1812 Overture (1798-1812). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

1812 Overture (1798-1812). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

The XYZ Affair and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Marbury v. Madison.

The Louisiana Purchase.

Neutralization of the Barbary pirates.

The Embargo and its consequences.

War in the West.

 When George Washington delivered his Farewell Address in March 1797, the United States was recognized by the world’s powers as a nation. That single fact was, in large part, his greatest accomplishment. In his speech, the outgoing president advised his fellow Americans to avoid “foreign entanglements,” to preserve the financial credit of the nation, and to beware of the dangers of political parties, which might fragment the nation.

Everyone agreed that the advice was good, but the second presidential election, in 1796, had already shown that political parties were dividing the nation. John Adams, a Federalist, was elected with 71 votes in the Electoral College. In those days, the runner-up became vice president, and that was Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic-Republican party, with 68 electoral votes. Thus the president and vice president were of different parties and significantly different philosophies of government. Adams would have been called a conservative in his day, a believer in a strong central government. Jefferson, a liberal, wanted more authority entrusted to states and individuals. That these sharply different views did not tear the country apart was a measure of the essential strength of the new nation; yet its recently won liberty was put to severe tests as the 18th century yielded to the 19th.

Foreign Affairs. During Washington’s second term of office, intense friction developed between Britain and the United States. The British government refused to evacuate the frontier forts in the Old Northwest, despite having agreed to do so in signing the Treaty of Paris. Worse, many Americans were convinced that British traders as well as crown officials were encouraging the Indians to attack settlers. Finally, English naval vessels had begun seizing American merchant ships and impressing American sailors into the British service to fight its war against France. The British also complained that Americans had breached the terms of the Paris treaty by failing to pay pre-Revolutionary debts owed British creditors and by refusing to compensate Loyalists for confiscated property during the Revolution.

Anxious to avert a new war with Britain, Washington commissioned Chief justice John Jay to conclude a treaty, signed on November 19, 1794, to secure the British evacuation of the frontier forts and refer debt and boundary disputes to settlement by joint U.S.-British commissions. This amicable solution greatly alarmed the French, who feared that their former ally, the United States, would now unite with Britain against them. Certainly it was true that most Americans, especially the Federalists, recoiled in horror from the excesses of the French Revolution (1789-99). just a year before the Jay Treaty was concluded, Washington rebuffed the overtures of Edmond Charles Edouard Genet (1763-1834), a French diplomat sent to the United States to secure American aid for France in its war with England. “Citizen Genet” (as French revolutionary etiquette dictated he be addressed) defied Washington by plotting with American privateers to prey on British vessels in U.S. coastal waters. The president warned Genet that he was violating U.S. sovereignty. When Citizen Genet responded with a threat to make a direct appeal to the American people, Washington asked the French government to recall him.

In France, however, a new revolutionary party, the Jacobins, had replaced the Girondists, the party to which Genet belonged. In contrast to the United States, where political parties could “disagree without being disagreeable,” rival factions in revolutionary France settled their differences with the guillotine. The Jacobin government asked Washington to extradite Genet, but the president refused to compel Genet to return to France, whereupon Citizen Gen& chose to become a citizen of the United States.

As Easy as XYZ. The Genet episode, combined with the Jay Treaty, brought Franco-American relations to the verge of war. After the French Directory high-handedly refused to receive U.S. minister Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the new president, Adams, sent a commission consisting of Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry to attempt to heal the breach by concluding a new treaty of commerce. Incredibly, French prime minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) sent three agents to greet the American commissioners in Paris in October 1797. The agents told the commissioners that before they could even discuss a treaty, the United States would have to loan France $12 million and pay Talleyrand a personal bribe of $250,000.

On April 3, 1798, an indignant President Adams submitted to Congress the correspondence from the commission, which designated the French agents as “X,” “Y” and “Z.” Congress, equally indignant, published the entire portfolio, and the public learned of the “XYZ Affair.” Americans of all political stripes united in outrage, the nation mobilized for war with its erstwhile ally, and, in fact, an undeclared naval war was sporadically fought from 1. 798 to 1800. Fortunately, that conflict was limited, and international tempers cooled as the French Revolution came to an end.

Overreaction. Yet something far more sinister than another war was brewing. In the summer of 1798, in response to the Genet episode, the XYZ Affair, and the escalating war fever, the Federalistdominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which included the Naturalization Act (June 18, 1798), raising the residence prerequisite for citizenship from 5 to 14 years; the Alien Act (June 25), authorizing the president to deport all aliens regarded as dangerous; and the Alien Enemies Act (July 6), authorizing the president, in time of war, to arrest, imprison, or deport subjects of an enemy power. Most tyrannical of all, the Sedition Act (July 14) prohibited assembly “with intent to oppose any measure … of the government” and forbade printing, uttering, or publishing anything “false, scandalous, and malicious” against the government. What made the dangerous Alien and Sedition Acts even more insidious in the fledgling democracy was the fact that many of the leading Anti-Federalists were recent refugees from Europe. The acts were aimed directly at neutralizing their power.

