THE design of this pamphlet, an edition of which was printed at Richmond some years ago, is to convey to the public the "Virginia Report of 1799," a state paper which, having wrought a great effect upon the political parties of its day, is still, though more praised than read, highly esteemed as a commentary on the Federal Constitution. The other papers which go along with the "Report," are intended, like this preface, only to illustrate it.
After the lapse of so many years, the reader, it is hoped, will not take it amiss that his memory is refreshed as to some of the incidents of the period that gave birth to this document; a period perhaps the most critical in our national annals.
The present Federal Constitution, succeeding to the "Articles of Confederation," having been ratified by eleven states, commenced its operation, nominally, on the 4th of March, 1789, under the auspices of WASHINGTON, as the first President. In his Cabinet, and in the first Congress, were organized the parties afterwards known as "Federalists" and "Republicans." The former, under the sagacious lead of Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, fearful of a recurrence of that anarchy which had overtaken the country under the imbecile government of the "Confederation," were inclined to a vigorous exercise of the federal power, and consequently adopted a liberal construction of the Federal Constitution. The Republicans, on the other side, headed by Mr. Jefferson, were apprehensive of a gradual absorption, by the central government, of the powers reserved to the states and to the people. Consolidation was their great terror, as the absence of all government was the terror of their opponents; and consolidation they viewed, justly, as the forerunner not of monarchy only, but of despotism.
Mr. Hamilton, being a declared admirer of the English Constitution in the abstract, gave occasion to many of the opposite party to impute to him, and to his political associates, sentiments unfavourable to the existing institutions of the country; in short, a proclivity to monarchy. This suspicion, undoubtedly unjust as regards the great mass of the Federalists, was fortified by their avowed opinions touching the necessity of what, in the phrase of the time, was called a strong government.
The occurrence of the French Revolution affected these parties with different emotions. The Republicans looked on in trusting faith that it would result in giving to France institutions modelled after our own, calculated to insure rational freedom, but affording no encouragement to licentiousness. The Federalists were less sanguine. They feared that the French people neither appreciated the blessings of liberty founded on law, nor were capable of attaining them, and they conceived all their conclusions confirmed by the succession of tragic scenes which accompanied the progress of the Revolution. Thenceforward sympathy with France constituted a prominent point of difference between their adversaries and themselves.
In 1793, upon the execution of Louis XVI., a war broke out between France and England, which, as it was characterized by unusual animosity between the contending parties, led to an emulous violation by both of the rights of neutral commerce. From these outrages no country suffered more than the United States, the citizens of which, instead of uniting to require indemnity from both belligerents, allowed their partisan feelings to array them as the apologists, or the denouncers, of one or the other, as previous tendencies disposed them. The Republicans favoured France, influenced as well by a natural sympathy for a great people struggling, as they supposed, for freedom, as by gratitude for the assistance so recently received in the war of our Revolution, and animated by a hostility, not yet extinct, towards our former enemy, Great Britain. The Federalists leaned towards England as the champion of conservatism, and the bulwark against that pernicious license everywhere propagated by French writers and emissaries.
The Republicans identified France with liberty, and cherished its cause with proportionate ardour. The Federalists saw in it only irreligion, private profligacy, bloody excess, and, in the end, the despotism of the sword, and abhorred it as a combination of all that was hateful to their reason, and their habits.
On the other hand, England was to the Federalists the embodiment of a government at once vigorous and free; not insensible to the opinions of its people, but impassive to their prejudices and passions; and the regard due to those qualities, was extended to the country. To the Republicans, England was a monarchy, and their late oppressor, and now appeared to be a reluctant and surly friend, in each and all of which characters, it was alike odious.
The war had not been long in progress, when many Americans, stimulated by French agents, and the thirst of gain, and relying upon the prepossessions of their countrymen, hastened to fit out armed vessels in several of our ports, to cruise under French commissions, against the enemies of France. England remonstrated, and there was issued, in consequence, General Washington's famous proclamation of neutrality, which, with the instructions founded upon it, rigorously interdicted such enterprises for the future. This led to a correspondence between Mr. Jefferson, then Secretary of State, and Genet, the French minister, resident here, in which the latter, confiding in the supposed popular partiality for France, crowned a series of impertinences by threatening to appeal from the government to the people of America, and was in consequence, by the request of the President, recalled.
Genet's recall, his successor being a man of more moderation, had the effect to restore those cordial feelings for France to which the former's indefensible conduct had given a shock. Meanwhile our commerce was suffering much from the depredations of both belligerents. In 1794, Mr. Jay, the Chief Justice of the United States, having been despatched as a special envoy to England, to adjust the numerous differences which had been accumulating with that country since the peace of 1783, the jealousy of France blazed fiercely out; and when, the next year, the treaty negotiated by Mr. Jay was ratified by our government, the indignation of the Directory knew no bounds. Spoliations of our commerce were committed with as little reserve as if actual war existed, and the conduct of the French government was marked by every circumstance of contumely.
