Sedition·com (mature content)
History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·CHAPTER IX · The Republicans and the Great West·»


Republican Principles and Policies

Opposition to Strong Central Government.—Cherishing especially the agricultural interest, as Jefferson said, the Republicans were in the beginning provincial in their concern and outlook. Their attachment to America was, certainly, as strong as that of Hamilton; but they regarded the state, rather than the national government, as the proper center of power and affection. Indeed, a large part of the rank and file had been among the opponents of the Constitution in the days of its adoption. Jefferson had entertained doubts about it and Monroe, destined to be the fifth President, had been one of the bitter foes of ratification. The former went so far in the direction of local autonomy that he exalted the state above the nation in the Kentucky resolutions of 1798, declaring the Constitution to be a mere compact and the states competent to interpret and nullify federal law. This was provincialism with a vengeance. “It is jealousy, not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions,” wrote Jefferson for the Kentucky legislature. Jealousy of the national government, not confidence in it—this is the ideal that reflected the provincial and agricultural interest.

Republican Simplicity.—Every act of the Jeffersonian party during its early days of power was in accord with the ideals of government which it professed. It had opposed all pomp and ceremony, calculated to give weight and dignity to the chief executive of the nation, as symbols of monarchy and high prerogative. Appropriately, therefore, Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, the first at the new capital at Washington, was marked by extreme simplicity. In keeping with this procedure he quit the practice, followed by Washington and Adams, of reading presidential addresses to Congress in joint assembly and adopted in its stead the plan of sending his messages in writing—a custom that was continued unbroken until 1913 when President Wilson returned to the example set by the first chief magistrate.

Republican Measures.—The Republicans had complained of a great national debt as the source of a dangerous “money power,” giving strength to the federal government; accordingly they began to pay it off as rapidly as possible. They had held commerce in low esteem and looked upon a large navy as a mere device to protect it; consequently they reduced the number of warships. They had objected to excise taxes, particularly on whisky; these they quickly abolished, to the intense satisfaction of the farmers. They had protested against the heavy cost of the federal government; they reduced expenses by discharging hundreds of men from the army and abolishing many offices.

They had savagely criticized the Sedition law and Jefferson refused to enforce it. They had been deeply offended by the assault on freedom of speech and press and they promptly impeached Samuel Chase, a justice of the Supreme Court, who had been especially severe in his attacks upon offenders under the Sedition Act. Their failure to convict Justice Chase by a narrow margin was due to no lack of zeal on their part but to the Federalist strength in the Senate where the trial was held. They had regarded the appointment of a large number of federal judges during the last hours of Adams’ administration as an attempt to intrench Federalists in the judiciary and to enlarge the sphere of the national government. Accordingly, they at once repealed the act creating the new judgeships, thus depriving the “midnight appointees” of their posts. They had considered the federal offices, civil and military, as sources of great strength to the Federalists and Jefferson, though committed to the principle that offices should be open to all and distributed according to merit, was careful to fill most of the vacancies as they occurred with trusted Republicans. To his credit, however, it must be said that he did not make wholesale removals to find room for party workers.

The Republicans thus hewed to the line of their general policy of restricting the weight, dignity, and activity of the national government. Yet there were no Republicans, as the Federalists asserted, prepared to urge serious modifications in the Constitution. “If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this union or to change its republican form,” wrote Jefferson in his first inaugural, “let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” After reciting the fortunate circumstances of climate, soil, and isolation which made the future of America so full of promise, Jefferson concluded: “A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement and shall not take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government; and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

In all this the Republicans had not reckoned with destiny. In a few short years that lay ahead it was their fate to double the territory of the country, making inevitable a continental nation; to give the Constitution a generous interpretation that shocked many a Federalist; to wage war on behalf of American commerce; to reëstablish the hated United States Bank; to enact a high protective tariff; to see their Federalist opponents in their turn discredited as nullifiers and provincials; to announce high national doctrines in foreign affairs; and to behold the Constitution exalted and defended against the pretensions of states by a son of old Virginia, John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

«·CHAPTER IX · The Republicans and the Great West·»