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
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
- 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
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