The Sedition Act


Word Count: 2107

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