The Green Papers Commentary

(Part Three)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

[NOTE: This is a continuation of a series of Commentaries that began with Part One; the next segment in the series was, of course, Part Two--Ed.]

On Monday 28 September 1789, the real business of early American constitution-making had, finally, been completed: on that date, the enrolled version of the 12 proposed Amendments to the United States Constitution (that document which Americans know as their 'Bill of Rights') reported out of the First Congress but two days before was signed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives- Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania- and then by Vice President John Adams (in his capacity as constitutional President of the Senate)-- President George Washington's signature was not at all required, as the President of the United States has no direct role to play in the amending of the Federal Constitution per its own Article V.

In fact, President Washington himself took no official notice of what was, in retrospect, a rather momentous event in American History: he issued no presidential proclamation on the occasion and there was no special message to Congress formally acknowledging even the requirement- thanks to a Joint Resolution, introduced by Congressman James Madison of Virginia and adopted by the House on 24 September (to which the Senate concurred two days later)- [t]hat the President of the United States... transmit to the executives of the several States which have ratified the Constitution, copies of the Amendments proposed by Congress to be added thereto; and like copies to the executives of the States of Rhode-Island and North-Carolina.

(Even though this Joint Resolution specifically mentioned the office of President as the agent of "transmittal", the matter was wholly administrative on the part of the Executive Branch, although it was an important one: Rhode Island might yet be enticed to join the "more perfect Union" it had had absolutely no hand in creating; but the key recipient was North Carolina- the Ratification Convention of which, back on 1 August 1788 [by which time it was known that New Hampshire, as the 9th State of the original 13 to have ratified the Federal Constitution, had officially put the new fundamental document into effect], had resolved [t]hat a Declaration of Rights, asserting and securing from encroachment the great Principles of civil and religious Liberty, and the unalienable Rights of the People, together with Amendments to the most ambiguous and exceptional Parts of the said Constitution of Government, ought to be laid before Congress... previous to the Ratification of the Constitution aforesaid, on the part of the State of North Carolina... simply put: North Carolina would ratify the Constitution itself once Congress had reported out a 'Bill of Rights'; true to its word, North Carolina would reconvene its Convention and ratify the fundamental document on 21 November 1789!)

The day following "transmittal" of the 'Bill of Rights' to the several States (again, including those not yet part of the American Union), the first (so-called "quorum") session of the First Congress of the United States adjourned. This session of Congress had done its work well: besides reporting out the first proposed Amendments, it had- among many other things- set up the first executive Departments, created a system of Federal courts below the level of the Supreme Court and codified a new legal relationship between the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio created by the Confederation Congress and the new Federal Government. Now it was time for members of Congress to go home, take care of their own personal and family business and consult with their constituents before returning to work in New York City (which would continue serving as the temporary capital for the time being) on 4 January 1790.

President Washington, however, stayed behind in New York City: he would issue his first proclamation for a National Thanksgiving there on 3 October 1789 (which set the date of that year's Thanksgiving as Thursday 26 November) and then, almost two weeks thereafter, head off on a month-long tour of the then-three New England States. On the very day the first session of Congress had adjourned (Tuesday 29 September 1789), however, Washington did issue a special message to the soon-to-be departing Senate noting that His Most Christian Majesty [this being France's King Louis XVI], by a letter dated the 7th of June last, addressed to the President and members of the General Congress of the United States of North America, announces the much lamented death of his son, the Dauphin.

The Dauphin was the title of the Heir-presumptive (that is: the Crown Prince) of France and it had belonged to Louis Joseph, eldest son of 'His Christian Majesty' and his queen-consort, the famous Marie Antoinette, until Louis Joseph died on 4 June 1789 at the age of 7. (Upon Louis Joseph's death, the title of Dauphin passed to his younger brother- 3 year old Louis Charles who became "the Dauphin" of legend [if not also the world's first modern 'conspiracy theory'!]; after the execution, in January 1793, of his father- now known merely as 'Louis Capet' with the monarchy having been supplanted by the [First] French Republic five months before- the younger Dauphin (who was but 7 years old at the time) was openly proclaimed 'Louis XVII' by anti-republican royalists. Those running the new Republic at the time now had quite the serious problem [especially as they were about to try- and, eventually, execute- his mother, Marie Antoinette]: so those in authority put "the Capet child" [as they derisively referred to him] under guard, then let him [for a time] be raised as part of a common family, only to put him under guard again [the varying fortunes of the child having much to do with the ever-changing political situation as the Reign of Terror came and went]. By all reliable accounts, 'Louis XVII' became ill and died in republican custody on 8 June 1795.

