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American Politics in the Early Republic

American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis

James Roger Sharp
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 378
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  • Book Info
    American Politics in the Early Republic
    Book Description:

    During the years from 1789 to 1801, the republican political institutions forged by the American Constitution were put to the test. A new nation-born in revolution, divided over the nature of republicanism, undermined by deep-seated sectional allegiances, and mired in foreign policy entanglements-faced the challenge of creating a stable, enduring national authority and union.In this engagingly written book, James Roger Sharp offers a penetrating new assessment disputing the conventional wisdom that the birth of the country was a relatively painless and unexceptional one. Instead, he tells the dramatic story of how the euphoria surrounding the inauguration of George Washington as the country's first president quickly soured. Soon, the Federalist defenders of the administration and their Republican critics regarded each other as bitter political enemies. The intense partisanship prevented the acceptance of the idea that an opposition could both oppose and be loyal to the government. As a result, the nation teetered on the brink of disintegration as fear, insurrection, and threats of secession abounded. Many even envisioned armed civil conflict as a possible outcome.Despite the polarization, the nation did manage to survive its first trial. The election of Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and the nonviolent transfer of power from one political group to another ended the immediate crisis. But sectionally based politics continued to plague the nation and eventually led to the Civil War.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15737-6
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction (pp. 1-14)

    It was in a hothouse atmosphere of passion, suspicion, and fear that the republican political institutions forged by the American Constitution were put to the test. Indeed, the twelve years from 1789 to 1801 represent a critical era in American history equivalent to that of the Civil War. The new nation was on trial in the 1790s and no one knew what the verdict would be. The overriding question in the minds of all Americans was: Could a people whose identity was born in revolution and divided into thirteen independent and jealous sovereignties create a stable, enduring national authority? And...

  5. Part I The Breakdown of Elite Consensus, 1789–1792
    • 1. George Washington and the New Nation (pp. 17-30)

      After bright sunshine had replaced early morning clouds on April 13, 1789, New Yorkers must have breathed a collective sigh of relief that the eagerly anticipated day would not be ruined by the bad weather that so frequently accompanied mid-Atlantic springs. Excitement had been building for some time as Americans flocked to the capital on that day to catch a glimpse of the new president or simply to be part of the festivities surrounding his installation as the first president of the United States. Every tavern, inn, and boarding house was filled to capacity, causing one observer to speculate that...

    • 2. Disappointed Expectations: The Failure of Elite Consensus (pp. 31-50)

      The day the First Congress convened—March 4, 1789—was inauspicious. Despite the festive air in New York, punctuated by the pealing of bells and the firing of canons, only eight of the twenty-six senators and thirteen of the sixty-five members of the House of Representatives had made it to the new capital. And it would be almost a month before the houses would be able to muster quorums and begin to conduct business.¹

      Virginia had the largest delegation with twelve (ten members of the House and two senators), followed by Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, each with ten. With three apiece,...

  6. Part II The Polarization of the Elite, 1792–1798
    • 3. The Election of 1792: Grappling with the Concept of Representation (pp. 53-68)

      The election of 1792 marked the beginning of the second stage of American political development. Jefferson and his Virginia colleagues went to great lengths to develop a rationale and vindication for their opposition that expressed both a continuing loyalty to the Constitution as well as an unswerving faith in the people’s republicanism. In order to legitimize their opposition to the government, they discussed strategies to collect, and indeed to mold, the will of the people to show that the people, consigned to a more or less passive role, supported their position. One Virginian, John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia, a...

    • 4. The French Revolution and the Awakening of the Democratic Spirit (pp. 69-91)

      Expectations that the election of 1792, which was characterized by democratic stirrings among the American electorate, would usher in a new era of consensus on the national public good were to be dashed—even before the Third Congress met in December 1793. The increasing radicalization of the French Revolution early in 1793—with the execution of Louis XVI and the French declaration of war against Great Britain, Spain, and Holland—had the effect of deepening and sharpening the conflict between the defenders of the government, whose sympathies were with Great Britain, and the opposition, who felt an attachment to France....

    • 5. Threats to the Union (pp. 92-112)

      In 1794, at the height of the popularity and strength of the Democratic-Republican societies, some Americans, especially in the West, were becoming so estranged from the new government and frustrated at its apparent unresponsiveness that they forsook the normal political and institutional means of addressing and solving problems and engaged in provocative collective actions that threatened the stability of the union. These extreme activities were necessary, the dissidents assured themselves, in order to put pressure on national officials to take their concerns seriously.

      Western Pennsylvanians resorted to violence in their opposition to the federal excise tax on whiskey, and Kentuckians...

