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 (the future architect
of the Republican Party) 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 (Congress was to
raise and support armies,) 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
with Elbridge Gerry staying behind to see if he could work
something out. This became known as the XYZ affair and was the
beginning of an undeclared naval war between France and the
United States.

The XYZ affair played right into the hands of the Federalist
Party. They immediately renounced all treaties of 1788 with
France and began their agenda of creating a large standing army
and a Navy Department to deal with the threat of an American-
French war. Fear and patriotism were fanned and a strong anti-
French sentiment swept the land. Then