But rumors persisted that he had, somehow, escaped [or, more likely (considering his still very young age), had been spirited away in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the establishment of the Directory at around the reported time of his death]; numerous pretenders thereafter emerged among a number of young men in the early 19th Century and there was more than enough credulity among many to sustain their pretense for quite some time [Mark Twain humorously plays on this phenomenon in having one of the two vagabonds meeting up with Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim- in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- claiming to be the long-lost Dauphin]. Meanwhile, other 'conspiracy theories' claimed [and, indeed, still claim (it being highly unlikely 'the Dauphin' is still walking amongst us now in the early 21st Century [;-)])] that 'Louis XVII' was, instead, poisoned on orders from the leadership cadre of the Republic...

but I just wanted to here make it clear that "the Dauphin" referred to in Washington's Special Message to the Senate was not the more well-known "Dauphin"!)

Washington's special message (again, dated 29 September 1789) went on to note that [t]he generous conduct of the French monarch and nation towards this country renders every event that may affect his or their prosperity interesting to us...

What neither Washington nor anyone else on his side of the Atlantic could possibly yet have known (given the then-limits of trans-oceanic communications and transportation technology) was just how "interesting" "events" "affect[ing]" both Louis XVI and France had gotten by that last Tuesday morning in September 1789!

As already noted in Part One of this series of Commentaries, King Louis XVI had been forced (by the ever-deepening fiscal crisis adversely affecting his kingdom) to call the States-General of France, the Third Estate of which had effectively seceded from the other two and declared itself the 'National Assembly' on 17 June 1789, further taking upon itself "the Oath of the Tennis Court" (through which it would also sit as a rump "constitutional convention") three days later.

Events in France now began to gain momentum before snowballing and then cascading headlong towards and then through the Reign of Terror-- in the end, it was as if one were being regularly informed of the development, effects and aftermath of an avalanche:

On 14 July 1789 came the famous storming of the Bastille (which is considered the actual beginning of the French Revolution); on 26 August the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (already cited in Part One of this series of Commentaries) was completed; on 5 October, a mob marched from Paris to the palace at Versailles and the royal family (rescued from certain harm by that same Marquis de Lafayette who was a hero of the American Revolution) was compelled to move to Paris the next day. A constitutional monarchy was proclaimed by the National Assembly on 16 October (the King of France was now to be known as 'the King of the French' [which sealed the notion that People and Nation were one and the same]) and, come 14 July 1790 (the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille), King Louis XVI was obliged to accept it and promise to maintain it. By this time, meanwhile, political clubs were growing in power and influence: the Cordeliers under Georges Danton and the Jacobins under Maximilien Robespierre becoming, in the main, the most notable (for reasons that will become clear shortly).

The Revolution began to turn more ugly (albeit, at first, only slowly so) beginning with the unsuccessful flight of the royal family in June 1791 (attempting to reach the northeastern border of France, where they could- should loyalist troops in the area fail to keep them safe- be easily transferred to the protective custody of the Habsburgs [rulers of Austria and Marie Antoinette's family, which also ruled 'the Austrian Netherlands' (now Belgium)], they were recognized after 5 days and forcibly returned to Paris): moderate elements- who still controlled the National Assembly- managed to allow for the reinstallation of Louis as King (so long as he, once again, accepted a newly-revised Constitution put before him on 14 September 1791: he did so the next day). On 30 September 1791, the National Assembly- per the terms of the new Constitution- dissolved (after having declared that none of its members should be eligible to serve in the new legislature to be elected immediately thereupon).

The new "Legislative Assembly" would produce two major political groups- the Girondists (who favored a federal republic for France) and the Montagnards (that is: "the Mountain"- whose seats in the body were highest on the left [it is, after all, from the seating arrangement of this Legislative Assembly that we get the very political concepts of 'Left' and 'Right' still used to this day] and made up of elements of both the Cordeliers and the Jacobins [politically, at least, Danton and Robespierre were allies at this point]). Much like the "cosmopolitans" and the "localists" in America's Continental Congress as- and immediately after- Independence was declared (as recounted in Part Two of this series), the Montagnards tacitly supported the republican ambitions of the Girondists while, at the same time, already "jockeying for position" against them as regarded control of the Revolution per se.

In April 1792 the so-called 'War of the First Coalition' broke out (it would last more than 5 years and end with the emergence of a man not yet on the national scene in France: Napoleon Bonaparte): Austria and Prussia (in the process of successfully partitioning Poland between themselves and Russia) both thought France was weakened by its Revolution and, thus, "ripe for the picking"; France, meanwhile, was angry at an understanding- between the rulers of Austria and Prussia back in August 1791- that Great Powers could interfere in French affairs. No one did anything significant on either side to keep this war from breaking out; it was a war that would cause the French Revolution to most fully turn on itself!

