The American Revolution of 1800: How Jefferson Rescued Democracy from Tyranny and Faction-and What This Means Today

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In this brilliant historical classic, Dan Sisson provides the definitive window into key concepts that have formed the backdrop of our democracy: the nature of revolution, stewardship of power, liberty, and the ever-present danger of factions and tyranny. Most contemporary historians celebrate Jefferson's victory over Adams in 1800 as the beginning of the two-party system, but Sisson believes this reasoning is entirely the wrong lesson. Jefferson saw his election as a peaceful revolution by the American people overturning an elitist faction that was stamping out cherished constitutional rights and trying to transform our young democracy into an authoritarian state. If anything, our current two-party system is a repudiation of Jefferson's theory of revolution and his earnest desire that the people as a whole, not any faction or clique, would triumph in government. Sisson's book makes clear that key ideas of the American Revolution did not reach their full fruition until the "Revolution of 1800," to which we owe the preservation of many of our key rights. With contributions by Thom Hartmann that bring out the book's contemporary relevance, this fortieth anniversary edition contains new insights and reflections on how Jefferson's vision can help us in our own era of polarization, corruption, government overreach, and gridlock.

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Introduction

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IT IS RARE WHEN A BOOK ABOUT OUR EARLY REPUBLIC IS RELEVANT forty years after it was originally published. It is rarer still when that book provides insight into national problems we refuse to solve two centuries later.

You are therefore holding in your hands (or reading on your pad or computer) one of the most important books you will ever encounter. Here is why: Unlike other histories of this era, this book is written from a revolutionary perspective much like Jefferson’s generation viewed the world.

The American Revolution of 1800 was not just about an election. It was about a life-and-death struggle for power between democratic-republican principles and oligarchic-plutocratic values based on corruption. In short, this book, by implication, is about the identical crisis America faces today.

The author’s unique analysis is based on the idea of faction controlling party and how both undermine constitutional government. In an age where modern parties and the factions that control them have paralyzed our government, this book validates the politics of the Founders.

 

Chapter 1 The Idea of a Non-party State

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For it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party.

—Thomas Paine, 1795

SO OFTEN IN THE PAST CENTURY, THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF America reveals a paralysis in the highest levels of our government. Legislation fails to pass, budgets are voted down, compromise seems impossible, and the problems of the nation are neither addressed nor solved. There have been brief periods, of course, when this was not the case: the New Deal is usually held up as an example of a time when American politicians came together to fundamentally transform the nature and the political landscape of our country. But in the generations since then, more often than not we have seen gridlock rather than collaboration.

“That’s the way it should be!” says conventional wisdom. “The Founders of our country, the men who wrote the Constitution, wanted there to be a ‘loyal opposition’ to serve as a ‘balance’ against excessive power in the hands of any one political party or even a president.”

Not only is this not true but this pervasive myth has done considerable harm to our nation—and continues to do so.

 

Chapter 2 The Idea of Revolution

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But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.

— John Adams to Hezekiah Niles February 13, 1813

The revolution of 1800…was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.

— Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane September 6, 1819

WHILE IT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS CHAPTER TO DEMONSTRATE the continuity of revolutionary ideas from the 1760s through the 1790s, I intend to analyze the idea of revolution during the period after the Constitutional Convention and refer to the period before 1787 only when necessary. Anyone who has read Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution will realize that to begin my narration in the 1760s would be mere repetition. Indeed those who are revolutionary “quick-witted” will have already noted, by their perusal of the table of contents, my indebtedness to Bailyn’s masterful work.

 

Chapter 3 The Idea of Revolution: Conspiracy and Counterrevolution

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Every republic at all times has it[s] Catalines and its Caesars.

—Alexander Hamilton, 1792

THE ROLE OF CONSPIRACY AS THE BREEDING GROUND FOR RESIStance and revolution is known to every student of early American history. For conspiracy, as a latent behavioral trait and characteristic of the American mind, was a part of the birthing of the new nation. But the literature of American history dealing with conspiracy antedates even that founding act.

The 1770s, for example, were filled with constant charges by English and American pamphleteers of the British ministry “having formed a conspiracy against the liberties of their country.”1

The wide belief in the idea of conspiracy, which gained easy acceptance in America, and the relationship it has to revolution can be translated as follows: the fundamental rights of all citizens under the Constitution, and indeed the Constitution itself, are endangered; and tyranny, in the guise of a few unscrupulous men seeking power, threatens.

A fear then arises that the principles by which the laws operate are under assault. The additional fear that the laws are being corrupted, whether they are or not, nevertheless appears real and serves to trigger a right to revolution in the minds of the people.

 

Chapter 4 The Principles of the American and French Revolutions

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That the principles of [the] American [Revolution] opened the Bastille is not to be doubted.

