Gordon Wood’s most recent book Friends Divided, is a critical addition to the history of America’s founding. The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White and American Colossus by W.H. Brands are excellent histories of transitional periods, but Woods focuses on the relationship and the fundamental philosophical differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the roots of partisan politics in America.
Despite their preference for neutrality, our first three presidents were sucked into the conflict between Britain and France. In 1794 George Washington supported by his VP John Adams, sent John Jay to negotiate a trade agreement with Great Britain. This angered many Americans reluctant to engage their former ruler, and many like Thomas Jefferson who greatly preferred the French promise of republican government to the monarchal government of Britain.
The French responded by attacking American merchant ships trading with Britain. In 1798 President John Adams sent a team including John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Pinckney to negotiate with France. The French court refused to see them and responded with demands that were little more than extortion. The French refused to acknowledge the names of the American delegation rudely referring to them in their response as XYZ.
The XYZ Affair brought us to the brink of war and stunned Jefferson when it was released. The author Gordon Woods compared it to the paranoia that gripped the west coast after Pearl Harbor that led to the internment of Japanese Americans. The XYZ memo destroyed public support for the pro French Republican party of Jefferson.
The paranoia led to the Sedition Act of 1798, a response that has haunted Adams’s place in history but is rarely considered in light of the threat that loomed, and the understanding of the rationale for sedition in English law. Lacking police forces and magistrates it was deemed necessary to protect the social respectability of the governors. Even Jefferson’s vehement objection was to its use at the federal level, not at the state level when in his opinion it belonged according to the constitution.
The XYZ Affair influenced immigration policy as well. The Federalists were originally anxious to receive immigrants to help land development and in 1790 passed liberal immigration laws granting citizenship after two years. Jefferson and the Republicans objected fearing influence from European immigrants still preferring monarchy.
This partisan difference switched when French immigrants came. The Federalists feared Jacobin French influence as Jefferson had feared European monarchists. The Naturalization Act of 1798 changed the citizenship requirement to 14 years and forbid immigrants from hostile nations. The Alien Friends Act passed a week later, allowed the government to restrict aliens in peace time.
Partisan differences emerged before Washington completed his two terms. The Federalists did not consider themselves a political party; they were just opposed to the Republican Party of Jefferson. Even Jefferson did not consider the Republican Party to be a permanent fixture. (The Republican Party of Jefferson became the Democratic Republican Party and eventually the Democratic Party.)
The party fissure, however, remained a fixture in American politics. It is worth remembering that it came from fundamental philosophical differences. The parties are capable of switching stances on policy as it did on immigration.
While voters focus on the pragmatic issues, it is the fundamental differences underlying these policies that matter.