Vicki Schmidtberger


American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis

James Roger Sharp


In his work, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis, James Roger Sharp explores the emergence of the Federalist and Republican “parties” in the decade following ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Extreme sectional divisiveness hastened the formation of these “proto-parties,” as Sharp labels them. Sharp fervidly disagrees with many historians who consider the 18th century Federalists and Republicans the precursors to America’s modern two-party system. Members of these proto-parties, Sharp argues, honestly believed that only they acted in the nation’s best interests.  Therefore, he contends, they were distinct from modern political parties that primarily seek power through winning control of the government each election cycle

            During the decade following ratification of the Constitution, Sharp asserts that the continued legitimacy of the federal government, the stability of the country, and indeed the Constitution itself were put in jeopardy by armed civil revolt, secession threats, and the possibility of war with either France or Great Britain. Elected leaders were nearly powerless to manage these crises because they believed so staunchly in the tenets of classical republicanism that compromise between opposing factions was nearly impossible. Sharp argues that the Constitution offered little help because it was “almost fatally flawed,” in that it did not provide adequate methods for resolving conflict, most notably the ardent sectionalism that ultimately developed (11). These divisions exacerbated political and social reaction to the crises America faced and resulted in extreme consequences including the near Constitutional crisis brought on by the election of 1800.

            Sharp delineates three stages of political development that America progressed through in the decade after ratification of the Constitution. The first stage Sharp identifies lasted from 1789 to 1792, and was characterized by almost unanimous support of President George Washington, and the classical republican belief that a group of elites could govern and “resolve disagreements in a gentlemanly and trusting way … and legislate for the general good”(10). Part I of the book, aptly titled “The Breakdown of Elite Consensus,” outlines events during Sharp’s stage one, beginning with an almost euphoric America eagerly greeting her first president on his inauguration.

By the end of Washington’s first term, leaders in the federal government were already divided into two camps - Federalists who continued to revere Washington and supported Hamilton’s policies; and Republicans, the opposition led by Jefferson and Madison, who “came to see themselves both as protectors of the Constitution and the republican form of government”(42). According to Sharp, this internal division was more worrisome to Washington than that of the general public because he “saw the great mass of patriotic Americans as holding in common credo that revered republicanism and supported the union”(50). Washington’s observations appear to support Sharp’s claim that although Jefferson and Madison firmly believed they represented the best interests of the public, “Antifederalism was doomed because it ran counter to powerful public sentiment that the new government should be given a chance to prove itself” (29).

            Division among America’s leaders was nothing new. From the beginning, Federalists argued the necessity of establishing a strong, centralized government, while Anti-Federalists feared excessive power in the hands of a small group of aristocrats would lead to monarchical-like power. These disparities made it nearly impossible for federal leaders to reach amicable compromise, let alone consensus. In this atmosphere of distrust, Sharp understandably contends that “the most explosive issue to come before the First Congress was the question of government finance”(34). Jefferson and his supporters vehemently opposed Hamilton’s proposals for a national bank, federal assumption of states’ war debts, and encouraging manufacturing through tariffs because they believed “republicanism had to be built upon a foundation of personal independence, virtue, and autonomy” (41). Although Hamilton’s plan ultimately passed following the Compromise of  1790, Antifederalists saw this as an unprecedented shift of power from states to the federal government that “called into question the ability of the national government to legislate for the ‘general good’” (41).

            This dubiousness undoubtedly led to deepened political sectionalism, which Sharp identifies as characteristic of the second stage of American political development. Part II of his work, “The Polarization of the Elite,” analyzes the events that intensified or directly resulted from this sectionalism, and the consequential animosity that continued to plague America’s federal government throughout the balance of his book. These events were numerous and divergent – obvious sectionalism of the election of 1792, near war with France, formation of “social clubs” intended to monitor the federal legislature’s activities, threat of armed insurrection during the Whiskey Rebellion, and intense sectional division over Jay’s Treaty and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

About the only thing that any of the leaders seemed to agree on at this point was that Washington should run for office again. However there was much wrangling over who should run for Vice President. Jefferson and other opposition leaders recognized that they should not align themselves with Antifederalists because they did not want to appear to oppose Washington and the union. Ultimately John Adams won, with the vote clearly split along sectional lines (58). Because Republicans would hold a majority in the House, “Jefferson and others felt that the threat to the Constitution would be over when the new Congress was convened” (60). Nevertheless, Sharp contends that Jefferson and other opposition leaders determined that lack of direct relationship with their constituents was problematic, and started a pamphlet campaign that encouraged people to elect like-minded representatives to counter subversion of the Constitution. Later events indicate that politicizing the electorate, by either party, served to deepen sectionalism.

 The first of these events was the political schism caused by American’s general sympathy toward the French and their revolution, and Washington’s efforts to keep America out of a European war. Problems arose primarily as a result of treaty and trade issues. According to Sharp, America’s treaty with France allowed free trade of non-contraband goods even to ports of belligerents. However, Great Britain did not adhere to this policy and began to intercept American ships, confiscate cargo and impress her seaman when trading with the French West Indies. When Washington issued a declaration of neutrality, extremists reacted strongly, and some even called for his impeachment. Madison argued Washington’s actions were monarchical, stating, “The power of making treaties and the power of declaring war are royal prerogatives in the British government, and are accordingly treated as executive prerogatives by British commentators” (78).