Enemies of the state were now beginning to be seen everywhere- within France as well as outside it. On 10 August 1792, the Tuileries (the palace in which the royal family had been kept [except for their brief escape in June 1791] since October 1789) was stormed by a mob who massacred the royal 'Swiss Guard'; King Louis XVI escaped by taking refuge among the Legislative Assembly (which then stripped him of his royal functions and turned things over to a provisional government headed by Danton [although the Jacobin clubs, controlled by those loyal to Robespierre, were the real powers behind this new regime]); A week of massacres in Paris marred the opening days of September 1792: the prisons were entered by mobs, the prisoners taken and tried before rump "courts" and then executed summarily (crucially, Danton- provisional Minister of Justice- did nothing at all to stop this). Later in that month, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by a new body- the "Convention": the Girondists (much like the "cosmopolitans" in America after British Loyalists were no longer a political factor after the War for American Independence had been won) were now 'the Right' with the Montagnards as 'the Left' (the Plain- which had also existed in the Legislative Assembly- was the last vestige of moderation left in this Convention but was easily pushed and pulled by the other two groups).

On 20 September 1792, the Convention established a republican government and the (First) French Republic was formally proclaimed two days later (on the day in between, the monarchy was officially abolished and Louis XVI was henceforth merely 'Louis Capet')-- that day (22 September 1792) was declared to be the first day of the Year I of a new 'Republican Era'. Although France was fighting for its very survival in the ongoing War of the First Coalition, the Convention didn't at all hesitate to- on 19 November 1792- offer unconditional French assistance to any and all peoples seeking to overthrow their own governments: as if to then show how best this could be achieved, the Convention put 'Louis Capet' on trial-- on 15 January 1793, the former monarch was convicted and the very next day the Convention condemned him to death; on 19 January, Louis was confined apart from his family and, on 21 January 1793, he was publicly executed by the relatively new device known as the guillotine (the "National Razor", as it came to be known colloquially).

On the same day Louis died, a new executive body- the Committee of Public Safety- was authorized by the Convention: it would formally organize on 6 April 1793 with Danton as its head but Robespierre (who was not formally named to it until 27 July 1793) as its guiding spirit. In the meantime, it was if the Republic itself went stark raving mad- as the Convention, on 1 February 1793, had declared war on Britain, Holland and Spain (adding these to Austria and Prussia among France's enemies in this war); the Committee on Public Safety (along with the commune of Paris), however, became more and more the de facto ruler of the French state at the expense of the Convention as the war dragged on.

On 2 June 1793, a large number of Girondist deputies were rounded up at the urging of Robespierre's Jacobins (this being the true beginning of the Reign of Terror)- most of these would be guillotined on 31 October 1793. Former Queen Marie Antoinette herself was guillotined on 16 October 1793. (But the radicals themselves would also suffer casualties, as when Jean Paul Marat- the fiery Cordelier journalist and ally of Danton [to Marat, the ever-increasing bloodletting was politically cleansing]- was stabbed to death in his bath, on 13 July 1793, by a country girl named Charlotte Corday who seemed to have no connection at all to any of the political factions jostling with each other in Paris [and conspiracy theorists have been having a "field day" with this one for over two centuries now: in this regard, young Mademoiselle Corday was her era's 'Lee Harvey Oswald']).

Then, on 10 November 1793, the worship of God Almighty Himself was outlawed, to be replaced by the Cult of Reason (and its associated goddess). Exactly two weeks later, even the week itself disappeared with the formal adoption of a new 'Republican Calendar' (the years, as I've noted, were already being counted from 22 September, the anniversary of the proclamation of the French Republic itself) consisting of 10-day decades in place of the conventional 7-day week (with its association with Judeo-Christian Sabbatarianism), every tenth day was a holiday; the extra days (in order to make up a 365 1/4 day year) beyond the "regular" 360 were also to be holidays (here devoted to various republican "virtues"), while the 12 months of 30 days each were each given names associated with the seasons (thus, 'Thermidor' [the month of heat] and 'Floreal' [the month of flowers], etc.).

But, by then, Robespierre and Danton were at odds: Robespierre had now supplanted Danton as the director of the Committee of Public Safety (however, Robespierre himself was not a "dictator" in the ordinary sense but the Committee itself was a "collective dictatorship"); at around the same time, military fortunes in the War of the First Coalition began to turn more in France's favor: most notably when, on 19 December 1793, the French retook its Mediterranean port of Toulon (taken by the British a few months earlier) aided by a plan created by a young artillery officer, a colonel named Napoleon Bonaparte (who, as a result, first steps onto the pages of History).

