As early as 1796, the year of the first contested Presidential election, the battle lines were drawn. Although there were no formal political parties, there were loose coalitions of political thought, and as is the nature of any war, it came down to two sides: The Federalists, who preferred a more powerful national government, and the early beginnings of the Republicans, who favored a less powerful national government. Both parties recognized the need for a national government, but as always, the devil is in the details.
John Adams, the Federalist candidate, won the electorate by 3 votes. At that time the runner-up became the Vice President, and Thomas Jefferson represented the Republicans in that office. The Federalists retained control of Congress, and it didnâ€™t take long for human nature to kick into gear. When given a little bit of power, most of us tend to use it to gain more power. We rationalize this abuse of power by claiming it is for the â€œgreater goodâ€. But just as we are witnessing the effects of political power run amok today, the first Americans also had to deal with this problem.
In 1798 Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a set of 4 laws that are eerily similar in nature to the kind of legislation weâ€™re seeing today. The Alien Acts gave the President the power to detain, imprison, or deport individuals believed to be â€œdangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.â€ The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish â€œfalse, scandalous, and malicious writingâ€ against the federal government. In fact, there were Republican journalists that were prosecuted and convicted under this law.
This was simply an early test of American federalism. Our contemporary debate is really pretty old. How much power should be given to the federal government? But as Thomas Jefferson pointed out, the real question is this: who gives the federal government the power in the first place? Itâ€™s fine to debate how much power the feds should have, but if we donâ€™t understand where it comes from, we are destined for failure.
When these federal laws were passed in 1798, there were people who began talking about secession. Thomas Jefferson stepped in and worked behind the scenes to show people that there was a better solution. Remember, Jefferson was a Republican Vice President serving in a Federalist administration, so he couldnâ€™t directly oppose this nationalistic trend. Instead, he covertly worked with James Madison to author state resolutions that would condemn these unconstitutional laws. Jefferson himself authored theÂ Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and Madison drafted theÂ Virginia Resolution of 1798.
Both of these documents are extremely important to American federalism. Just as Jefferson intended, these resolutions laid the groundwork for the principles of nullification and interposition. His message was a reminder that â€œwe the peopleâ€ are ultimately in charge, not the federal government. The federal government derives its power from the people. Itâ€™s surprising to me that this was an issue as early as 1798.