The Sedition Act of 1798
For the first few years of Constitutional government, under the leadership of George Washington, there was a unity, commonly called Federalism that even James Madison acknowledged in describing the Republican form of government– “ And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.” Although legislators had serious differences of opinions, political unity was considered absolutely essential for the stability of the nation. Political parties or factions were considered evil as “Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority…” Public perception of factions were related to British excesses and thought to be “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” James Madison wrote in Federalist Papers #10, “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He went on to explain that faction is part of human nature; “that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.”
The significant point Madison was to make in this essay was that the Union was a safeguard against factions in that even if “the influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, they will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” What caused men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to defy tradition and public perceptions against factions and build an opposition party? Did they finally agree with Edmund Burkes’ famous aphorism: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle?” Did the answer lie in their opposition with the agenda of Alexander Hamilton and the increases of power both to the executive branch as well as the legislative branch of government?
Hamilton pushed for The Bank of the United States, a large standing Army raised by the President a Department of Navy, funding and excise taxes, and, in foreign policy, a neutrality that was sympathetic to British interest to the detriment of France. Many legislators, especially those in the south, were alarmed to the point that a separation of the Union was suggested as the only way to deal with Hamilton’s successes. Many were afraid that the army would be used against them as it had during the Whiskey Rebellion. Southerners saw the taxes to support a new treasury loan favoring “pro-British merchants in the commercial cities,” and unfairly paid by landowners in the South.
These issues as well as neutrality issues between France, England, and the United States were the catalyst for the forming of the Republican Party. The French and English conflict caused many problems with America’s political system. The English “Order of Council” and the French “Milan Decree” wreaked havoc with America’s shipping and led to Jay’s Treaty of 1794. Jay’s Treaty was advantageous to America and helped to head off a war with Britain, but it also alienated the French. The French reacted by seizing American ships causing the threat of war to loom large in American minds.
President Adams sent three commissioners to France to work out a solution and to modify the Franco-American alliance of 1778, but the Paris government asked for bribes and a loan from the United States before negotiations could even begin. The American commissioners refused to pay the bribes and they were denied an audience with accredited authorities and even treated with contempt. Two of the commissioners returned to the United States
The Sedition Act of 1798