I recount- in admittedly simplified, summary form above- the main events of the French Revolution as it unfolded headlong into the Reign of Terror because, on average, it took some four months (give or take) for news of these to reach the United States of America...

yet reach them they did: and, with each new and unexpected change overseas, fear increased- at least in some quarters- as to whether or not the same forces pushing the men of the French political clubs- the Jacobins in particular- more and more away from moderation might someday evince itself within a still nascent American Union. By this time, there were many an American who thought "on the same wavelength" as Edmund Burke himself was thinking in Great Britain.

In order to more fully understand just why these events in France might have so agitated the political attitudes of the average American "cosmopolitan" Federalist in particular, we must go back to what gave impetus to the drafting of the Constitution of the United States in the first place: the coincidental confluence of the "localist" uprising in Massachusetts known as "Shays's Rebellion" with the Annapolis Conference of the very same period (late Summer going into the Fall of 1786), a meeting decidedly "cosmopolitan" in approach.

Here quoting from a Commentary I wrote for this website back on 6 August 2008:

One conferee in attendance [at Annapolis]- Alexander Hamilton of New York- immediately saw the portents [of Shays's Rebellion]: an astute student of History (as anyone who has ever perused his later contributions to The Federalist should know), he knew full well that Revolutions had a tendency to only end up turning on themselves-- that the Revolution would give way to anarchy, or at least near-anarchy, that could only be ended by the accession of either a benevolent Despot or malignant Tyrant (whether Prince, King or Emperor)-- later on, in his own lifetime, Hamilton would witness this anew as the initial promises of the French Revolution devolved into a Reign of Terror which, in turn, would lead to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. So far, the United States of America's experimenting with Republicanism had not yet done so, but it always could.

In addition,... Hamilton also well appreciated that... Massachusetts... had already formed [a]... popularly-based system of governance... and still people were in rebellion against it...

Thus, he could certainly clearly see that the rationale behind what was becoming what would soon be called Shays's Rebellion was, in fact, far less rational [than the 'Republic of Vermont' claiming its own independence from Hamilton's own New York State]...; Hamilton could also see that the core question was: what would it mean to the concept of Liberty if at least reasonable Law, itself enacted by the clear Will of the People, could not even be enforced?

Here was American Alexander Hamilton- independently of, and certainly well before, Englishman Edmund Burke's later disdain for the chain of events engendered by the French Revolution (as explained in Part One of this series)- coming to pretty much the same conclusion about such things as Burke himself later would.

Simply put: where the General Will (to here use the term the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen itself used) might prevail despite the (already popularly assented to) law, Rule of Law could do little but fail. In the longer term, this was a mantra to ever be carried by those who would come to be called 'conservatives' in America ever since!

In the much shorter term, however, it very much animated the "cosmopolitan" 'Federalists' in the United States while the Federal Constitution itself had been drafted and ratified, implemented and amended, in stages during the two years between the Septembers of 1787 and 1789...

and then, not all that long after the 'Bill of Rights' had been sent out to the several States of the new "more perfect Union" for their individual consideration, began to come the news (as recounted earlier in this very piece) from France: event after event, year after year, throughout President Washington's first term and on through the first year of his second.

For, squarely in the middle (quite literally) of the developing partisan vortex in the United States, as the Election of 1796/1797 approached while his second term so progressed, was- indeed- George Washington himself.

Washington seems the least intellectual of the "Big Six" 'Founding Fathers' of the United States of America: the other five- three others, besides Washington, who would be President (John Adams, Jefferson and Madison) and the two who did not (Franklin and Hamilton [Franklin, by the way, was already deceased by 1796])- had all written well-circulated political monographs and/or philosophical brochures where not also larger whole volumes on such topics... not so Washington: perhaps he could, indeed, be "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen" only because he didn't leave all that much of a 'paper trail' of such personal observations (his own journal is altogether sparse and practical; his official papers are, just that, official [whether military or administrative]).

This is not to say that Washington, somehow, wasn't smart or even intellectually curious-- it is to say that Washington ever "played his cards close to his vest"!

He had already saved the legacy of the American Revolution personally: this was back on 15 March 1783, as Continental Army officers- encamped outside of Newburgh, NY- complained (via an anonymous letter circulated amongst them over the previous few days) about back pay and other remunerations not yet authorized by the by Seventh by-then Confederation Congress meeting, at the time, in Philadelphia. There were even grumblings about Washington, perhaps, leading them on a march on the Congress itself in order to force it to meet their demands (Washington himself was livid that it was also being said that he gave something of an under-the-table imprimatur to those letters).

