By William E. (Bill) White
Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. James Madison sat in the Fifth Virginia Convention. James Monroe served in the Continental army and was wounded at the Battle of Trenton. All Virginians. All Revolutionaries. All Patriots. And all destined to become President of the United States.
Yet by 1796, all were estranged from America’s first president, George Washington. What divided these men and spawned rancor, partisan politics and personal attacks?
George Washington was Jefferson’s elder by 11 years. He was 19 years older than Madison and senior to Monroe by 26 years. Americans then and now revere Washington as the hero who secured American independence. He was a commanding figure who carefully crafted his public persona. He saw himself as Cincinnatus, the Roman general called from private life to defeat the city’s enemies. After Cincinnatus led Rome to victory in only 15 days, he retired again from public life and returned to his farm. Like his hero, Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief. In 1783, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, Washington went back to Mount Vernon.
Madison helped coax Washington back into public life to preside over the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — and into a maelstrom of political divisions that would tear at the fabric of relationships built in the cause of independence.
Madison, one of the architects of the Constitution, lobbied for ratification and Washington lent his endorsement. But Antifederalist forces, who feared the power of a new federal government and wanted the states to retain more authority, were bent on derailing the document. Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, penned the Federalist Papers to defend the proposed Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, then serving as minister to France, kept abreast of the debate. While advocating the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution, he also declared the Federalist Papers to be the “best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.”
Monroe, however, was no fan. He joined the ranks of Antifederalists including Patrick Henry and George Mason. Despite their efforts, the Constitution was ratified and Washington was unanimously elected president. Though they disagreed about the new Constitution, these men dedicated themselves to the new Republic. Jefferson returned from France and became secretary of state. Monroe represented Virginia in the Senate. Madison, a Washington confidant and adviser — and a Federalist — won a seat in the House of Representatives.
But the tensions that surfaced during the ratification debate did not disappear. And soon, the French Revolution would deepen those divisions.
Federalists wanted strong centralized government. Antifederalists — many of whom would soon take on the mantle of Republicans or Democratic Republicans — continued to work to limit the new federal government’s power. The factions formed early behind Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Republican Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s plan to assume the states’ Revolutionary War debts, establish a national bank and create a national economic program was vehemently opposed by Jefferson.
Jefferson, newly returned from France, had close ties to the revolutionaries there. A witness to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Jefferson saw the French Revolution as an extension of the American Revolution. France had aided Americans in their struggle. Now the United States should stand with the French people and support their quest for freedom, he believed.
Across America, clubs formed to celebrate the revolutionary values of America and France.
For the Federalists, however, the French Revolution was a prime example of a mob run amok. The chaos and upheaval of France’s Reign of Terror demonstrated why the United States needed strong national government.
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in western Pennsylvania reinforced for Federalists the danger of the mob. As during the American Revolution, protesters harassed and threatened tax officials, but this time it was Washington who led the militia army and put down the rebellion. When he returned to Philadelphia, his annual address to Congress criticized “certain self-created societies” — republican societies — that supported revolution, incited protesters and threatened government authority. Federalists applauded the president’s firm words, but Madison was incredulous that Washington would censure political discourse and civic engagement.
Support for revolutionary France turned foreign affairs into a divisive issue, as well. Washington struggled to steer a neutral course and keep the new Nation from being caught up in the age-old antagonism between Great Britain and France. The two countries were again at war and each wanted an American alliance. A French diplomat, Edmond-Charles Genêt, buoyed by American popular opinion, openly defied Washington. Genêt lobbied for an end to United States’ neutrality and advocated for an open alliance with France.
Meanwhile, the U.S. relationship with Britain was also strained. The British navy confiscated American shipping destined for French ports and impressed American sailors into British service. Despite this, Federalists sought stronger commercial ties with the British Empire and a condemnation of French revolutionary excesses.
Well aware that the young Nation could not afford an alliance with either the French or the British, Washington kept both at arm’s length.
