The Jeffersonian Revolution, and its Implications for the War Department and Federalist Party

October 4th, 2011

The ascension of the Democratic-Republicans to Congress in 1801, along with the election of Thomas Jefferson in the same year, represented a clear break from Federalist policy in the latter half of the 1790s. Led by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party possessed control of both houses of Congress from 1797 to 1800 (the fifth and sixth Congresses), and enjoyed control of the executive branch. The Federalists generally supported a stronger, more centralized national government, with protective tariffs, a National Bank, and – most pertinent to the War Department Papers collection – a strong national military.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, relations between the United States and France deteriorated rapidly. The French were upset over alleged favoritism toward the British on the part of the American government, along with a refusal by the United States to repay its debts to France from the Revolutionary War (the U.S. argued that the debts had been owed to the French Crown, not the French Republic).

The French began seizing American ships trading with Britain in 1796 (Secretary of State Timothy Pickering reported that the number was 316 merchant ships), and in 1798 the United States learned of the notorious “XYZ Affair,” when the French demanded a large bribe from a U.S. agent simply for the privilege of speaking with them.

The “Quasi-War” with France soon broke out, along with an explosion in the military budget, inspired in part by none other than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was elevated to the position of Major General of the United States Army, organizing the so-called “Provisional Army.” The size of the United States Navy also markedly increased.

Total military spending increased from $1.6 million in 1796, to $3.5 million in 1798, and $6.1 in 1800 – more than tripling the size of the military in a few short years. This alarmed the likes of Jefferson and his supporters, who believed that a standing army represented a serious threat to the republic and the liberties of the citizens within it. Only a decade prior, some Anti-Federalists even insisted that a prohibition of standing armies be included in the Bill of Rights.

Opposition to Hamilton and the Federalist Party was growing rapidly. The Alien & Sedition Acts, passed in 1798, attempted to silence their critics, but only backfired. Hamilton sensed these changes in a few of his letters on the eve of what became known as the “Revolution of 1800.” In a letter to Senator Rufus King, Hamilton believed the Federalist Party to be “in a sad Dilemma,” and that “Sympathy with the French Revolution” seemed to lessen the enthusiasm of the Democratic-Republicans in the Quasi-War.

Dissensions within the Federalist Party itself compounded the problems. Hamilton in 1800 claimed that President Adams was plagued by “Perverseness and capriciousness,” and that this resulted from a “Vanity and Jealousy” of Hamilton’s own power and influence. Adams’s opinion of Hamilton was no better – as he believed Hamilton to be “a man devoid of every moral principle, a bastard.”

In the elections of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans won in a landslide. From having a minority share of the votes in the 6th Congress, the Democratic-Republicans came to have 61% in the 7th Congress, and 72% in the 8th Congress. Adams became the last Federalist President, although the Whig Party later adopted a similar Hamiltonian platform.

Officers in the military establishment had feared that reductions in their budget would result from the new “democratic influence” in government, and they were absolutely right — The military budget for the War Department sank from $6.1 million in 1800, to $2.2 million in 1802. The military budget remained below the $3 million figure until 1807 when tensions with Britain increased. Not until the War of 1812, however, did the military budget equal the budget in 1800.