In 1798-99, Virginia and Kentucky published resolutions (written by James Madison and Jefferson) opposing the acts as unconstitutional and, therefore, not binding on the states. Jefferson maintained that a state had the right to judge the constitutionality of acts of Congress and to “nullify” any acts that it determined to be unconstitutional. Because to the resolutions, the Alien and Sedition Acts were (for the most part) short-lived.

The Age of Jefferson. Public disgust with the Alien and Sedition Acts helped oust the Federalist Adams in the elections of 1800, but the Electoral College voted a tie between the two Democratic Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. As prescribed by the Constitution, the tied election was sent to the House of Representatives for resolution. Hamilton, the implacable enemy of Burr, convinced fellow Federalists to support Jefferson, who was elected on the 36th ballot. Runner-up Burr became vice president.

Historians speak of an “Age of Jefferson,” but not of an Age of Adams. Perhaps the reason is that, despite Federalist objections to most of Jefferson’s policies, the people embraced them, and they became key elements of the popular American agenda. Internal taxes were reduced, the military budget was cut, the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed or died. The climactic triumph of Jefferson’s first term was the momentous expansion of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase.

Supreme Court Reigns Supreme. Although Jefferson commenced his first term as president by proposing to the Federalists that they bury the hatchet, he was not above manipulating the law to prevent a group of Federalist judges, appointed by John Adams, from assuming office. After his inauguration, Jefferson discovered that, during Adams’ final days as president, the former president had signed a number of judicial appointments but had not distributed them. Not wanting to place Federalists in important circuit court and federal court positions, Jefferson decided not to distribute the signed appointments.

When one of the appointees, William Marbury, failed to receive his commission as justice of the peace for Washington, D.C., he petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus—an order to Secretary of State James Madison to distribute the commissions. This order created a critical dilemma for Chief justice John Marshall; if he issued the writ, he would put the court in direct opposition to the president. If Marshall denied the writ, he would dilute the power of the Supreme Court by appearing to bow to the president’s wishes. Refusing to be impaled on the horns of the dilemma, Marshall found that Marbury had been wrongfully deprived of his commission, but he also declared that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, under which Marbury had filed his suit, was unconstitutional. Section 13 added to the Supreme Court’s “original jurisdiction” by improperly allowing into the Supreme Court a case that should be heard by a lower court. Marbury’s suit was thrown out, a political crisis averted, and-most important of all-the right of the Supreme Court to “judicial review” was established.

Ever since the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court has functioned to set aside statutes of Congress the Court judged unconstitutional. The case represented the birth of an extraordinary federal power, which made complete the definition of the system of “checks and balances” the framers of the Constitution had created among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

A Purchase and a Journey. Jefferson’s first term was crowned by an action that added a vast new territory to the United States. This triumph began with a crisis. Following the French and Indian War, France ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain. However, in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte reacquired the territory by secret treaty in exchange for parts of Tuscany, which Napoleon pledged to conquer on behalf of Spain. Napoleon also promised to maintain Louisiana as a buffer between Spain’s North American settlements and the United States. After the secret treaty was concluded, Napoleon promptly abandoned his Tuscan campaign, and the two nations fell to disputing. During this period, beginning in 1802, Spain closed the Mississippi to American trade.

Jefferson could not tolerate an end to western trade, but neither did he relish the notion of Napoleon at his back door. To resolve the crisis, the president dispatched James Monroe to France with orders to make an offer for the purchase of the port city of New Orleans and Florida.

Monroe, it turned out, was in the right place at the right time. One of Napoleon’s armies was bogged down in the disease-infested West Indies. Rather than lose his forces to illness, Napoleon decided to withdraw from the hemisphere and focus his conquests on Europe. Even as Monroe was crossing the Atlantic, Napoleon’s minister Talleyrand asked U.S. foreign minister to France Robert R. Livingston bow much Jefferson would offer not just for New Orleans and Florida, but for the entire Louisiana Territory. Negotiations proceeded after Monroe arrived, and the bargain was concluded for 60 million francs.

The Louisiana Purchase was an overwhelmingly popular move, and it catapulted Jefferson to a second term. In contrast to the tie contest of 1800, Jefferson swept every state except two-Connecticut and Delaware-in the election of 1804.

Pirates and Embargo. Jefferson’s second term began with great promise as his administration negotiated a favorable peace in the Tripolitan War, putting an end to intimidation by the Barbary pirates of Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis, who had been extorting protection money in return for safe passage of U.S. merchant vessels through the Mediterranean. Alas, the rest of Jefferson’s second administration was marked by an economic crisis resulting from a. failure of foreign policy.

In Europe, the Wars of the French Revolution had dissolved into the Napoleonic Wars. When neither the English nor the French could score a decisive victory, they turned to attacks on the commerce of noncombatant nations, including the United States. The English resumed the practice of impressing American sailors and also seized American vessels attempting to enter French ports. Jefferson retaliated with the Non-Importation Act, which prohibited the importation of many English goods.