Jay's treaty, meanwhile, was received in America with a severity of reprehension which bespoke the decided Anti-Anglican dispositions of our people. It must be admitted, indeed, to have involved a painful sacrifice of the rights of our country, in more than one particular. It had the effect, however, to postpone a war with England until we were better able to bear it, and, our Union preserved, we shall probably never again be subjected to a like humiliation. The manifestations of popular feeling induced, in the French Directory, the conceit that the government of America might be separated from its citizens. Acting upon this delusion, they took leave of Mr. Monroe, then our representative at Paris, with warm professions of regard for the people of America, and of undisguised hostility to the administration, and refused, with studied indignity, to receive Mr. Pinckney, who had been sent out as Mr. Monroe's successor.
Parties in the United States were thus situated when General Washington, at the end of his second term, resigned the reins of power to Mr. Adams, who was himself a Federalist, and chose his cabinet from those of kindred sentiments. Very soon after his accession, Mr. Adams made an effort to compose our misunderstanding with France by sending thither a solemn embassy, consisting of Mr. Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina, Mr. Marshall of Virginia, and Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts. The joint appointment of gentlemen so distinguished ought to have evinced to France the strong desire of our government to conciliate her. They were treated, however, with an insolence inconceivable, were not admitted to an audience, and were subjected to the mortification of being approached by certain agents of Talleyrand, the minister for public affairs, with proposals as degrading as they were direct, for a bribe. The proposition was, that £50,000 sterling should be distributed amongst certain members of the Directory, as the necessary price of entering upon the negotiation. The envoys having peremptorily refused to buy, in any way, the privilege of presenting the just demands of their country, Messrs. Pinckney and Marshall were dismissed; Mr. Gerry, who, as belonging to the Republican party, was insultingly supposed to be more pliable, being requested to remain.
The envoys having communicated these transactions to their government, the correspondence was laid before Congress, and printed, the names of Talleyrand's brokers being veiled under the respective letters X. Y. Z. and W. The publication, like an electric shock, awakened all the dormant fires of patriotism in America. As one man the people stood forward prepared to vindicate the insulted honour and violated rights of their country. The President, anticipating the national spirit, in his message of 21st June, 1798, communicating the return of Mr. Marshall to the United States, peremptorily declared that he would "never send another minister to France without assurances that he would be received, respected, and honoured, as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation."
So strong was the general irritation under what was called "the X. Y. Z. excitement," that party lines were in a degree obliterated, and the administration of Mr. Adams was, for a brief period, lifted to a great height of popularity, whence, however, it was very soon precipitated into irretrievable disgrace.
The Federalists, elated at the spring-tide of favour setting in upon the administration, resolved to avail themselves of it to the utmost. With this view they proceeded vigorously with preparations for a war with France, and determined to take decisive steps to expel from the country all aliens who might be supposed hostile or dangerous to its institutions. Thus they hoped to keep up the excitement of anger against France, and of jealousy against her apologists amongst our own people, whilst they got rid of the French propagandists, and unquiet English and Irish agitators, who were employed too much in preaching license, under the name of liberty. The Alien Act was accordingly passed 25th June, 1798, being especially aimed, it was thought, at Volney, Collot, Priestley, and a few others. Then they essayed to curb what they called the licentiousness of the press by the Sedition Act, which received the assent of the President on the 14th July, 1798.
These two laws, but especially the last, were fatal to the party which originated them. The Alien Act alone, as being directed against comparatively few persons, and those strangers, might not have been so obnoxious, but the Sedition Law, trespassing, as it seemed to do, upon the freedom of the press, so cherished by the Anglo-Saxon race, raised a storm, before which all the recent popularity of Mr. Adams's administration vanished like morning mist.
Suspicions of the darkest ultimate designs were entertained and disseminated, "For my own part," says Mr. Jefferson, addressing a friend, "I consider those laws as merely an experiment on the American mind, to see how it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution. If this goes down, we shall immediately see attempted another act of Congress, declaring that the President shall continue in office during life, reserving to another occasion the transfer of the succession to his heirs, and the establishment of the Senate for life!"
To these suspicions a deeper tinge was imparted by the preparations for the impending war with France. These, however indispensable, exposed the administration to misconstruction, and to complaints both loud and deep. An additional army, first of 10,000 and afterwards of 30,000 men was authorized to be raised in the event of a declaration of war, or an actual invasion, or imminent danger thereof, and the President was besides authorized to accept the services of an indefinite number of volunteers. A navy was also begun on a liberal scale. To meet the expense of these measures, besides duties on imports, and a loan of $5,000,000, a direct tax of $2,000,000, (whereof the quota of Virginia was $345,488.66,) was laid on dwelling-houses, lands, and slaves. These burdens predisposing the people to murmur, they hearkened readily to the vehement accusations with which the press, the hustings, and even conversation teemed.
The Alien and Sedition Laws, the army and navy bills, and the large sums placed within reach of the President, were represented as parts of the same plan to perpetuate and enlarge his power.