But Washington himself would have none of it-- no, he was no Julius Caesar (or, for that matter, Napoleon Bonaparte): after prohibiting a meeting of his officers without his permission, he authorized a second meeting before which he spoke. The famous story is that- before he began speaking to his assembled officers- he pulled out his eyeglasses (which almost none of them had ever seen him wearing in public) and said "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles: for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country". The rest of what he said to that assemblage was, after that moment, at least somewhat anticlimactic for, from the very start, the commanding General Washington had made it most clear that- to him- that which they all had been fighting for would ever come first.

Washington, doubtless, would be surprised that his having said the above is even all that well remembered to this day. Like another consensus 'great President of the United States', Abraham Lincoln- who famously said, in his Gettysburg Address: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here" only to, after his death, be proven (at least insofar as his own words were concerned) so wrong- Washington seems to have earnestly believed that actions speak louder than words (however: unlike Lincoln, whose military experience as a frontier militiaman was minimal, Washington innately understood that command- whether military or civilian- was much about what one does as about what one says). The old joke about Mount Rushmore- that, while Washington and Lincoln are probably embarrassed to be up there, while Jefferson thinks it at least a suitable honor, and Teddy Roosevelt most thoroughly enjoys it (finds it "bully", one supposes!)- is likely rather close to the truth!

But, now, as his second term as President of the United States was winding down, President Washington was put in the position of now salvaging the legacy of the American Constitution that the Revolution had, in the end, wrought. It was a singularly untenable- as well as most unwelcome (by Washington himself)- position.

History texts and other related references have tended to treat George Washington's two Administrations as having been 'Federalist': 19th Century American historiography (which first came up with this notion) tended to be a conservative endeavor in any event and 20th into 21st Century historians seem to most justify continuing this designation (that is: where they might actually do so [recent historiography, to be fair, generally being more realistic in this regard]) on the grounds that- as regards Washington's 1st term, his was "anti-antifederalist" [in the sense that he was charged with executing a Constitution that had not yet gained full confidence among those who had opposed its ratification] and, as regards his second (early during which Thomas Jefferson- who would go on to become the effective leader of the "localist" 'Republicans'- left the office of Secretary of State), the predominant figures were Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (although Hamilton would leave his post a little over a year after Jefferson had already left his) and Vice-President John Adams (both Hamilton and Adams clearly being "cosmopolitan" 'Federalists').

The truth, however, is that George Washington was (as he so saw himself as being) above either Party or faction.

Yes, he had his political views (he had served in the assembly of colonial Virginia- its House of Burgesses- for around a decade and a half before his service in the First and Second Continental Congresses so well put him in position to gain the role of commander-in-chief of the Continental Army) and they were decidedly (yet quietly) "cosmopolitan" as, first, the Stamp Act crisis in the mid-1760s and then other issues going into the 1770s split Virginia politically along "cosmopolitan"/"localist" lines. After all, Washington was a product of the Tidewater Virginia gentry (the "localist" Jefferson, on the other hand, was from the gentry of 'upland' Virginia), so this was only to be expected: in addition, one can hardly believe that a "localist" General could have accomplished all that Washington himself did whilst in command during the course of the American Revolution (more than any other political faction, today's conservatives claim Washington as their own [these very roots of his having been seen as a dyed-in-the-wool 'Federalist' going back more than a century and a half now], for he- at least in Lincoln's "mystic chords of Memory"- so well stands for the Order that these so strongly see as concomitant with Law).

But Washington also knew that anything he did as President to fill the "holes" in the Constitution of the United States as regarded the precise role to be played by that High Office in the new Federal Government would serve as precedent and, no less than he had been as a commanding General, he was both prudent and cautious. He had, for example, purposely created what later parliamentary democracies would - in the midst of major national crises- come to call a "Government of National Unity" through his including Jefferson to join Hamilton and others in what would come to be called the President's 'Cabinet': but he was able to do this, yes, because the two major political groupings in America- "cosmopolitan" and "localists"- had not yet been able to coalesce around national organizations to better advance their respective causes; yet he also was able to do so because he was- after all- George Washington!

