CHAPTER 15. A VAIN ATTEMPT TO THWART THE WHITE MIDDLE CLASS:

JEFFERSONIAN RESISTANCE

The myth of the genius of the founding fathers is no better illustrated than in the small-mindedness of the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. The Virginian felt that only the small, property-owning farmers could be the basis for a strong democracy. This placed him in the middle of two opposing forces that were much more in tune with future political events than Jefferson's farmers. On the one hand, Jefferson opposed the Federalists, who represented the upper class and therefore sought a bigger role for government (so government could aid the building of an effective capitalist system). On the other hand, Jefferson opposed the growing Jacksonian movement of the landless, the workers, and the western settlers. Jefferson worked out a course for government that was suitable only if the small farmers retained their relative political position. But he designed a government for a rapidly disappearing breed of citizens. His system of government could not and would not last the onslaught of Jacksonian democracy.

This chapter is the story of a middle-class revolution that might have been, for Thomas Jefferson seemed the perfect candidate to lead the nation to an increase in equality. After all, who could be more qualified than the author of the Declaration of Independence? But Jefferson did not favor the granting of electoral power to white middle-class males. He foresaw that the Jacksonian revolution could undue most of his life's work and he fought a delaying action against its inevitable ascendancy and the overturning of his form of government.

PART I. THE ATTEMPT TO INCREASE EQUALITY

We have mentioned how the developing struggle between the merchants and burgeoning industrialists (represented by Alexander Hamilton) on the one hand and the farmers (represented by Thomas Jefferson) on the other developed within Washington's cabinet. Hamilton wanted to promote the development of manufacturing, the spread of commerce and the national bank, and national unity. Unfortunately, he also made controversial remarks praising monarchy, which made him very unpopular in the developing republic (Morison 1972, 2:47).

Jefferson, because he represented the farmers, sought to limit the powers of the federal government. He did not trust the capitalists, and therefore did not want to see federal power increased. Jefferson felt the upper class would use the federal government to destroy the fragile, developing democracy. Nevertheless, the Virginian wanted to keep the nation one of independent farmers, saying this was necessary for democracy. However, he believed the farmers should be led by educated representatives promoting their interests.

ECONOMIC AND DEMOGRAPHIC FORCES

The growing white middle class found its political ambitions increasingly frustrated under Jeffersonian democracy. This group had little direct influence on the political process because democratic access to voting was restricted by land, property, and taxpaying requirements (see Coit 1963, 3:56). In Maryland and the Carolinas, in order to vote one had to possess fifty acres of land; in South Carolina, one had to believe in God and divine punishment; and in Massachusetts, voters had to own property. There were other property restrictions on access to political participation. For instance, in order to be elected to the South Carolina legislature, one had to own 500 acres of land and 10 slaves. The time was ripe for a politician able to galvanize the nation to eliminate these electoral restrictions on democracy.

MIDDLE CLASS SQUEEZE

Hamilton returned to private life following his role in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. (He had led the federal army against farmers in western Pennsylvania, who had rebelled against a tax on whiskey. The rebels fled at the first sight of the government forces.) But Washington relied on Hamilton so much (even though he was no longer a government official) that Hamilton virtually ran the departments of War, Treasury, and State.

President John Adams made the wrong choice when he decided to continue Washington's cabinet. Through the cabinet officers, Hamilton continued to direct much of the governmental action. Hamilton's support for war with France created a rift in the Federalist ranks between the Adams and Hamilton factions. A quasi-naval war did develop with France, but it never escalated into a full-scale war.

Out of necessity, the founding fathers had created a weak government. And at every turn there was evidence of this, for whenever serious disputes arose, there was talk of secession. This secessionary talk started early in the second half of John Adams's administration, in what Democratic-Republicans called the "Federalist Reign of Terror." The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 increased the number of years needed for an alien to become a U.S. citizen and gave the president the power to deport any foreigner thought to be dangerous to the nation. Vehemently opposed to these acts, Jefferson and Madison backed states' rights. They thought each state could decide when an act of the government was unconstitutional; indeed, that each state could declare a federal law null and void. The Kentucky legislature adopted Jefferson's ideas, and the Virginia legislature adopted those of Madison. These state legislatures passed what are now known as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Virginia went so far as to imply that a state had the right to interpose state authority between the federal government and the individual citizen.