Washington named Monroe minister to France in 1794 and Monroe was welcomed warmly when he spoke before the French National Convention. Washington also sent John Jay to Great Britain with instructions to negotiate. In the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation (or “Jay Treaty” as it became known) the British gave up their Great Lakes region fortifications and paid $11 million in damages to American shipping. Americans agreed to pay 600,000 pounds — or nearly $800,000 — in debt incurred to British merchants before the Revolution. Americans also received most-favored-nation trading status with Britain and pledged not to interfere with Britain’s anti-French maritime policies.
The Jay Treaty fueled Republican fears that somehow the young country was slipping back toward monarchy — and toward the British. One newspaper charged that Washington was working “insidiously” to destroy the alliance with revolutionary France and draw the Nation more closely to the British king. It speculated that Federalists would name Washington king. Another newspaper lampooned Jay’s subservience to King George III.
May’t please your highness, I John J—Y
Have travell’d all this mighty way,
To inquire if you, good Lord will please,
To suffer me while on my knees,
To shew all others I surpass
In love — by kissing of your -------
Jefferson resigned as secretary of state in December 1793 and was succeeded by another Virginian, Edmund Randolph, as political infighting increased. In August 1795, the British navy intercepted French correspondence, including a letter suggesting that Randolph could be bribed to support French interests. Secretary of War Timothy Pickering accused Randolph of treason. During the confrontation among Randolph, Pickering and Washington, Randolph resigned and Pickering became secretary of state.
For Republicans, it was yet another sign that the national government was pro-British.
In France, Monroe was caught off guard by the Jay Treaty announcement — Washington had kept him in the dark. Monroe, like Jefferson and Madison, was pro-French. Washington recalled his minister to France in November 1796, frustrated that Monroe had not done enough to convince the French that the Jay Treaty posed no threat to their interests.
Despite controversy, the Senate confirmed the treaty in June 1795 with a two-thirds majority, but the treaty was very unpopular in the House of Representatives. Republicans pushed through a resolution in March 1796 demanding that the president deliver to the House Jay’s original instructions and subsequent correspondence. Washington was livid. He lectured representatives on executive prerogative, the Constitution and the treaty-making powers of the president and Senate.
In the House, Republicans launched a campaign to undercut the treaty. If they could not nullify it, they would kill it by refusing to appropriate the 600,000 pounds needed to pay British debts. In addition, partisans saw an opportunity to incite popular anti-British sentiment and elect a Republican president in 1796. Madison led the House battle, but as the debate dragged on he conceded that the “Tories” and “monarchists” were winning. Vote by vote, Federalists assembled the support they needed. A shocked Madison informed Jefferson that the Republican cause was “crippled” and that Federalists controlled the national government. Angry with Madison, Washington broke off all contact with the legislator.
Though no longer secretary of state, Jefferson still worked the political backrooms. He skillfully used the press and his political contacts to lobby against Hamilton, the Washington administration and the Jay Treaty. During the summer of 1796, sources identified Jefferson as the author of malicious remarks against Washington. Jefferson wrote to the president and denied the reports. Washington’s response made clear that Jefferson was no longer counted as a friend. The break between Washington and Jefferson was complete.
Monroe, criticized by Washington and recalled from France, published a book, encouraged — and coached — by Jefferson. A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States condemned Washington’s handling of foreign affairs. The president fumed. The copious notes and comments he scribbled in the margins heaped ridicule on Monroe and Republicans.
Washington left the presidency in March 1797 personally wounded, his carefully crafted character questioned by a significant portion of the Nation he served.
Though Washington found faction, rancor, political infighting and personal attacks as insidious and dangerous, they were, in fact, essential to the difficult and confusing work at hand. Shaping the new Nation could not happen without controversy. The Nation could not have been founded without Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and their passionate — though divergent — views about the future of the Republic. They were separated as Federalists and Republicans, but they were all Virginians. All Patriots. They were, despite what they said about each other, loyal to their new Nation. And they were all destined to serve a Nation of divided people, engaged in passionate and necessary debate.
William E. (Bill) White is an American historian, author and civics educator. Retired after a 50-year career at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, he is a senior fellow in American Studies at Christopher Newport University, where he also teaches history.
(From left) James Monroe, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Credits: Library of Congress (Monroe, Washington and Jefferson); New York Public Library (Madison).
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