In which we see a quasi war abroad become fully divisive at home
—Did I miss something? Who are we at war with?
—Really? Since when?
—Mr. K. told us: 1798.
—I don’t remember talking about this.
—I have it my notes from the last class: the Quasi War.
—But is a quasi war a real war? Doesn’t “quasi” mean fake?
—More like “semi"
—Well is a “semi” war a real war?
—Mr. K. says it is.
—On what basis?
A fair question, Adam. Congress had not formally declared war. But the government is gearing up for one, and no one is more excited about the prospect than our old friend Alexander Hamilton. Because the United States now faces the prospect of armed conflict, it has to build up its military. President Adams wants to concentrate on the navy, but there’s pressure from the Federalists to build up the army. He turns to ex-president Washington, but Washington turns him down: he’s too old and tired to come out of retirement. Washington recommends his old deputy, Hamilton. This is about the last thing Adams wants to hear. His suspicion of Hamilton has been growing steadily (Hamilton has been trash-talking about Adams for years). Adams reluctantly offers Hamilton the job, which he’s only too eager to accept. Hamilton likes the idea of a bigger army—and he likes the idea of using it not only to fight foreign enemies, but to keep order at home, the way he did with the Whiskey Rebellion back in 1794. But now there’s no Washington to hold him in check. Hamilton has his eyes on those pesky Republicans.
—This doesn’t sound too good.
It isn’t, Kylie. The Republican decision to challenge the Adams administration on the XYZ Affair, that whole thing where the French demanded bribes before negotiating with the Americans, really backfires. The mood of the country turns decisively against them, and the Federalists decide this is an opportunity to deal them a mortal blow. They ram a series of bills through Congress known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams makes the fateful decision to sign them. Three of these laws are directed against immigrants (with the meddling French diplomat Edmond Genet in mind): they extend the number of years you have to be in the United States to become a citizen, allow the government to detail citizens they deemed dangerous, and also to expel them. But it’s the fourth law, the Sedition Act, which proves to be a real flashpoint. It allows the government to jail and impose fines on Americans who write, print or speak “false, scandalous, and malicious” statements against the government or the president (notably, the vice president, i.e. Jefferson, wasn’t included).
—Write, print, or speak?
—How can that be?
What’s the problem, Yin?
—Isn’t that against the law?
Where in the Constitution?
—The Bill of Rights.
Where in the Bill of Rights?
—Isn’t it the First Amendment?
Excellent, Yin. Took you a little while, but you got there.
—But I don’t understand how they could do that!
Well they did. Na na na na na na.
—Na na na na na na, Mr. K? Really?
—So what happened?
Well, fourteen Republicans were sent to jail, most of them journalists, one of them Benjamin Franklin’s grandson.
—That’s so outrageous.
I’m really pleased to see you so upset, Yin.
I’m impressed by Yin’s outrage, Sadie. I’ve always been impressed by her curiosity. I’m glad to see this other dimension of her intellectual life. In any event, you’ll be glad to know that there were plenty of people, not all of them die-hard Republicans, who were as upset as Yin.
—Like I said, this is not good.
Well, Kylie, by some reckonings—I’ll be interested to hear what you think—things are about to get worse. An outraged Jefferson and an outraged Madison decide they need to respond. They agree on a plan to issue protests against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Madison writes a statement that passes the Virginia legislature and comes to be known as the Virginia Resolution. Jefferson, following suit, writes what comes to be known as the Kentucky Resolution.
—What do they say?
In brief, they both say a state doesn’t have to accept a federal law it regards as unconstitutional. What do you think about that, Kylie?
—Well, I guess that makes sense. I mean, if a law is wrong, you shouldn’t have to obey it.
Ethan, you’re shaking your head.
Why is that?
—Because you can’t just go around saying you’re not go to obey any law you don’t like. That’s how the Civil War happened.
Oh it is, is it?
—Yeah. It’s like the South didn’t like Lincoln getting elected so they said ‘we quit.’
—That’s different, Ethan. Lincoln won fair and square. But what are these guys supposed to do? Do you have to obey a law that’s clearly wrong, like this one is?
—You have to accept it. And then try and change it.
—I agree with Adam.
—But who’s to say you can change it? What if they saying that trying to change it is speaking out against the government? And they send you to jail for that?
—This is a horrible situation. Here you have one set of people who pass a bad law, and then another set of people who pass another bad law?
Were they equally bad laws, Sadie?
—I don’t know. That’s why I say this is a horrible situation. What ends up happening?
Well, I told you that the Republicans got into this situation because they overplayed their hand with the XYZ affair. But now it’s the Federalists who overplay their hand: the Alien and Sedition Acts really boomerang on them. The Republicans really start to make a comeback.
—Yeah, but what about the war?
Good question. As you heard at a few minutes ago, it’s known as the Quasi War.
—OK. But did it ever become an actual war?
Well, there are some shots exchanged on the high seas. But as it turns out, the American government isn’t the only one that’s distracted by internal turmoil. By 1799, there’s another new government in France. And Adams, about as scared as Jefferson by the prospect of Alexander Hamilton in charge of an army, does a really smart thing: he quietly tries again with France. This time the French are more receptive, and they come to an understanding. Which means that Adams can disband the army. Hamilton is pissed; lots of other people are relieved. A bullet has been dodged.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the Republicans are backing off. They’re more determined than ever to defeat the Federalists who have been running the country for ten long years now. They want to get control of the government. And they form a plan to do it.
—So what happens next?
It gets worse. See you tomorrow.
Next: Aaron Burr in the saddle