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A New System of Government
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Page 1234

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The Spectre of Secession

[Picture of Alexander Hamilton]

By the time he left office, Washington had reason to regret his decision. He and his administration had come under attack by a group that called itself "Republicans" because they were, as they saw it, trying to save the republic from "Federalists" and "pro-British subversives" led by Alexander Hamilton, Washington's Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton had fought for American independence, but he did admire some aspects of British government. Nonetheless, he and other Federalists thought they were themselves struggling to save the republic from wild-eyed demagogues like Thomas Jefferson, a leader of the "Republicans."

Tensions declined briefly after John Adams became President and Jefferson Vice President. Those two men had been close allies in the struggle for independence, and their friendship deepened during the 1780s, when they both served as representatives of the United States in Europe. Neither, in truth, had much love for Hamilton. But their friendship frayed as the country moved toward war with revolutionary France, a country to which Jefferson and the "Republicans" were deeply committed.

As the Republicans' opposition to the Adams administration mounted, Federalists in Congress adopted a series of measures, the Alien and Sedition Acts, to repress what they understood as "Republican" sedition. That prompted Vice President Jefferson and his close ally, James Madison, to draft resolutions that the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia adopted. Virginia denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts as efforts to establish a monarchy on the ruins of the republic. Kentucky even spoke of state "nullification" of unconstitutional acts of Congress.

Could the nation survive if individual states could decide which national laws they would obey and which they would disregard? The end of the "war scare" with France and Jefferson's election as President in 1800 seemed to end the crisis. In his inaugural address, Jefferson reached out to the opposition: "We are all Republicans," he said; "we are all Federalists." Fears for the nation declined, until Jefferson's decision to purchase Louisiana led die-hard Federalists to call for New England's secession from the Union.

Threats of secession surfaced again after 1819, when Missouri requested admission to the Union as a slave state, and a New York representative, James Talmadge, proposed that first the state must begin a program of emancipation. A compromise resolved the crisis, but not before Southerners threatened disunion and predicted "seas of blood."

Even Jefferson was pessimistic. If the problem of slavery emerged during the Missouri crisis as, in Jefferson's words, "a firebell in the night," it was not a problem that could be solved easily. On that Jefferson and John Adams agreed. Those veterans of 1776 had renewed their friendship in 1812, and exchanged letters with each other through the rest of their lives.

The Jefferson Legacy

They lived to see a great resurgence of nationalism after 1815. By then the Declaration of Independence had become for many a revered and even sacred document. Its importance, however, lay increasingly in its second paragraph, not the last one, with its announcement that the colonies had become "free and independent states." Independence, after all, was by then almost a half-century old.

Neither the federal Constitution nor the Bill of Rights said anything about equality or men's "unalienable rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, those who wanted to assert those principles in national politics had to cite the Declaration of Independence. And so what was once a revolutionary manifesto took on new life as a statement of rights that the established government had to honor and protect, much like a bill of rights.

[Picture of Jefferson]

For Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence became the crowning achievement of his life. Discouraged by the Missouri crisis and conscious that his administrative career was less than glorious, worried about the University of Virginia, the pet project of his old age, as well as his own health and his debts, he asked what he had accomplished in his long life. He had no idea that he would become THOMAS JEFFERSON, the most idealized member of the founding generation. The inscription he proposed for his tomb began: "Here lies buried/Thomas Jefferson/Author of the Declaration of Independence..."

The pain he suffered while Congress edited his text was, it seems, forgotten. His death came at mid-day on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, as he wished. In bouts of consciousness he had asked his family, "Is it the Fourth?" Later that day, in Massachusetts, John Adams uttered his own last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives."

The deaths of those two patriarchs, and on so remarkable a day, filled the nation with awe. Another generation had inherited responsibility for carrying on the achievements of the Revolution. Just keeping the nation together would be a challenge to its skills. And that challenge would become more trying before it went away.

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