An American picks up a newspaper and reads of a new national crisis: Is it a foreign plot against America? Domestic unrest or violence in the streets of the capital? Is Congress stymied by party politics? Perhaps it’s the threat of involvement in another world war?
This is, of course, daily news in 2017; but it was also the daily fare in the 1790s. And in those fraught years, the United States was not a world power; it was a fledgling nation whose survival was in doubt.
It was the task of that decade’s two Federalist presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both to win the loyalty of Americans to the new national government and to gain an acknowledgment from European powers that the United States was indeed an independent, sovereign nation.
During his first administration, Washington faced a rebellion of angry western farmers who denied the federal Congress any right to tax them. He had to engage in a delicate negotiation with Great Britain to prevent a second war between the former Mother Country and its colonies. And he had to deal with a French minister who ran amok, ignoring Washington’s explicit declaration of neutrality in the war raging in Europe.
As Washington’s successor, Adams faced equally dire crises, including threats of secession that came as a response to his administration’s repressive laws intended to silence newspaper opposition to federal policies and deliver a crushing blow to Thomas Jefferson’s opposition party.
If unanswered, any of these challenges might have been fatal to an untested and still highly contested new Constitution and to the experiment in a national representative government that it established. Yet a mishandling of the response could be equally disastrous. For example, a failure to put down the western farmers’ “whiskey rebellion” could lead other citizens to resist — or ignore — congressional laws they disliked.
But too abrupt a suppression of the rebellion was certain to conjure up images of a central government as tyrannical and abusive as the government of George III. Washington had to move cautiously and exhaust all legal, judicial, and political means to enforce the law before ordering military action. Adams moved with equal delicacy when he found himself confronting new existential threats to his young nation.
The Federalists made many mistakes and they frequently acted in bald self-interest. Yet during the 11 years they dominated the federal government, they managed not only to sustain a fragile experiment in representative government but also to nurture a critically important sense of national identity in American citizens.
The arc of this essential and positive nationalism can be followed with each crisis. American support for Washington’s military action against the whiskey rebels was based on the people’s love and respect for a single man, George Washington. But by the time Edmund Genet was recalled to France, that support had been institutionalized; it was the office of the Executive, not the man who held it, that Americans would henceforth rely on to direct the nation’s foreign policies.
Under Adams, the attachment to the nation’s government grew. The French insults to American sovereignty during the XYZ Affair made Americans more firmly conscious that they were not simply Virginians, or Pennsylvanians, or New Yorkers; they were united as Americans.
Finally, in their response to the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts, the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky forced an examination of the relative sovereignty of the federal government and the state governments.
Yet where once any legitimacy of a national government was challenged, these Southern legislators only challenged the extent of the federal government’s power, not its source. They defended the rights of the states, but they did not deny the authority of the Constitution or its government. When Jefferson and his Republican Party unseated the Federalists in the election of 1800, the work of the Federalists was done: the American nationalism they had fostered would survive until it was threatened by Civil War.
In the 1790s, the Federalists nurtured a nationalism based on the people’s commitment to their government and their sense of shared responsibility for its actions and its reputation in the wider world. Today, nationalism has taken on a more restrictive and negative character and it divides us rather than unites us. We can only hope that, like Washington and Adams, the men and women we elect will appreciate the complexities of governance and the value of a shared pride in the policies our nation embraces and the paths it pursues.
Carol Berkin is a professor of history at City University of New York