President Washington, however, considered his role in appointing judges to the new system of Federal Courts to be far more important: Impressed with a conviction that the true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government, I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our country and the stability of its political system, he wrote (on 27 September 1789, the day after the 'Bill of Rights' had been reported out of the First Congress) to Edmund Randolph- whom Washington had already nominated as the Nation's first Attorney General the previous day. Today, Washington's sentiment- that THE TRUE ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE IS THE FIRMEST PILLAR OF GOOD GOVERNMENT- is carved right below the pediment above the Greek temple-like portico of the New York Supreme Court Building (in New York, the 'Supreme Court' is the trial court of General Jurisdiction, not the State's highest court of Last Resort [which is, instead, the Court of Appeals in Albany]) at 60 Centre Street on Manhattan island (seen, for one thing, in the background of many a location shot of TV's Law & Order): this building, completed in 1927, was- by the way- originally the New York County Courthouse and replaced the (in)famous 'Tweed Courthouse' of 1870s (a veritable monument to corruption and greed [and 'sweetheart' construction contracts]) still standing directly behind New York's City Hall; thus, one cannot help but wonder if Washington's words engraved thereon were but a posthumous 'dig' at William Marcy ("Boss") Tweed himself (although Tweed himself, then, still gets something of a last laugh, for Foley Square- along which the 1927 courthouse stands- is, in fact, named for a less noteworthy [in all senses!] Tammany Hall "boss" than Tweed).

By the time the new Federal Government began to organize itself in stages as the year 1789 wore on (first, Congress had to have at least a quorum [one more than half the total membership] in both of its houses [achieved 6 April 1789] in order to do business, including that of tabulating and declaring the Electoral Vote for President; Washington himself would not be sworn in as President until 30 April 1789; the Federal Judiciary Act, in turn, would not be adopted for some time thereafter [although it was the first bill ever introduced in Congress (in the Senate- 7 April 1789- as 'S1'), it would not be passed by both houses until 22 September 1789 and was signed into law by President Washington two days later] and the United States Supreme Court would not even begin its first Term of Court until 1 February 1790), the old designations 'federalist' and 'antifederalist' that had been occasioned by the debates over Ratification of the Federal Constitution were, obviously, no longer at all valid. All one can discern- in the first three Congresses of the United States- is an apparent divison between those who generally supported Washington's Administration and those who did not (best referred to as 'anti-Administration' or, simply, the 'Opposition'); however, by the Third Congress, the 'Opposition' was decidedly "localist" (and led by none other than Congressman James Madison of Virginia) while the 'Administration' faction was much more "cosmopolitan"; also, by that same Congress (the first of Washington's second term as President), 'Administration' control- as it were- of both houses of Congress was, at best, rather dicey!

The difficulties inherent in Washington's "mid-line" political position as the Nation's first President are best illustrated by two key events during his second term (these even more 'key' considering what was going on in France [as it might have been known in America (keeping in mind the approximately four-month delay due to the limits of ocean-going sailing ships)]: the so-called 'Whisky Rebellion' of 1794 followed, shortly thereafter, by the political battle over Jay's Treaty.

The Whisky Rebellion was a protest- originating in western Pennsylvania- against Federal excise taxes imposed on distilled spirits by Congress in the Spring of 1794 that turned into armed insurrection (in the form of intimidation of those sent out to collect the new Federal tax [the first in a series of encounters between "moonshiners" and "revenooers" throughout American History down to this very day]): in this, it had much more in common with "the Regulation" in pre-Independence North Carolina than that Shays's Rebellion which had been more recent (but the reaction of the powers-that-were was, in part, colored by their own memories of their reaction to news of Shays's Rebellion). More to the point, the Whisky Rebellion was regarded- certainly in "cosmopolitan" quarters- as being a primarily "localist" reaction to the "cosmopolitan" notion as to the Rule of Law and- in light of further news coming from France as the insurrection in western Pennsylvania itself first got underway (by mid-summer of 1794, the news of the execution of Danton on order of the Committee of Public Safety [on 6 April 1794: ironically, the very anniversary of that Committee's having been first organized with Danton presiding]- by then [as already noted above] most firmly in charge of republican France and dominated by Robespierre- had first reached American shores: truly, or so it seemed, the French Republic was "eating its own")- the Whisky Rebellion portended ramifications for the United States itself far more ominous than, perhaps, actually existed.

What was originally mere (yet still frightening) intimidation of Federal tax collectors by armed men began to turn more potentially violent when, in mid-July 1794, armed mobs in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, PA fired on a revenue collector (at his own home!), kidnapped a United States Marshal and then, further, fired upon a group of soldiers sent out from Fort Pitt to deal with this violence; two weeks later, a mob gathered in Pittsburgh with the stated purpose of raiding the fort's military stores although, instead, they merely marched through the town. Meanwhile, Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania (who had been re-elected just the year before through his having defeated that same Frederick Muhlenberg who, as Speaker of the House, had signed the enrolled version of the 'Bill of Rights') had refused to call out the State militia to restore order in the affected western counties of his own Commonwealth.