Not much was being accomplished politically and what was getting done was for the benefit of the Federalists and the upper class. Under the influence of Hamilton, the Federalists put the interests of the mercantile and business interests squarely at the center of the national agenda. The secretary of the treasury, by funding the national debt through the national bank as well as by subsidiary policies, aided the upper class while placing much of the tax burden on planters and farmers (Hofstadter 1973:41). The farmers and the Democratic-Republicans perceived the Federalist reign of terror as an attempt by the federal government to usurp power, and they wanted the rascals out. The stage was set for the ascendancy of the white middle class.

EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY (LIBERAL VERSION)

The idea system used to justify the move toward a more egalitarian direction was that of intellectual democracy (Curti 1982:130- 134). Borrowing from the great philosopher John Locke, liberals such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson argued that intellectual life should be available to all because this was necessary for a healthy republic. And included in intellectual life were opportunities for access to public education as well as to culture. This argument opposed that of conservatives like John Adams, who thought there was a natural aristocracy of talent that should have special access to education and culture.

ELECTION OF A STRONG PRESIDENT AND A MORE LIBERAL CONGRESS

In the 1800 congressional elections the Democratic-Republicans obtained an emphatic majority. Jefferson became the new president. This event marked a fundamental transfer of power from the merchants of New England and Philadelphia to the farmers of the South and the developing merchants of New York (see Morison 1972, 2:83). The Federalists now had control only of the judiciary, and Jefferson would soon attack this stronghold.

ABORTED EQUALITY

Contrary to the expectations of many, once in office Jefferson did very little to democratize the nation. Hofstadter (1973: chap. 2) has an excellent analysis of the source of Jefferson's political paralysis. Not fully trusting democracy and saddled with a belief in laissez-faire, Jefferson provided no plans to improve the situation for the agrarian class that he philosophically believed was so important to democracy.

More important, Jefferson saw that the political ambitions of the white middle class would overthrow much of the governmental innovations for which he had worked so hard. Instead of planning change, Jefferson contented himself with following the principles established by Hamilton. And most important, he did not touch the limitations on voting. He did manage to abolish the excise duties that had stirred up the Whiskey Rebellion, but Jefferson also allowed the First Bank of the United States to die on the expiration of its charter.

Jefferson himself referred to his assumption of the presidency as a revolution, but he meant this primarily in the political sense that there was a peaceful transfer of power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans. As president, however, the Virginian was so distrustful of the potential power of the president's office that he even refused to use the executive's veto power (Cunningham 1987:166).

Another reason for Jefferson's paralysis can be found in his personality (Hofstadter 1973:31-32). He was very shy (a shyness aggravated by a slight speech defect) and retiring. He hated political controversy and was extremely sensitive to criticism. (An Andrew Jackson he was not. Indeed, Jackson's temper caused Jefferson to conclude that the man from Tennessee was not fit for political office.)

Jefferson tried to convert New England to Democratic- Republicanism, which only resulted in the embitterment of the Federalists. Around 1803, a number of leaders in Massachusetts and Connecticut began to plan a Northern Confederacy of New England and New York. When Hamilton refused to cooperate with this clique, the plotters turned to Vice-President Aaron Burr (Morison 1972, 2:94). Burr's subsequent actions definitely turned Hamilton against the vice-president. In the election of 1804 Hamilton advised his fellow Federalists to vote against Burr in his bid for the presidency. (In the presidential vote Burr had tied with Jefferson because of the nondistinction at that time between votes for president and vice- president.) Jefferson won the election and a ruined Burr demanded satisfaction from Hamilton. The two opponents fought a duel in July 1804 in which Hamilton received a fatal wound.