In proportion as ideas like these gained ground, the Alien and Sedition Laws became more odious. The zeal of the opposite party rising with the prospect of success, and stimulated by a sense of the importance of the principles supposed to be invaded, they addressed themselves, with renewed ardour, to the task of overthrowing the administration. Nor were its supporters idle or indifferent. The New England and the Middle States were generally favourable to the party in power; the Southern and Western States were for the most part Republican. But minorities imposing in numbers and in character existed on either side. Both parties hastened to call into action all the political machinery available for them respectively, of which the most efficient consisted in the solemn declarations of the several state legislatures touching the obnoxious laws.
Important as the crisis really was, it was factitiously exaggerated by the partisanship on both sides. The advocates of administration, in order to maintain the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, amongst other arguments, insisted that the offence denounced by it was an offence at common law, and was therefore punishable in the courts of the United States, independently of the statute. The statute, it was said, was even more favourable to the accused than the common law. The assumption involved in this argument, that the common law constituted part of the federal jurisprudence, created more alarm than the main topics of complaint, the Alien and Sedition Laws themselves. It was regarded as an accumulation, at one stroke, of all authority in the hands of the Federal Government, there being no subject, legislative, executive, or judicial, which the common law did not embrace; and it was anxiously urged that the effect would be an annihilation of state sovereignty, and the erection of a government consolidated, and therefore despotic. "Other assumptions of ungiven power," said Mr. Jefferson, "have been in detail. The bank law, the treaty doctrine, the sedition act, alien act, the undertaking to change the state laws of evidence in the state courts, by certain parts of the stamp act, &c., &c., have been solitary, unconsequential, timid things, in comparison with the audacious, bare-faced, and sweeping pretension to a system of law for the United States, without the adoption of their legislature, and so infinitely beyond their power to adopt."
The legislatures of the several states prepared to bear their parts in the drama. That of Virginia, which assembled in December, 1798, was looked to by both parties with peculiar interest. The plan of opposition to be pursued there was probably arranged by Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison, though neither was a member. The plan was to resolve that the Alien and Sedition Laws were unconstitutional and merely void, (which latter phrase, however, was ultimately struck out of the resolutions, as actually adopted,) and to address the other states, to obtain similar declarations. It was not contemplated to commit the commonwealth to any foreshadowed course of action, but to reserve the power to shape future measures by the events which should happen. Mr. Jefferson drew the resolutions for Kentucky,1 which was ready to act consentaneously with Virginia, (and did, in fact, act before her,) and they were proposed in her legislature by Mr. Breckenridge. The Virginia resolutions,2 submitted and ably defended by Mr. John Taylor, of Caroline, were from the pen of Mr. Madison.
The Virginia resolutions, having been officially communicated to the legislatures of all the other states, encountered from some of them a disapproval so decided as to make it necessary to sustain the propriety of them by argument. Accordingly, during the whole summer of 1799, the state was agitated with preparations for the approaching conflict. The Republicans possessed a decided majority in the legislature, and amongst the people, but the minority, besides being respectable for numbers, comprehended many individuals eminent for public and private virtue, for capacity, and for services rendered their country, and were sustained also by the august name of WASHINGTON.
The General Assembly, which convened in December, 1799, contained an unusual weight of ability and experience. Virginia mustered for the occasion her strongest men. The author of the resolutions was chosen for the county of Orange, and against him was marshalled no less a champion than PATRICK HENRY, who was elected from the county of Charlotte, but died before taking his seat.
To that General Assembly was submitted from a committee, at the head of which was Mr. Madison, that dignified and lucid report vindicatory of the resolutions of the previous year, ever since known in Virginia, as "Madison's Report," and out of it, as "the Virginia Report of 1799." It assisted materially in perfecting the victory already, in effect, achieved by the Republican party. In the ensuing autumn, or rather winter, Mr. Jefferson was elected President, and the Alien and Sedition Laws having expired by their own limitation, no thought was entertained of renewing them, and their policy was abandoned, probably for ever.
This pamphlet, as remarked in the beginning, contains, besides the " Report," certain other publications calculated to illustrate it. The whole is arranged in the following order, viz.:
I. The Alien and Sedition Acts, 17 to 21.
II. Resolutions of Virginia of 21st December, 1798, with the debate thereon, 22 to 161.
III. Resolutions of Kentucky of 10th November, 1798, 162 to 167.
IV. Counter-resolutions of several states in response to those of Virginia, 168 to 177.
V. Report of 1799, preceded by an analysis thereof, 178 to 237.
VI. Instructions to Virginia senators of January, 1800, and votes thereon, 238 to 248.
VII. Appendix: containing
1. A letter from Mr. Madison to Mr. Everett, touching the construction of the first resolution of 1798, 249 to 256.
2. A letter from the same to Mr. Ingersoll, relative to the Bank question, 257.
3. A letter from the same to the same, on the same subject, 258 to 260.
In conclusion, it is proper to observe that this edition is intended especially for the use of students, and that the learned reader must expect to find in the notes, and in the analysis prefixed to the report, much with which he could dispense.
1. See them, post, p. 163. The authorship of these resolutions has lately been claimed for the distinguished gentleman who offered them.
2. Post, p. 22.
Part I | Randolph Contents | Text Version