Another divisive issue centered around French Minister Genet, who the Administration was reluctant to receive. Genet assured Jefferson that France had no intention of drawing America into the war, but after he was received he took control of American ports and used them “as virtual French naval bases where seamen were recruited, privateers commissioned and armed” (80).

Unlike the Genet affair, the Whiskey Rebellion was a purely domestic event, precipitated by a Congressional levy on distilled liquor. Westerners claimed the tax was unfair because they used liquor for barter, thus making it a necessary commodity. Sharp contends that anger over the excise tax primarily resulted from the Revolutionary belief that only state and local governments should be able to levy these taxes (94). Ultimately, resistance became somewhat violent, with tax collectors being tarred and feathered among other things; but the crisis ended quietly when Washington mobilized 15,000 troops to quell the uprising.

            Sharp does not present extensive detail regarding the Jay Treaty, probably because he contends the outcome of the treaty and the events surrounding it were more important than the treaty itself. According to Sharp, critics claimed Jay compromised the republic’s independence and betrayed French treaties by favoring Great Britain (117). Most important though, was the sectionalism shown by the Jay Treaty vote - 79.6% of votes supporting the treaty came from New England or the Mid Atlantic states, while 73.5% of opposition votes came from Southern states (133). As a result of public opinion regarding the Jay Treaty, Washington extolled the need to educate the public. Sharp contends, “Washington was voicing the same complaint Jefferson often made, that public opinion in its purest and unadulterated form, though loyal to republicanism and the Constitution, was capable of being misled by factious and designing men” (123).

            The formation of “Democratic-Republican societies” may have given federal leaders reason to disagree with Washington’s ideas, though. According to Sharp, “The clubs were intended as instruments through which the general will of the people would have a greater influence upon the government,” because members would “vigilantly observer government actions” (86). This observation undoubtedly influenced subsequent election cycles and further complicated an already contentious issue of early American politics, as leaders tried to anticipate and accommodate the wishes of their constituents.

Sharp suggests these political societies likely intensified sectionalism among the electorate and encouraged deepened divisiveness, evident in the reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Passed in July 1798, the Alien Acts “established a registration and surveillance system for foreign nationals,” and gave the president “the power to deport any whom he considered dangerous to the country’s peace and security.”(177) While this legislation was intended to protect America from perceived foreign foes, the Sedition Law attempted to protect against dangerous internal strife by forbidding activities perceived as threatening to the federal government. Because the scope of activities covered by the laws was broad and vague, Republicans believed their provisions threatened civil liberties and could potentially “stifle internal dissent” (177). Alarmed by these events and their inability to successfully oppose them in the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives, Republicans believed the well-being of the nation dictated that they gain control of the federal government.

Events precipitant to one of the most discordant election cycles in American history are discussed at length in Part III of Sharp’s book, “The Crisis of Union.” Sharp’s third stage of American political development is characterized by “mounting sectional militancy,” particularly after the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions which originated in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Drafted by Jefferson and Madison respectively, these resolutions differed slightly, though both criticized what they considered an “unconstitutional assertion of federal power,” and called on their sister states to join them by resisting the Alien and Sedition Acts, by force if necessary (194). But other states were not as anxious to nullify federal laws, their reaction “was either overwhelmingly critical or deafening in its silence” (200). While Sharp contends these events illustrate the severe tension and increased sectionalism in America, he defends Republican rationale because passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts were “an unprecedented challenge and threat to Virginia sovereignty” (205).

            Whether previous federal acts justified state reactions or not, the increasing sectionalism was clearly evident in the 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson. After unexpected losses in the 1796 and 1798 elections, Republicans lost confidence that Americans would rebel against the oppressive federal government. Consequently, Republicans changed directions and “moved the country into the third stage of political development,” which emphasized sectional political strategy (228). Anticipating a possible loss, Federalists moved to back Aaron Burr’s candidacy because they feared a Jefferson presidency empowered by Virginia; and they hoped Burr would cooperate with them. Federalist support for Burr further divided Republicans, who believed Federalists would dominate Burr if he won with their backing (258).

Even though Federalists and Republicans were determined to control the outcome of the 1800 election to the point of precipitating an absolute deadlock, Sharp argues these actions do not constitute the beginning of political parties as we understand them today. Throughout the book, Sharp disagrees with historians who believe the election of 1800 is the best proof that political parties had developed by then, because it would have required “a general acceptance and toleration of an opposition party on the national level” (275). Because they had no concept of a loyal opposition party, Sharp contends Jefferson and the Republicans did not abandon classical republican tenets because they sincerely believed “their policies alone reflected and served the national public good” (276).

            The author makes one of his strongest statements in the introduction to his book. According to Sharp, Americans did not realize that the Constitution was “almost fatally flawed at its inception,” because the Founders did not make adequate provision for “conflict resolution” (2). The conflicts Sharp presents in his work brought a very young America to the brink of war and secession more than once. While Americans celebrate the successes that resulted from the Founders’ hard work, we forget how desperately they struggled to keep the union together. If we are to understand the struggle required to establish and maintain a democratic society, modern Americans must understand these struggles (13-14).