Revolutions and Rebellions Leading to the Federalist Presidency

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The 1790s played an integral role in the history of the United States of America and the dynamics between the Federalists and the Republicans, wherein both sides bore a series of blows, ultimately taking down Washington as president. Read to know more about it.

Picture showing the Declaration of Independence as seen on the two dollar US bill.
The ripple of events created in the 1790s had far reaching impacts, culminating with the crowning of John Adams as a Federalist President. (Image: JohnKwan/Shutterstock)

Ripples From the French Revolution

The French Revolution was not only important to the history of France, but surprisingly, played a role in the American Revolution as well, setting into motion a series of events that would eventually culminate with a Federalist President.

It was a few months after Washington’s inauguration as the first president that the mobs in Paris rose and destroyed the Bastille, creating the most memorable symbol of the French Revolution; three days later, the old French Monarchy gave way to a constitutional monarchy with a new liberal constitution. 

Jefferson, the American ambassador to France at that time, couldn’t be happier with America’s oldest ally joining it in revolution, and hoped that the two would join hands to form a sister republic, bringing down monarchy and unfair privilege. 

On the same topic, however, Hamilton expounded on how, despite the seemingly good news, the French Revolution had stark differences in comparison to the American Revolution. It had turned suddenly and rapidly from an experiment in republican liberty to a vendetta against the French monarchy, marked in 1793 by the emergence of Maximilien Robespierre, and the imposition of his Reign of Terror, when enemies of the revolution were paraded to the guillotine in thousands.

Hamilton snorted in derision when France was officially proclaimed as a ‘republic’ in 1793, and when the French waged war against Britain and other European monarchies, he urged Washington not to allow the United States to collaborate with the French. The Republicans, however, overlooked the excesses of the French republic, chalking them up to the costs of liberty.

 Learn more about the French alliance with the United States.

Rebellion Against Edmond Genet

The movement in France and Jefferson’s faith in their Revolution began to embarrass the Republicans.

Edmond Genet, the first envoy of the French Republic, enraged Washington by commissioning ships to attack British merchant vessels, an action that could peg the British against America when attempts were being made to avoid war. 

Finally, even Jefferson had to admit that Genet was not good for the Republican interest. Sentiment against Genet erupted in Richmond, New York City, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, and eventually Washington demanded the revocation of Genet’s credentials. 

Interestingly, however, these advantages received by the Federalists because of Washington’s support, their control of Congress, and their urban, wealthy support, did not prove to be lasting. 

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Whiskey Rebellion

Hamilton’s desire to relieve the nation’s revolutionary war debt led to steep tariffs, such as on imports, and a huge excise tax on whiskey, but this policy did not work as well as he would have hoped.

Hamilton looked at whiskey production as a luxury, ignoring the fact that it was an efficient and profitable way to produce a useful commodity out of surplus grain, turning non-shelfable grain into shelfable whiskey. Taxing whiskey, therefore, was a heavy burden on farmers. 

The farmers of Western Pennsylvania and North Carolina fought back against this in the summer of 1794, using the methods they had perfected during the revolution: intimidation, mobs, conventions, and committees. To Hamilton and Washington, this was a test of the federal government’s authority, a crisis to determine the sustainability of the government. 

Painting showing the Famous Whiskey Insurrection of Pennsylvania.
Hamilton wished for the Whiskey Rebellion to be made into an opportunity to create an example, but it ended with a very public loss of face for him. (Image: New York Public Library Digital Gallery/Public domain)

The alarm for 12,000 militiamen to assemble at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was sounded by the Secretary of War, Knox. At the end of September, Hamilton and Washington donned uniforms and took personal command of these forces and marched westward to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. This was when it turned into a huge fiasco. 

While resistors of the whiskey tax had no army, and simply retreated to their farms, left without any options, Hamilton longed to hang someone to make an example. 