ROLE OF CONGRESS AND SUPREME COURT

Thomas Jefferson may have opposed the notion of executive supremacy as voiced by Hamilton and the early Federalists, but he did assert his leadership over the new Democratic-Republican majority in the House and Senate (Boinville 1982:102-103, 207). He was able to pass considerable legislation partly because issues of the day were decided behind the scenes in closed caucuses of the majority party. He certainly did not begin a political revolution, in fact, he delayed one.

As one of his last acts in office, President John Adams in early 1801 had appointed Secretary of State John Marshall to the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court. Years later, the former president remarked that "my gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life." Once on the bench, Marshall defied President Jefferson in "Marbury v. Madison." Secretary of State Madison had refused to deliver a commission for justice of the peace for the District of Columbia to Justice William Marbury. Marbury sued Madison for the commission. Siding with Marbury, the case allowed Marshall to rule that the Constitution was more powerful than acts of Congress.

In retaliation, Jefferson moved against certain federal judges. He even wanted to purge the Supreme Court and appoint his own justices. With the president's backing, the Democratic-Republicans tried to remove Justice Samuel Chase from the Supreme Court. The House of Representatives presented the judge for impeachment, but the impeachment proceedings failed.

During the period, the Supreme Court decided a number of cases that determined the judicial principles of the supremacy of the nation, the rule of law, and the sanctity of property. Through these decisions, the court justices supported the more conservative ideas of Federalist President Adams, who had appointed many of them.

Actually, the appointment of John Marshall was a mixed blessing. The new chief justice worked to establish the fundamental principles for the interpretation of the constitution. By doing so, he strengthened the national government over the state governments. But Marshall distrusted the people and helped make the Supreme Court a very conservative institution devoted to protecting the rights of property owners against the rising middle class.

PART II. CONSERVATIVE REACTION

MIDDLE CLASS THREATENED

The white middle class could never really accept Jefferson because he was so opposed to their political ascendancy. Talking of revolution, but not following through, Jefferson alienated a considerable portion of the middle class while failing to rally forces to his own cause. The fight with John Marshall represented the high mark of the Jeffersonian administration. Thereafter, the forces behind federalism rallied with the Federalists gaining renewed life when Jefferson made his greatest political blunder.

England had been engaging in activities that would eventually lead to the War of 1812. During Jefferson's second term, Congress passed the Embargo Act in order to strangle England by economic sanctions. This act proved so unpopular in New England that the region became solidly Federalist. A threatened New England convention for nullification of the act led Jefferson to sign the repeal of the act three days before his retirement to Monticello.

EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY (CONSERVATIVE VERSION)

The conservative period saw the resurgence of the laissez-faire ideas of the Scottish philosophers (Curti 1982:228). Philosophers such as Thomas Reid, Thomas Brown, and Dugald Stewart pushed the ideas of John Locke into the background. Especially important was the philosophy of Reid because he fought to reinstate God in Lockean philosophy. American conservatives also latched on to the growing Romantic movement for their justifications. Romanticism was a revolt against the Enlightenment and emphasized the importance of personal feelings as opposed to rationality. This stress on individual freedom complemented laissez-faire's emphasis on the importance of government not intervening in economic life.

ELECTION OF A CONSERVATIVE PRESIDENT AND A CONSERVATIVE CONGRESS

Two other Virginians followed in Jefferson's footsteps: James Madison (elected 1808 and 1812) and James Monroe (elected 1816 and 1820). Madison never enjoyed the support from the nation that Jefferson did at one time. Under Madison, the young nation fought Great Britain in the War of 1812, which has been called the Second War for American Independence. Further confirmation of weak American government came during that war when the New England states threatened to secede. The threat backfired and tolled the death knell for the Federalist party. Ever afterward, Americans saw the party as disloyal to the nation.

James Monroe became president in 1817. The nation was tired of war and began a period of relative quiet. The relative calm permitted historians to refer to the period as the Era of Good Feelings. Neither Madison or Monroe took legislative leadership. Both men found themselves handicapped by their obligations to the congressional caucuses that had nominated them for the presidency.

 

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