The Election of 1796: Divided Government
The Election of 1796: Divided Government
The election of 1796 was the first major political contest between Republicans and Federalists. John Adams ran as a Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson as a Republican. Republicans controlled the South, while Federalists dominated New England, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Adams won the presidency by three electoral votes. Jefferson became vice president following Constitutional protocol, which stated that the candidate with the second highest number of votes would become vice president. The two rivals teamed together for what proved to be a tense and unproductive partnership.
Federalism Under Adams
The neutrality that George Washington worked so hard to maintain was threatened soon after Adams took office. The French saw Jay’s Treaty (between the U.S. and Britain) as a signal that the U.S. supported Britain in Britain’s ongoing war against France. France had delayed retribution, hoping Jefferson would win the presidency because, as an Anti-federalist, he was sympathetic to the French. Upon his loss, France delayed no longer and began to seize American ships en route to British ports. Within one year, the French attacked more than 300 American ships and ordered that all Americans captured aboard British naval vessels be hanged.
In response to such aggression, Adams dispatched a peace commission to Paris. In what became known as the XYZ affair, the French foreign minister, Charles de Talleyrand, refused to meet with the commission, and instead sent three anonymous agents to deliver a bribe: Talleyrand would not negotiate with the U.S. until he received $250,000 for himself and a $12 million loan for France. In his report to Congress about the event, Adams labeled the three agents X, Y, and Z—hence the “XYZ affair.” This attempt at extortion aroused public outrage among the American people, some of whom rallied for war. Citing the need for readiness should a war break out, Congress tripled the American army in 1798. In what became known as the Quasi-war, Congress then sent armed ships to protect Americans at sea. Although France and America never officially declared war, from 1798 to 1800, the U.S. navy seized 93 French privateers while only losing one ship.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
Riding the tide of anti-French sentiment, the Federalists overwhelmingly won the 1798 congressional elections. In an effort to protect national security, should the country enter into war with France, Congress passed a series of four measures called the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The acts unprecedentedly asserted the power of the central government.
  • The Alien Enemies Act, the first and least controversial act, defined the procedure by which, during wartime, U.S. authorities could deport a citizen of an enemy nation whom they deemed a threat to national security.
  • The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to deport any citizen of any foreign nation whom he deemed a threat to the U.S., even in the absence of proof.
  • The Naturalization Act changed the residency requirement for becoming a citizen of the United States from five to fourteen years.
  • The Sedition Act, the final and most controversial act, forbade any individual or group to speak, write, or publish anything of a “false, scandalous and malicious” nature that brought the Congress and/or the president “into contempt or disrepute.”
The Alien and Sedition Acts granted the federal government unprecedented power to infringe upon the liberty of individuals.
Of the four Sedition Acts, two—the Alien Friends Act and the Sedition Act—were set to expire near the time of the 1800 elections, so that the acts would not be used against the Federalists should they lose power. Just before the presidential election of 1800, four of the five major Republican newspapers were charged with sedition, arousing the anger of many who felt the Federalists were exploiting their political power to breach civil liberties and stifle their political opponents.
In opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, both Kentucky and Virginia endorsed manifestos on states’ rights written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798) declared that state legislatures could deem acts of Congress unconstitutional, on the theory that states’ rights superseded federal rights. They argued that the federal government was merely a representative of the compact of states, not an overriding power, and therefore states had the final say on federal laws. In 1799, Kentucky passed a further resolution that declared states could nullify objectionable federal laws. This doctrine of states’ rights and nullification would emerge again in later political crises between the North and South concerning issues of tariffs and slavery.
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