— Thomas Paine to George Washington May 1, 1790

ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL POLITICAL EVENTS IN AMERICA during the decade of the 1790s was undoubtedly the French Revolution. It was so influential that, in Jefferson’s words, “the form our own government was to take depended much more on the events of France than anybody had before imagined.”1

None other than John Marshall agreed with Jefferson in his assessment of the importance of the French Revolution in America. It was a cataclysmic event, “the admiration, the wonder, and the terror of the civilized world,” and it made such an impression on Americans and how they viewed the idea of revolution that it is impossible to comprehend the Revolution of 1800 without considering its influence.

We tend to forget, viewing that event from a distance of more than two hundred years, that the upheaval in France was seen as a direct outgrowth of the American Revolution. And because its results were so radically different in its violence and social consequences from all prior revolutions, we forget too that it had its origins in the principles of the American Revolution.

 

Chapter 5 The Politics of Faction

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Faction is to party what the superlative is to the positive: Party is a political evil, and faction is the worst of all parties.

— Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke The Idea of a Patriot King

The violence of faction is the mortal disease under which popular governments have everywhere perished.

— James Madison, Federalist No. 10

THUS FAR WE HAVE EXPLORED THE PRINCIPLES OF THE ONE-PARTY state and of revolution and have examined the ideas, as well as the fears, of conspiracy and counterrevolution. We have seen that leading politicians believed they were observing the development of administrative, political, and revolutionary models that were similar, if not identical, to those in England and the revolutionary period of the colonies. These statements would imply that the American political system as it developed from 1787 to 1801 was not, at least in the minds of the actors, materially different from what they had known.

The political system, in the context of its basic ideological conflicts, remained largely unchanged from the early 1770s to 1800. And this hypothesis, if true, contradicts the conclusion of every American historian to the present.

 

Chapter 6 The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Threats to the First Amendment

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There is in these States a faction, a numerous and desperate faction, resolved on the overthrow of the Federal Government; and the man who will not allow that there is danger to be apprehended, is either too great a fool to perceive it, or too great a coward to encounter it.

—Porcupine’s Gazette, 1799

BY MID-1798 THE FEDERALISTS AND JOHN ADAMS’S ADMINISTRAtion had reached the high-water mark of their popularity. Bathed in the glow of the XYZ Affair and the enthusiastic support that incident created, the Hamiltonians and the supporters of John Adams combined to pursue a plan that, considered in its entirety, appeared threatening to anyone who opposed a consolidation of power in the national government.

A navy department had been established, the army had been expanded, a direct tax law had been passed, Hamilton was appointed inspector general of the United States Army, government loans to support the military were announced, and finally, the Naturalization Act of 1798 and the Alien Act were passed, so it was thought, to intimidate the most vocal opponents of the administration.

 

Chapter 7 The Politics of the Revolution of 1800: Prelude

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No measures will be too intemperate that tend to make the citizens revolutionary enough to make the man of 1775 the man of 1800.

— Fisher Ames, 1800

AS THE YEAR 1800 ARRIVED, ALEXANDER HAMILTON SKETCHED a political portrait of the republic in starkly prophetic terms. Addressing himself to the problem of faction, he lamented the loss of George Washington, expressed his pique with the president, assessed the condition of Federalist political disorganization, and then, announcing that the administration would ultimately prevail, proceeded to draw a specter of revolution:

At home every thing is in the main well; except as to the Perverseness and capriciousness of one and the spirit of faction of many.…

The spirit of Faction is abated nowhere. In Virginia it is more violent than ever. It seems demonstrated that the leaders there, who possess completely all the powers of the local Government, are resolved to possess those of the National, by the most dangerous combinations, and, if they cannot effect this, to resort to the employment of physical force.”1

 

Chapter 8 The Politics of the Revolution of 1800: Revolution

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“The progress of the horseman can only be proportioned to the speed of his horse.” Had Hamilton, the “commander-in-chief” of both houses of Congress, of all the five heads of departments of General Washington, and consequently of the President of the United States, been aware of your principle, and acted upon it, the revolution of 1801 would not have happened. There is…no exaggeration…in this language…it is strictly true.

— John Adams to James Lloyd April 24, 1815 (emphasis added)

THE COLLAPSE OF THE FEDERALISTS’ FAÇADE OF UNITY IMPROVED the republicans’ situation immensely. Yet it would be months before they realized their gain, and in the interim their opponents would be compelled to play out their intended roles. Generally recognizing their shared prospect for a dismal political future, the supporters of Alexander Hamilton appeared paralyzed. But the leader of the arch faction was determined to do something—anything—to revive his flagging power base.

Accordingly, Hamilton refined his attack on President John Adams and released it to a number of the Federalist leaders. He seemed to ignore and discount the clouded prediction of what such an attack would mean. His correspondence indicates that nearly every adviser disapproved. They appeared, almost to a man, to reflect the opinion of Fisher Ames, who believed that Adams had decided to aid Jefferson and scuttle the Federalists’ ambitions. Reinforcing Ames was George Cabot, who wrote early in August that “if Adams prevails,” it will be by his “sacrificing the old federal cause and all its advocates.”1

 

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