of the press. The Adams Administration had not shied away from prosecuting newspaper publishers and its political opponents for Sedition Act violations. Supreme Court justices such as William Cushing and Samuel Chase, who sat as circuit court judges in several highly publicized cases, joined other Federalist judges in supporting the legislation and participated in convicting several outspoken Republicans. The role of federal courts in enforcing Sedition Act violations became an issue in the election and eventually led to efforts to impeach Justice Chase.
Federalists were equally unrestrained in their attacks on Jefferson. They called him “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” They warned that, if Jefferson were elected President,
[m]urder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
Federalists accused Jefferson of being an infidel who “writes aghast the truths of God’s words; who makes not even a profession of Christianity; who is without Sabbaths; without the sanctuary, and without so much as a decent external respect for the faith and worship of Christians.” They warned that Jefferson’s sympathies for the French Revolution would bring “similar bloodshed and chaos” to the United States.
After a bitter campaign, Democratic-Republicans won the election of 1800. They took control of Congress away from the Federalists (formerly known as Pro-Administration). Democratic-Republicans also won the Presidency: John Adams garnered only 65 Electoral College votes to Thomas Jefferson’s 73 Electoral votes. However, Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s running mate, also received 73 Electoral College votes. (The Electoral College at the time did not list votes for President and Vice-President on separate ballots, a flaw corrected by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804). Deciding which Democratic-Republican would become President therefore fell to the lame-duck Federalists in House of Representatives. They finally gave the nod to Thomas Jefferson on February 17, 1801, after thirty-six ballots cast during the course of six days.
Democratic-Republicans would control the Congress and the Presidency for the next twenty-five years. The Supreme Court, a fledgling branch without clear institutional identity, was all that was left to the Federalists. All of the members of the Supreme Court and, indeed, the entire federal judiciary, had been appointed by either Washington or Adams (Adams had appointed Bushrod Washington to the Supreme Court after James Wilson died in 1798). Having lost the Congress and Presidency to the Democratic-Republicans and its brand of states’ rights populism, should Federalists give up? Or did the federal judiciary, an underdeveloped institution with little stature, offer opportunities for maintaining the Federalists’ vision of the American constitutional order?