In response to all this, President Washington issued a presidential proclamation on 7 August 1794 condemning combinations to defeat the execution of the laws... proceeding in a manner subversive equally of the just authority of government and of the rights of individuals, hav[ing] hitherto effected their dangerous and criminal purpose by the influence of certain irregular meetings whose proceedings have tended to encourage and uphold the spirit of opposition by misrepresentations of the laws calculated to render them odious.

Washington gave the "whisky rebels" until 1 September to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes. And I do moreover warn all persons whomsoever against aiding, abetting, or comforting the perpetrators of the aforesaid treasonable acts, and do require all officers and other citizens, according to their respective duties and the laws of the land, to exert their utmost endeavors to prevent and suppress such dangerous proceedings.

As if to make it clear that he, indeed, meant business, President Washington noted- in this proclamation- that a law of the United States entitled 'an Act to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions' stated "that whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed in any State by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings or by the powers vested in the marshals by that act, the same being notified by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such State to suppress such combinations and to cause the laws to be duly executed. And if the militia of a State where such combinations shall happen shall refuse or be insufficient to suppress the same. it shall be lawful for the President, if the Legislature of the United States shall not be in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other State or States most convenient thereto as may be necessary;... Provided always, That whenever it may be necessary in the judgment of the President to use the military force hereby directed to be called forth, the President shall forthwith, and previous thereto, by proclamation, command such insurgents to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes within a limited time;"

Washington noted, in his proclamation, that Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court James Wilson (himself from Pennsylvania) had- on 4 August- formally given the required due notice of execution of laws being so obstructed in the counties of Washington and Allegany in the Keystone State. If, indeed, "the true administration of Justice" was "the firmest pillar of Good Government", Washington could not allow such "combinations" as might well be "too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings" to prevail...

thus: 'You have been warned!' ;-)

The "whisky rebels", however, did not so disperse nor retire peaceably and so President Washington issued a second presidential proclamation on the matter- on 25 September 1794.

This time, President Washington in obedience to that high and irresistible duty consigned to me by the Constitution "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed," deploring that the American name should be sullied by the outrages of citizens on their own Government, commiserating such as remain obstinate from delusion, but resolved, in perfect reliance on that gracious Providence which so signally displays its goodness towards this country, to reduce the refractory to a due subordination to the law, do hereby declare and make known that... a force which, according to every reasonable expectation, is adequate to the exigency is already in motion to the scene of disaffection; that those who have confided or shall confide in the protection of Government shall meet full succor under the standard and from the arms of the United States; that those who, having offended against the laws, have since entitled themselves to indemnity will be treated with the most liberal good faith if they shall not have forfeited their claim by any subsequent conduct, and that instructions have been given accordingly.

Then, on 30 September 1794, Washington himself left Philadelphia (still the temporary capital of the United States since it took over that position from New York City in December 1790) for Carlisle, PA to take command of the military effort to quell the Whisky Rebellion (the first- and only- time a President of the United States, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Nation's Armed Forces, was prepared to take the field at the head of his own troops). As things turned out, the Whisky Rebellion collapsed in the face of what became a short-lived military occupation of the rebelling counties (in fact, President Washington was back in Philadelphia less than a fortnight after he had first left).

While the Whisky Rebellion was now over and done with, its political ramifications were not. "Localists" allied with former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson fumed at what they saw as the Federal Government's high-handed tactics (President Washington- in theory a civilian executive officer of the Government- willing to actually lead a military force was rather chilling to them); they clearly saw the hand of the Federalist "power behind the throne", Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, behind much of Washington's response-- for his own part, Hamilton (whose job, after all, was to oversee the collection of Federal revenue) did see the response to the Whisky Rebellion as something of a "golden opportunity" to assert Federal authority over a recalcitrant State.

But there was more to all this than might immediately meet the eye: Federalists already had come to believe "democratic" political clubs ('democracy', in light of the goings-on in France, was already a "dirty word" to these "cosmopolitans": it smacked of mob rule and open defiance of Law)- akin to those in France (such as the Jacobins), perhaps even allied with such French political clubs!- were behind (perhaps even egging on) the "whisky rebels" of western Pennsylvania and their supporters in other strongholds of "localism" throughout the country. After all, wasn't Thomas Jefferson a francophile (horrors!-- just like today's Mitt Romney, he spoke French!! [;-)])? And wasn't Jefferson also the Great Deist? Washington's "perfect reliance on that gracious Providence" might have meant more than we today realize when we consider that Hamilton and his Federalists kept hearing reports of ever more denigration, where not also desecration, of organized Religion in France.

