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1797

The heat of the nation's wrath evoked by this conflict with France betrayed the Federalists in Congress into some pieces of tyrannical legislation. These were especially directed against refugees from France, lest they should attempt to reenact here the bloody drama just played out there. Combinations were alleged, without proof, to exist between American and French democrats, dangerous to the stability of this Government.

A new naturalization act was passed, requiring of an immigrant, as prerequisite to citizenship, fourteen years of residence instead of the five heretofore sufficient. Next came three alien acts, empowering the President, at his discretion, without trial or even a statement of his reasons, to banish foreigners from the land; any who should return unbidden being liable to imprisonment for three years, and cut off from the possibility of citizenship forever. A "sedition act" followed, to fine in the sum of $5,000 each and to imprison for five years any persons stirring up sedition, combining to oppose governmental measures, resisting United States law, or putting forth "any false, scandalous, or malicious writings" against Congress, the President, or the Government.

To President Adams's credit, he was no abettor of these hateful decrees, and did little to enforce them. The sedition law, however, did not rest with him for execution, and was applied right and left. Evidently its champions were swayed largely by political motives. Matthew Lyon, a fiery Republican member of Congress from Vermont, had, in an address to his constituents, charged the President with avarice and with "thirst for ridiculous pomp and foolish adulation," He was convicted of sedition, fined $1,000, and sentenced to four months in prison. This impoverished him, as well as took him from his place in Congress for most of a session. Adams refused pardon, but in 1840 Congress paid back the fine to Lyon's heirs.

It is now admitted that these measures were unconstitutional, as invading freedom of speech and of the press, and assigning to the Federal Judiciary a common-law jurisdiction in criminal matters. But they were also highly unwise, subjecting the Federalist Party to the odium of fearing free speech, of declining a discussion of its policy, and of hating foreigners. The least opposition to the party in power, or criticism of its official chiefs, became criminal, under the head of "opposing" the Government. A joke or a caricature might send its author to jail as "seditious." It was surely a travesty upon liberty when a man could be arrested for expressing the wish, as a salute was fired, that the wadding might hit John Adams behind. Even libels upon government, if it is to be genuinely free, must be ignored--a principle now acted upon by all constitutional States.

But the Federalists were blind to considerations like these. As Schouler well remarks: "A sort of photophobia afflicted statesmen, who, allowing little for the good sense and spirit of Americans, or our geographical disconnection with France, were crazed with the fear that this Union might be, like Venice, made over to some European potentate, or chained in the same galley with Switzerland or Holland, to do the Directory's bidding. That, besides this unfounded fear, operated the desire of ultra-Federalists to take revenge upon those presses which had assailed the British treaty and other pet measures, and abused Federal leaders; and the determination to entrench themselves in authority by forcibly disbanding an opposition party which attracted a readier support at the polls from the oppressed of other countries, no candid writer can at this day question."

1798

It was next the turn of the Republicans to blunder. In November, 1798, the Kentucky Legislature passed a series of resolutions, drawn up by John Breckenridge upon a sketch by Jefferson, in effect declaring the alien and sedition acts not law, but altogether void and of no force. In December the Virginia Legislature put forth a similar series by Madison, milder in tone and more cautiously expressed, denouncing those acts as "palpable and alarming infractions of the Constitution." A year after their first utterance, the Kentucky law-makers further "resolved that the several States who formed (the Constitution), being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under color of that instrument, is the rightful remedy." Virginia again declared it a State's right "to interpose" in such cases.

These resolutions were intended to stir reflection and influence opinion, and, if  possible, elicit a concurrent request to Congress from the various States to repeal the obnoxious acts. They do not hint at the use of force. Their execration of the hated laws is none too strong, and their argument as a whole is masterly and unanswerable. But at least those of Kentucky suggest, if they do not contain, a doctrine respecting the Constitution which is untenable and baneful, in kernel the same that threatened secession in Jackson's time and brought it in Buchanan's. The State, as such, is not a party to the Constitution. Still less is the Legislature. Nor is either, but the Supreme Court, the judge whether in any case the fundamental law has been infringed.