He tried to hang Hugh Henry Breckinridge, a journalist in Pittsburgh, when he discovered that Breckinridge had failed to properly sign his oath of submission to the excise law. In the end, though, the whole dramatic scene had to be called off, and Hamilton and Washington were left looking foolish. 

The Whiskey Rebellion was only the beginning of the problems for the Federalists, however.

The Jay Treaty

Washington sent John Jay to Britain in 1795 to negotiate some commercial matters after the Revolutionary War. However, with Britain being in a position of strength, the treaty returned so lopsided that it nearly failed to get Senate approval. 

The Jay Treaty was highly infamous, and effigies of Jay were burnt in large parts of the country. 

Then, in 1795, Hamilton left the cabinet to return to his law practice to recoup his funds, causing Federalist leadership to disintegrate. In 1796, Washington announced his withdrawal from a third term as the president.

With the loss of the Federalist’s most potent figurehead, the Republicans nominated Jefferson for president, and Aaron Burr as his vice president. 

Learn more about the creation of the Constitution.

The Race for Presidency and the Constitution of America

In contrast to the Republican fervor, the Federalists were paralyzed. Their most obvious nominee was Washington’s vice president, John Adams, but Adams had not been too supportive of Hamilton’s agenda, and the latter urged Thomas Pickney to be nominated instead. Finally, Adams ran, with Pickney as vice president.

The Constitution of America did not provide for a direct election of the President by the people, but through the majority of the electors elected by the majority of the people. 

To complicate the process further, there was no provision at the time for pairing the president and vice president in the election process, unlike the modern system, where the ticket of the president and vice president is thought of as a single unit. Since the framers of the Constitution had never envisioned the existence of parties, they simply had thought of the top vote-getters as attaining the presidency and the runner-up becoming the vice-president. Of course, by 1796, both Federalists and Republicans had taken on a political life of their own, and nominated their own choices for both president and vice president.

The New Team: Adams and Jefferson

Portrait of John Adams painted by Benjamin Blyth.
Federalist John Adams scraped through to the president’s seat, with the Republican Jefferson trailing closely and becoming his vice president. (Image: Benjamin Blyth/Public domain)

Since this ‘winner-take-all’ process provided by the Constitution did not allow for a distinction between a Federalist candidate for president and a Republican one for vice president, it was possible for one party’s candidate to win the majority and become president, while the runner-up could be from the opposing party, resulting in a president being stuck, not with a vice president of his choosing, but with an erstwhile rival. 

This is what happened when Adams managed to scrape through to the president’s seat, with a total of 71 electoral votes. His proposed vice presidential candidate, Pickney, however, picked only 59 votes, while Thomas Jefferson garnered 68 votes. So, by the law of the land, Jefferson became John Adams’s vice president. Jefferson, the leader of the Republicans, gained access as the presiding officer in the Senate, and in this manner, managed to put dampeners to almost every Federalist initiative in the senate itself. 

Common Questions about Revolutions leading to the Federalist Presidency

Q: How did the French Revolution affect the American Revolution?

The French Revolution made Jefferson very happy. he thought that the two allies will join hands and form a sister republic. However, a combination of the unfavorable situation of the French republic, the unwarranted actions of the French Envoy Edmond Genet, Hamilton’s public derision of the French ‘republic’, and Jefferson’s tenacious faith in the French despite all of this, became a source of embarrassment for the Republicans.

Q: What was the Whiskey Rebellion?

In an attempt to reduce the national revolutionary debt, Hamilton, while increasing excise, levied a heavy tax on the production of whiskey. He did not realize that whiskey production was an efficient and cost-effective method for farmers to use their excess grain.
As a result, this excise resulted in a lot of unrest, known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Q: Why was John Adams stuck with Jefferson as his vice president?

Before the American Revolution began in full swing, the Constitution was drafted without taking the presence of parties into account. So, the race for the presidency was a linear one, where the candidate with the most votes became president and the runner-up was the vice president. Since the Federalist candidate, Pickney, had lesser votes than Jefferson, who had lesser votes than Adams, Adams became the president, with Jefferson as his vice president.

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