As the Fall of 1794 continued after the Whisky Rebellion had been arrested, Americans would come to know that- after Danton had been executed- the Reign of Terror continued apace while, on 8 June 1794, there was something called the 'Festival of the Supreme Being' held in Paris. The Committee of Public Safety had done away with the Cult of Reason with which they had hoped to supplant Christianity in general- and the predominant Roman Catholicism in particular- in France and replaced it with something that seemed something of a "middle way" between traditional worship of God and a new spirituality based on Reason: what they didn't anticipate is that Robespierre would emerge, at the very pinnacle of these festivities, as virtually high-priest of the new cult! Two days later, juries in the Revolutionary Tribunal were granted power to convict criminal defendants at trial without even hearing any evidence or argument on behalf of the accused (one supposes Robespierre's Supreme Being would simply tell the jurors who was, and who was not, guilty); meanwhile, by then, the guillotine was executing an average of 12 persons per day!

As news of all this came to American shores, it created even more fear of such 'democracy'- led by the 'godless' Jeffersonians- in the minds of most Federalists; for their part, the "localist" Jeffersonians denied such- to their own minds- baseless charges.

On 19 November 1794, President Washington delivered what was his sixth Annual ('State of the Union') Message to Congress a short while after the 'short' session of the Third Congress had convened. In it, he recounted his actions in relationship to the Whisky Rebellion (all of which had taken place after the same Third Congress had recessed at the end of its 'long' session the previous 9 June). Washington declaimed that [i]n the four western counties of Pennsylvania a prejudice, fostered and imbittered by the artifice of men who labored for an ascendancy over the will of others by the guidance of their passions, produced symptoms of riot and violence... The arts of delusion were no longer confined to the efforts of designing individuals... From a belief that by a more formal concert [the excise laws'] operation might be defeated, certain self-created societies assumed the tone of condemnation.

Historians still debate whether Washington's own reference to "self-created societies" meant that the President himself had so much "bought into" the claims of Federalists that a 'fifth column' of proto-Jacobins was actually behind the Whisky Rebellion; yet it cannot be doubted that his words about "the artifice of men who labored for an ascendancy over the will of others by the guidance of their passions" surely made many in his audience think about the latest news from France.

Indeed, news would soon enough come to America that the Committee of Public Safety had had just about enough of Robespierre: on 26 July 1794, Robespierre gave what turned out to be his last speech before the Convention (still, ostensibly, the national legislative body of France); the next day (which, ironically, was the very anniversary of his having been formally named to the Committee of Public Safety), the Convention specifically forbade him to speak and, instead, then ordered his arrest! Because he still had support among some (the warden of the prison to which he had first been taken refused to take him into custody), he was placed under what was, more or less, "house arrest" in the Paris city hall: despite this, he still had the political support of the Paris commune who urged him to lead an insurrection against the Convention but this he refused to do; when forces loyal to the commune (as well as himself) left (by this time it was already 28 July 1794), other forces loyal to the Convention attacked the building. Robespierre shot himself in an attempt at suicide (so that he would not be taken by his enemies) but he badly botched this and was left with a severely damaged jaw that prevented this once great orator, who rose to power on the power of his own words, from ever speaking again.

Later that same day (again, 28 July 1794), Robespierre faced the guillotine and himself was executed (his attempts to speak beforehand being futile): the last high-level victim of France's "National Razor" in its capacity as the mechanical instrumentality of the very Reign of Terror Robespierre himself had been so instrumental in starting in the first place. In the French Republican calendar then still in use, it was the 10th of Thermidor (it is from this that we get the term 'Thermidorean Reaction' to describe when the original leaders of a Revolution are supplanted by others [often others who were not even involved in the Revolution's very beginnings])

But, on the other side of the Atlantic, fear of a possible American version of the French 'Terror' was already coloring the American political scene. As President Washington was explaining to Congress- in his 'State of the Union'- just what he had done to deal with the lately concluded Whisky Rebellion (again, 19 November 1794), he could not yet know that- in London, earlier on that very same day- United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay- acting as Washington's special envoy- had just completed negotiating a new treaty with Lord [William Wyndham] Grenville, Great Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. And no one in the United States of America could yet know- or even be prepared for- just how explosive this development would prove to be in the midst of what was now a supercharged political situation pitting "cosmopolitan" (to their opponents, too pro-British) Federalist against "localist" (to their detractors, too pro-French) Jeffersonians...

this treaty would come to be known as, simply, 'Jay's Treaty'... yes, it would get personal!

Find PART FOUR of this series here


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