Procuring the resolutions, however, proved a crafty political move. The enormity of the despicable acts was advertised as never before, while the endorsement of them by federalist legislators went upon record. Petitions for repeal came in so numerous and numerously signed that the VIth Congress could not but raise a committee to consider such action. It reported adversely, and the report was accepted, the majority in the House, fifty-two to forty-eight, trying contemptuously to cough down every speaker lifting his voice on the opposite side.

1799

This sullen obstinacy in favor of a miserable experiment sealed the doom of Federalism. In vain did the party orators plead that liberty of speech and the press is not license, but only the right to utter "the truth," that hence this liberty was not abridged by the acts in question, and that aliens had no constitutional rights, but enjoyed the privileges of the land only by favor. The fact remained, more and more appreciated by ordinary people, that a land ruled by such maxims could never be free.

So a deep distrust of Federalism sprung up, as out of sympathy with popular government. It was furthered by the attachment of prominent Federalists to England. Several of them are on record as ready to involve the United States in an expedition planned by one Miranda, to conquer Spanish America in aid of Great Britain, Spain and ourselves being perfectly at peace. The federalist chieftains were too proud, ignoring too much the common voter. They often expressed doubt, too, as to the permanence of popular institutions. Federalism had too close affinity with Puritanism to suit many outside New England. And then--deadly to the party even had nothing else concurred--there was a quarrel among its leaders. Hamilton, the Essex Junto (Pickering, Cabot, Quincy, Otis), and their supporters were set against Adams and his friends. This rivalry of long standing was brought to a head by Adams's noble and self-sacrificing independence in accepting France's overtures for peace, when Hamilton, Pickering, King, and all the rest, out of private or party interest rather than patriotism, wished war.

1800

Toward 1800, Democracy bade fair soon to come into power, but the Federalists learned no wisdom. Rather were they henceforth more factious than ever, opposing Jefferson and Madison even when they acted on purely federalist principles. Tooth and nail they fought against the acquisition of Louisiana, the War of 1812, and the protective tariff of 1816, which was carried by Republicans. A worse spirit still was shown in their disunion scheme of 1804, after the purchase of Louisiana, and in the Hartford Convention of 1814. Federalism had further lost ground by its mean and revolutionary devices on resigning power in 1801, first to make Burr President instead of Jefferson, and, failing in this, to use its expiring authority in creating needless offices for its clients.

In consequence of such ill-advised steps, federalist strength waned apace. In 1804 Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland alone chose federalist electors, the last only two such. In 1808 these were joined by the remaining New England States, North Carolina also casting three federalist votes. In 1812, indeed, Clinton received eighty-nine votes to Madison's one hundred and twenty-eight; but in 1816 again only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware were federalist. In 1820 not a State had a federalist majority. State elections in Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware, and Connecticut commonly went federalist till 1820, and in Massachusetts till 1823, when the Republicans swept this commonwealth too, Essex County and all.

Yet Federalism did not die without fixing its stamp indelibly upon our institutions. Not to mention the Whig and the modern Republican Parties, close reproductions of it, or the public credit, its child, methods of administration passed with little change from Adams to Jefferson and his successors, and federalist principles modified the entire temper, and directed in no small degree the action, of the Democratic Party while in power. The nation was exalted more, state rights subordinated, and the Constitution construed ever more broadly. Thus there was silently and gradually imparted to our governmental fabric a consistency and a solidity which were of incalculable worth against storms to come.


 

Editors Note: Although this article is about the Decline of the Federalist Party of the 18th century, one cannot but wonder if it reflects today's political party system, only this time the party in decline is the Democratic Party. I believe this is mainly due to the party leaders  insistence on ignoring the United States Constitution  or at least maintaining a very loose interpretation of its precepts. Or could it be because the party leaders have been heavily influenced by the Leftist ideas of the Socialistic leaning countries of Europe. Express  your opinion by commenting on the Facebook comment box below. Also, share this article with your friends.