How Fragile We Were: Why the United States Almost Failed Early

By Monica RicoAugust 24, 2017

How Fragile We Were: Why the United States Almost Failed Early

A Sovereign People by Carol Berkin

A READER OF Carol Berkin’s lucid new book A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism can hardly be blamed for drawing comparisons between the tumultuous 10 years after the ratification of the Constitution and our time. Whether it is comforting or disturbing to be reminded that venomous partisanship, sexual scandal, and the prospect of foreign manipulation of American leaders and policies have been with us since the beginning of our government probably depends on how closely the reader has been keeping up with that day’s news cycle.

At least with the 1790s, we know how the story ends: the Constitution and the United States live on. Berkin argues that these fraught years resulted in a certainty by the end of the decade: a genuine and widespread conviction among Americans that the Constitution was a “sacred” and “inviolate” document. Americans might disagree as to the meaning of the Constitution, but their devotion to it, and to the nation it established, was genuine and profound.

Berkin unfolds her argument by considering four episodes: the Whiskey Rebellion, the Citizen Genêt Affair, the XYZ Affair, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Each of these crises exposed a potential crisis of legitimacy for the federal government. Most historians have analyzed these events within the broader context of the era’s political parties, the Federalists and Republicans. As fans of Hamilton’s “Cabinet Battle #1” will recall, the former group tended to envision the United States as a commercial nation with a robust central government. The Republicans, on the other hand, saw America’s future as essentially agrarian and argued that the Constitution stipulated that most governmental functions to be assumed by the states.

Americans arrived at a consensus on the role of the president as the source of American foreign policy by the end of this transformative decade, and despite intense partisanship, both Federalist and Republicans could unite when faced with the prospect of an external enemy and national disgrace. Moreover, in 1790, many Americans worried that the Constitution would suppress liberty, but by 1799, critics of the Adams administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts chose to argue interpretations of the Constitution rather than challenging the legitimacy of the federal government itself.

During the Whiskey Rebellion, backcountry opponents of Hamilton’s taxation plan protested — sometimes violently — an excise tax on liquor, often to the point of noncompliance. The open flouting of laws passed by an elected Congress and signed by an elected president shocked Federalists. Even Republicans who sympathized with the rebels’ cause found themselves compelled to uphold the power of the central government when it came to armed revolt. Washington’s administration had surmounted a major challenge to its legitimacy, but only by threatening military reprisal.

Berkin shows how Washington’s unparalleled reputation for courage and integrity enabled him to make this threat without reinforcing fears — at least for most Americans — that he would use the troops, once called out, to mount a military coup. Yet a government that rested for its authority on the reputation of one man was not a government that was likely to last, and the president, his advisors, and Congress knew it. As 18th-century men steeped in small-r republican political theory, republican success would rest on “virtue,” understood in the era to mean citizens’ commitment to the preservation of liberty and the public welfare.

Throughout the 1790s, the threats of deadly entanglements with France and Great Britain loomed over the fledgling United States. Though Federalists viewed revolutionary France with suspicion and Republicans, with approval, Washington decided early in his administration that neutrality was the only viable position for a small nation that could not afford to be at war with either Britain or France. Locked in a titanic struggle on land and sea, neither European power saw a reason to respect American neutrality. France, in particular, held that Americans were bound by a 1778 treaty that committed French support to the American revolution. Many Americans read about revolution in France with enthusiasm, particularly before the Jacobin Terror began in the fall of late 1793. Attendees at a banquet for French minister Edmond Genêt drank to the toast, “The Republics of France and America: may they be forever united in the cause of liberty.” The French had supported the Americans in their revolution; why should the Americans not do the same?

Washington and Adams argued that the United States was committed only to aiding France in a defensive war if France were attacked. Providing any other military aid to France would bring the wrath of Britain down upon American heads yet again. Britain was the United States’s most important trading partner; despite everything, it was linked to the country by cultural ties that inspired considerable affection among many, and it was immensely powerful. No one knew better than Washington how much luck had gone into the American victory over Britain in the revolution. After years of war and hardship, moreover, very few Americans had any interest in resuming the fight. Neutrality was the best option. As George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address warned his compatriots, the United States should “cultivate peace and harmony with all” nations, but resist becoming mixed up “in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.”

French ministers assumed that Americans were so loosely attached to their new country that it would be possible, even easy, to manipulate them into serving French aims. Yet by 1798, first Washington and then Adams were able to command a surge in public support in response to revelations that French agents had attempted to undermine American foreign policy. “Despite the many and deep ideological and policy differences between Federalists and Republicans,” Berkin writes, “Americans of both parties were determined to show they were not, as the French Directory had claimed, a ‘divided people’ who could be separated from one another or from their government.”

Berkin lards her story with copious quotation from correspondence, congressional debates, and newspapers to show that even as partisanship rose to furious heights, Americans moved closer to a sense of the United States as the government of “a sovereign people” rather than a compact of sovereign states. Living as we do in a time when ideas that cannot be expressed in 140 characters frequently go unexpressed entirely, I found myself yearning for an era when presidents wrote their own lengthy and eloquent speeches and requested, as Washington did, detailed and orderly explications of policy from Hamilton and Jefferson, which they duly wrote themselves in elegant, tightly argued prose. Yet this also was a period, Berkin reminds us, when a newspaper could describe Adams as “‘a blind, bald, toothless, querulous’ old man, ‘a repulsive pedant,’ and a ‘gross hypocrite.’” Federalist John Allen described Republicans as possessed by “falsehood and hatred of everything sacred, human and divine.”

A Sovereign People prods us to remember that the early statesmen of this country sometimes were less like the formal tableau in John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration (a painting produced many years after the event itself) and more like a quarrelsome neighborhood association, full of old grievances and new disagreements over any number of issues.

Some of the best passages in the book explore the weaknesses that beset these men: Adams’s injured vanity, Hamilton’s impatience with anyone not as smart as he, Jefferson’s tendency to overlook hard truths about his idealized French revolutionaries. We get less well-known figures as well, such as a young John Marshall, bright but with “lax, lounging manners,” according to his cousin Jefferson. Berkin’s description of the high-maintenance Elbridge Gerry, a man “whose mission in life often seemed to be alienating others,” will help readers understand why Adams’s appointment of Gerry to represent the United States in France in 1798 was one of the decisions that doomed that particular diplomatic errand to failure.

Perhaps the accidental hero of the story, if there is one, is John Adams, whose decision to seek yet another negotiation with France at the end of 1798 made a mockery of his administration’s drive toward war preparation. In stepping back from the brink, Adams opened the way for a new treaty with France that recognized American neutrality, but he also doomed his party and his own career. Berkin portrays a man who knew he lacked the glitter of Hamilton and the patrician dignity of Washington, but who knew, at the end, who he was: “a statesman rather than a politician. He would act in the best interests of the nation, not the narrow interests of the party.” We can only hope that we have such leaders in our own time. We do not know where the story ends.


Monica Rico is an associate professor of History at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

LARB Contributor

Monica Rico is an associate professor of History at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!