The simmering crisis came to a head on June 22, 1807, when the British man-of-war Leopard, off Norfolk Roads, Virginia, fired on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake. The British boarded the frigate and seized four men they claimed to be deserters from His Majesty’s navy. The incident fanned the flames of war fever throughout the nation, but President Jefferson resisted. Instead of resorting to war, he pushed through Congress the Embargo Act of December 22, 1807, prohibiting all exports to Europe and restricting imports from Great Britain.

The embargo was a self-inflicted wound, severely crippling the American economy and provoking outrage from American farmers and merchants. Smuggling became rampant, national unity was threatened, and Jefferson’s popularity plummeted while that of the Federalists rose.

Tecumseh Rises. While Jefferson was dealing with England and France, the West that he had done so much to “open” with the Louisiana Purchase was erupting in violence. In 1794, the major tribes of the Old Northwest (the region from the Ohio River to the Great Lakes) were defeated by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the watershed Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20). After almost a decade of relative peace on that frontier region, President Jefferson in. 1803 directed the territorial governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), to obtain “legal” title to as much Indian land as possible. Over the next three years, Harrison acquired 70 million acres by negotiating with whatever chiefs and tribal leaders were willing to sign deeds. The trouble was that for every Indian leader who claimed authority to sell land, another rose up to repudiate that authority and that sale.

The most prominent, brilliant, and charismatic of those who resisted the transfer of Indian lands to the whites was the Shawnee Tecumseh (ca. 1768-1813), who organized a united resistance against white invasion while cultivating an alliance with British interests. Westerners were fearful of Tecumseh and other British-backed Indians, and they were also angry. Not only did the Indians need a good whipping, but so did the British, who became the focus of concentrated hatred in the new American West, not only for inciting Indians to war, but for disrupting American shipping and commerce. What was bad for the coastal economy was disastrous for the West, which, during this critical phase of its development, was being prevented from shipping out its abundant exports. The West was spoiling for a war, and William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh would give it one.

The Least You Need to Know

The liberal “Age of Jefferson” swept away the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts and expanded the United States with the Louisiana Purchase.

 Chief justice John Marshall defined the function and power of the Supreme Court through his decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison.

 Jefferson’s second term was marred by the Embargo Act and a breakdown in relations with Great Britain.

Word for the Day. Impressment was the practice—common, in England during the 18th and early 19th centuries—of compelling—even kidnapping—individuals to serve in the military, especially the navy.

Word for the Day. Nullification would become a major issue in the decade before the Civil War, when South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun echoed Jefferson and asserted that the states could override (“nullify”) any federal laws they judged unconstitutional. Nullification attacked the foundation of American nationhood.

Real Life. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Aaron Burr distinguished himself in the Revolution, made a prosperous marriage (1782) to the widow of a former British officer, and set up a successful law practice in New York City. He entered the U.S. Senate in 1791 and served as U.S. vice president from 1801 to 1805.

Jefferson distrusted Burr and dropped him from the Democratic-Republican ticket in the 1804 race. Thus rejected, Buff ran for New York governor, garnering support (in part) by suggesting that he would aid certain Federalist radicals in their effort to break New York free of the Union. Burr was attacked in print by Alexander Hamilton, and when Burr lost the election, he challenged his enemy to a duel on July 11, 1804. Hamilton was mortally wounded, and Buff received the dubious distinction of becoming the first (and thus far only) U.S. vice president charged with murder.

Burr ultimately was acquitted, completed his vice presidential term with dignity, but then entered into a conspiracy of bewildering proportions. Even now, it is impossible to determine just what Burr intended to do, but he seems to have envisioned creating an empire stretching from the Ohio River to Mexico—an empire over which he would rule. Burr conspired with U.S. army general James Wilkinson to incite the West to a rebellion supported by Mexico. Before Burr could take significant action, however, Wilkinson betrayed him to President Jefferson. Chief justice John Marshall presided over Burr’s trial for treason, pointing out to the jury that Burr had not committed any acts of treason, but had been shown only to have intended to commit such acts. Marshall declared that one could not be found guilty on account of one’s intentions. After 25 minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Burr, who fled to Europe and did not return to the United States until May 1812. He lived out the remainder of his life in retirement.

Stats. The Louisiana Purchase added 90,000 square miles 61 trans-Mississippi territory to the United States. Purchased at a cost of 60 million francs (about $ 15 million), it was a great I estate bargain at four cents an acre.

Main Event. Jefferson, fascinated like so many others with the idea of finding a Northwest Passage connecting the Mississippi with the Pacific, planned an expedition to Louisiana Territory long before the purchase, choosing his trusted secretary Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) to lead the expedition. Lewis asked his close friend William Clark (1770-1838) to serve as co-captain.

The expedition left Saint Louis on May 14, 1804, and reached central North Dakota in November. Accompanied by a remarkable Shoshoni woman Sacajawea (ca. 1784-1812). who served as translator and guide, the group explored the Rockies and reached the Continental Divide on August 12, 1805. Lewis and Clark were now convinced that the Northwest Passage did not exist. However, they pressed on, reaching the Columbia River and the Pacific in November 1805. They returned to Saint Louis on September 23, 1806.


If the expedition failed to find the nonexistent Northwest Passage, it did supply a wealth of information about what had been a great blank space on the map of North America.


Please, login to leave comments