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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective Two: Discuss the break-up of the Federalist party and the rise of the Republicans by the election of 1800.

Alexander Hamilton was the best-known member of the Federalist party, now that Washington had bowed out. But his financial policies, some of which had fattened speculators, and his suggestions that the president and senators be elected for life had made him so unpopular that he could not hope to be elected president

Alexander Hamilton saw America’s future as a metropolitan, commercial, industrial society, in contrast to Thomas Jefferson’s nation of small farmers. While both men had the ear of President Washington, Hamilton’s vision proved most appealing and enduring. John Trumbull, Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, 1806. Wikimedia.

The Federalists were forced to tum to the experienced but ungracious John Adams who had no appeal to the masses and had no desire to cultivate any Adams suffered from several handicaps, one of which was following in the footsteps of Washington. Another problem Adams faced was that Hamilton hated him and secretly plotted with some of Adams' cabinet members against him




First was in foreign policy and involved the X, Y, Z Affair. Foreign affairs immediately occupied Adams' full attention. The French government regarded the Jay Treaty signed by the United States during Washington's administration with the British an affront, particularly after the French effort during the American War for independence.

 Relations between the two countries steadily deteriorated and in 1797 French privateers began seizing American ships; and within a year they had captured more than 300 vessels. In order to avoid further conflict Adams sent a three man commission to negotiate with the French. At the start of negotiations the American commissioners were insulted by demands for bribes by the three French commissioners. The American opted to come home.


The diplomatic humiliation suffered by the three commissioners set off a domestic political explosion when Adams presented the commissioners report to Congress. The three Frenchmen were dubbed Mr. X, Y, and Z in the report that spelled out the demand for bribes and lead to the Federalists in Congress to cry for war


The X, Y, Z Affair did lead to an undeclared war (Quasi-War) from 1798-1800. But Adams brought an end to the war against the desires of many of his own party members (Hamilton's supports) in a treaty called the Convention of 1800. He also threatened to resign if his party did not support his efforts. As a result the Federalists party split beyond repair and this helped make it possible for the Republicans to win the election of 1800.

Alien and Sedition Acts


The second event which impacted Adams' presidency involved domestic policy and centered around the Alien and Sedition Acts. Because of the results of the X, Y, Z Affair with France, and the undeclared war that followed, the passions of domestic politics became really heated during Adams' (1797-1801) administration. The Federalists had meanwhile capitalized on the anti-French frenzy to drive through Congress a series of laws in 1798 designed to silence their Jeffersonian foes of political criticism.


These laws were called the Alien and Sedition Acts. The acts gave the president the power to deport foreigners who were critical of the President , Congress or the country in general.


The Acts were aimed at the political activity of the pro-French immigrants or anti-British Irish . Besides threatening to deport the immigrants one of the acts (Naturalization) raised the residence requirement for American citizenship from 5 to 14 years. The act was aimed at keeping the aliens from voting Republican .


The last of the Alien Acts and the one that caused Adams and the Federalists the most terrible was the Sedition Act. The act was intended to silence Republican newspapermen and provided for a fine and or imprisonment for anyone who tried to "impede the operation of any law" or who uttered any "false, scandalous and malicious" criticism of high government officials.


Under the act, about 25 persons were arrested and 10 convicted, most of them Republican editors who were conveniently got out of the way by heavy fines or jail sentences. A tavern loiterer in Newark, New Jersey, was jailed for expressing the wish that the wadding of the cannon shot fired in the President's honor might ledge in Adams' backside. The Sedition Act made martyrs for the Republican Party an made the Federalists and John Adams very unpopular which helped the Republicans and Jefferson win the election of 1800.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were the Republican reaction to the Sedition Act. The resolutions appealed to the first amendment of the Constitution which forbids Congress to pass any law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . The Federalist layers adopted Blackstone's definition that freedom of the press meant merely freedom from censorship prior to publication. The Republicans' protest was led by Jefferson and Madison , who proposed the resolutions. The resolutions attacked the Federalist broad interpretation of the Constitution and supported the Republican's weak interpretation, which gave justification for states' rights.


The resolutions claimed that the states composing the United States had entered into a compact (the Constitution) to which the states were equal parties and thus had equal rights to judge for themselves when the compact had been violated. The resolutions were sent to the other state legislatures with hope that they might receive favorable action, but nothing happened as the resolutions just faded away when the Federalists stopped enforcing the Sedition Act. The net effect of the resolutions was that they made clear to the public the policies of each party as to how the government should be run. The influence of the resolutions did not die as almost every politician between 1798 and 1860 appealed to the doctrine of states rights when his section seemed oppressed. The Civil War was supposed to have killed the resolutions, but their theme has been quoted from the civil rights movement in the 1960's to the present.