    • 6. The Jay Treaty (pp. 113-137)

      The increasing shrillness of the Democratic-Republican societies, reports of Western intrigue, sedition, and rebellion, as well as the growing American sectional identification and defensiveness—as tumultuous as all these were—were all eclipsed in 1794 and 1795 by a foreign policy crisis between the United States and Great Britain that threatened to plunge the two nations back into war against each other and to rip the United States apart. And the Washington administration’s attempt to deal with the emergency by negotiating the Jay Treaty with Great Britain heightened the already serious domestic suspicion and intolerance by pitting English and French...

    • 7. The Election of 1796 (pp. 138-162)

      The presidential election of 1796, the firstrealcontest for the presidency in American history, was to be one of the most unusual in American history. It was not until September of the year that the incumbent finally and publicly announced his intention not to stand for reelection and that supporters of the contenders felt they could properly begin to mount campaigns. There were no conventions and no formal caucuses. Instead, it was through a system of informal meetings among leaders of both proto-parties in the winter and spring preceding Washington’s announcement that an understanding emerged concerning who the candidates...

    • 8. The War Crisis and the Alien and Sedition Acts (pp. 163-184)

      The apparent harmony and spirit of reconciliation that marked the period following the 1796 presidential election were short lived. Almost immediately after his inaugural, Adams was plunged into a diplomatic crisis and quasi-naval war with France that lasted virtually his entire term of office and dashed the hopes that an Adams-Jefferson administration would rise above partisanship and provide a high-minded, selfless government of gentlemen as the Founders had intended. The Republicans found themselves on the defensive as they struggled to legitimize their criticism of Adams’s handling of the emergency at a time of trial for the new nation. Although sympathetic...

  7. Part III The Crisis of Union, 1798–1801
    • 9. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions: Making a Refuge for the Oppressed (pp. 187-207)

      The years 1798 and 1799 were ones that put the Virginia leaders of the Republican opposition to the supreme test. For although Jefferson and his colleagues continued to believe that they would ultimately prevail, their erstwhile optimism was being tempered by the grim reality of a succession of defeats. Their exertions, they had to acknowledge, had failed to build an effective interstate coalition to electorally wrest national power from the Federalists. So, feeling under siege and politically isolated after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Laws, the Virginia Republicans began to regroup and debate among themselves about their role...

    • 10. 1799: Virginia versus the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Fears of Armed Conflict (pp. 208-225)

      The year 1799 was one of peril for the new republic. As the Republicans had been shocked and enraged by the Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the measures to build up the nation’s national defenses, so the Federalists were shocked and enraged by the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions and rumors that Virginia was stockpiling arms. These internal challenges coupled with continuing French depredations against American shipping heightened the Federalists’ sense that theirs was a country under siege.

      In fact, many Federalists were convinced that they were facing a subversive and seditious internal enemy made up of Virginia and...

    • 11. The Election of 1800 (pp. 226-249)

      The election of 1800—even after more than 200 years of American history—stands as one of the country’s two most critical presidential elections, second only to the election of 1860 that polarized the nation, sent Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, and led to Americans choosing sides and fighting a bloody civil war. The elections were in many ways similar. Both occurred during times of extreme sectional hostility and suspicion. Both were characterized by an acutely divided polity. And both were surrounded by rumors of violence and the dismemberment of the union. The major difference, of course, was that Lincoln’s...

    • 12. Electoral Gridlock: The Crisis of 1801 (pp. 250-275)

      The tie vote in the electoral college between Burr and Jefferson precipitated a crisis that stands as one of the two great political and constitutional crises in the history of the republic. From December 1800 until late February 1801, when the election was finally decided in the House of Representatives, the country teetered at the brink of disintegration. The atmosphere was feverish with tension, fear, and confusion. Federalists and Republicans were willing to believe that their opponents were capable of virtually any actions, no matter how treacherous, or violent, in order to gain or retain power. Rumors swept Washington, D.C.,...

  8. Epilogue (pp. 276-288)

    Jefferson’s inauguration and the Republican victory in 1801 were not simply the temporary triumph of one political party over another. Nor did they signal the acceptance of the idea of a loyal opposition by the public men of the era. Nor did they herald the coming of age of a national two-party political system. Instead, these events were the triumph of Virginia-led and Southern-centered Republicans who saw themselves as having saved republicanism, the Constitution, and the republic and as having given birth to the permanent ascendancy of a Republican hegemony.

    Furthermore, although the Republicans in 1801 were living in an...

  9. Notes (pp. 289-336)
  10. Bibliography (pp. 337-348)
  11. Index (pp. 349-365)
  12. Back Matter (pp. 366-366)