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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Adams avoided war and thereby split his party


Had

a Presidential election then been what it became later, a direct appeal to the popular vote, it is probable that Jefferson would have been the second President of the United States. But the Electoral College was still a reality, and its majority leant to Federalism. Immeasurably the ablest man among the Federalists was Hamilton, but for many reasons he was not an "available" choice. He was not a born American. He had made many and formidable personal enemies even within the party. Perhaps the shadow on his birth was a drawback; perhaps also the notorious freedom of his private life--for the strength of the party lay in Puritan New England. At any rate the candidate whom the Federalists backed and succeeded in electing was John Adams of Massachusetts. By the curiously unworkable rule, soon repealed, of the original Constitution, which gave the Vice-Presidency to the candidate who had the second largest number of votes, Jefferson found himself elected to that office under a President representing everything to which he was opposed.

John Adams was an honest man and sincerely loved his country. There his merits ended. He was readily quarrelsome, utterly without judgment and susceptible to that mood of panic in which mediocre persons are readily induced to act the "strong man." During his administration a new quarrel arose with France--a quarrel in which once again those responsible for that country's diplomacy played the game of her enemies. Genet

had merely been an impracticable and impatient enthusiast. Talleyrand, who under the Directory took charge of foreign affairs, was a scamp; and, clever as he was, was unduly contemptuous of America, where he had lived for a time in exile. He attempted to use the occasion of the appearance of an American Mission in Paris to wring money out of America, not only for the French Treasury, but for his own private profit and that of his colleagues and accomplices. A remarkable correspondence, which fully revealed the blackmailing attempt made by the agents of the French Government on the representatives of the United States, known as the "X.Y.Z." letters, was published and roused the anger of the whole country. "Millions for defence but not a cent for tribute" was the universal catchword. Hamilton would probably have seized the opportunity to go to war with France with some likelihood of a national backing. Adams avoided war and thereby split his party, but he did not avoid steps far more certain than a war to excite the hostility of democratic America. His policy was modelled upon the worst of the panic-bred measures by means of which Pitt and his colleagues were seeking to suppress "Jacobinism" in England. Such a policy was odious anywhere; in a democracy it was also insane. Further the Aliens Law and the Sedition Law which he induced Congress to pass were in flagrant and obvious violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. They were barely through Congress when the storm broke on their authors. Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, saw that his hour was come. He put himself at the head of the opposition and found a whole nation behind him.

Kentucky, carved out of the western territory and newly grown to Statehood, took the lead of resistance. For her legislature Jefferson drafted the famous "Kentucky Resolutions," which condemned the new laws as unconstitutional (which they were) and refused to allow them to be administered within her borders. On the strength of these resolutions Jefferson has been described as the real author of the doctrine of "Nullification": and technically this may be true. Nevertheless there is all the difference in the world between the spirit of the Kentucky Resolutions and that of "Nullification," as South Carolina afterwards proclaimed its legitimacy. About the former there was nothing sectional. It was not pretended that Kentucky had any peculiar and local objection to the Sedition Law, or was standing against the other States in resisting it. She was vindicating a freedom common to all the States, valued by all and menaced in all. She claimed that she was making herself the spokesman of the other States in the same fashion as Hampden made himself the spokesman of the other great landed proprietors in resisting taxation by the Crown.


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