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The First Years of the Union (1797-1809)

Study Questions

Fighting for Neutrality: The Embargo Act

Review Test

Thomas Jefferson commented late in life that the election of 1800 was "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." Why did Jefferson believe this, and was he correct?

Jefferson and the Republicans saw themselves as the saviors of the nation, freeing it from the tyrannical grips of a party bent on elitism and tending toward monarchy. While there was certainly a vast difference between the Federalists' style of government and the Republican style which Jefferson would bring to the national government, most historians think that to frame the transition as one from incipient monarchy to virtuous republicanism is to exaggerate the circumstances a great deal. John Adams was certainly not in pursuit of monarchy. He very much believed in the principles of democracy. However, he came from a school of thought that considered all men to be basically evil, and he sought to place the power of government in the hands of the least evil and most rational, which he thought to be represented by the political and social elites. Jefferson, for his part, most likely similarly considered men to be driven by self-interest and greed. However, he was from the school of thought which believed that the pursuit of self-interest could lead to social benefits, and thought that government should not limit the governed so much that they could not undertake this pursuit. The difference in ideology was thus not as stark as Jefferson would have painted it.

During the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Republican Party took on the cause of states' rights as their ideological cornerstone. However, in 1803, during the limited debate over the Louisiana Purchase, House Federalists invoked the states' rights doctrine as well. Why did they take this action and what does that say about the states' rights doctrine?

While the majority of the nation supported the Louisiana Purchase, many Federalists raised some opposition to it because they believed the expansion of the nation would dilute the political power of their strongholds on the eastern seaboard. Jefferson's consistent assertion that the farmers were the backbone of America and would benefit from this expansion of arable land did not help to assuage these fears. Thus what little debate there was over ratification centered largely on the assertion on the part of the Federalist minority that no new states should be created in the Louisiana Territory without the consent of the original thirteen. The Republican majority easily rebuffed this claim, and the treaty was easily ratified. The appeal to states' rights by the Federalists seems anomalous considering it had been the Republican opposition during John Adams' presidency that had brought the issue to the fore, and the Federalists who had consistently advocated for a strong central government. Historians point to the debate over ratification to argue that perhaps the states' rights doctrine was less of an ideological cornerstone for the Republicans than a universally useful defense mechanism raised by those out of power against those in control of the national government.

How did the secretary of treasury under Jefferson, Albert Gallatin, specifically target his initiatives to counter the Federalist economics that Alexander Hamilton had established as the norm under George Washington's presidency?

Alexander Hamilton's main initiatives as secretary of treasury had been the establishment of a national bank, a running national debt, and the regulation of commerce. Once in office, Jefferson and Gallatin strove to tear down these remnants of Federalist economics one by one. Both Jefferson and Gallatin believed in the principle of free trade and sought to cut regulation of commerce within reason. They immediately cut nearly all internal taxes, and balanced the cut with reductions in the military, which had been built up under Adams. Frugal spending and an increase in trade, which resulted in higher customs receipts, meant that by 1806 the US was running a budgetary surplus which Gallatin used to pay down the debt. Gallatin's boldest move, which attacked both the governmental attachment to the national bank and the national debt, was the 1802 sale of the US government's stock in the bank to the House of Baring in London. Gallatin used the profit from this sale to pay a large installment on the debt owed to the Dutch. Thus Gallatin had successfully attacked the bastions of Federalist economics, and would continue to do so throughout his tenure.

How did the struggle for American neutrality evolve during Adams and Jefferson's presidencies? How did it necessitate specific foreign relations policy?

By the election of 1800, the Republicans commanded far greater popular support than they had in 1796. Which elements of the population had changed their allegiance and why?

What evidence is there to suggest that the Alien and Sedition Acts were purely politically motivated? In what ways did the acts infringe upon guaranteed rights?

While in office, did Thomas Jefferson remain committed to the ideals of the Republican Party or did he lose touch with his state's rights roots, as the Tertium Quids contended? What is the evidence to support each argument?

In what ways was the Louisiana Purchase a boon to the US, and in what ways was it a curse?

Describe the various forces of subversion that existed in the American southwest. Why did these forces fail to present a legitimate threat to the nation?

Describe the effects of the Embargo Act in Britain and in the US. What factors dictated the differing experiences? How did these differences dictate the success or failure of the Embargo Act?

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