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20171027 – A Sovereign People



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The main idea of this book is to review history of 4 challenges to the newly created American nation that had to be overcome in order to create truly sovereign state:

  • Internal threat of Whiskey rebellion that was generated from the bottom of society
  • French attempt to subvert American sovereignty and force it to act under French control
  • Disruption that America brought in to existing diplomatic order by rejecting core value of European politics – bribery and corruption
  • Another Internal threat, this time generated from the top of society that represented an attempt by political parties to become dominant by using legal system to suppress opposition.

The objective here is to demonstrate that all these challenges were extremely dangerous, were successfully met, and how exactly it was done.



Here author describes purpose of this book as an attempt to present history of formation of American sovereignty via prism of 4 well-known, but poorly understood crises of founding era that occurred in years after acceptance of constitution and before the first in history mainly peaceful and democratic transfer of power from Federalists to Democrat Republicans.

PART I The Whiskey Rebellion

This is the story of an interesting and deeply American rebellion of population against government. It was not something quick and dirty with big military encounters that end in victory of one side and executions leaders and others of losing side. Rather it is slow, several years long process with government victory, no executions, but rather somewhat grudging acceptance of this victory.

Chapter 1

The first part describes formation of the first American government and distribution of power between future competing forces led on one side by Hamilton with support of Washington and Adams, and on other side by Jefferson.

Chapter 2

Obviously the first order of any government is to obtain funding and it was especially challenging for the new country that just went through victorious revolution in no small extent driven by resentment of government taxation. In March 1791 Hamilton succeeded in moving through congress tax on Distilled Spirits.

Chapter 3

This part describes nature of Whiskey use as regular and important farm product of multiple uses including its use as a form of money. Probably the most important reasons for rejection Whiskey tax were not that much related to the taxation per se, as to details such as requirements to pay tax before product was leaving distillery, creation of bureaucratic apparatus to control production and trade of Whiskey and reality that this apparatus was quickly populated by well-connected individuals with lots of nepotism added to the mix. The response was also quick: combination of protests, intimidation and sometimes violence against officials, and, most important, plain and simple flaunting of the law by ignoring it.

Chapter 4

This chapter is about discussion of the law and its consequences in Congress that took place in 1792 with Hamilton strongly supporting the law against westerners and southerners. An important point here was necessity to prove that Federal government actually is capable to enforce its law, so the bill was passed to allow president to raise militia to suppress insurrection.

Chapter 5

This describes raising tensions and specific cases of violence when local population and its representatives frustrated any attempts on enforcing the law, which in Washington’s view threatened sovereignty of Federal state and on September 15 1792 he issued proclamation against rebellion calling on local authorities to provide enforcement.

Chapter 6

This is description of political maneuvering around excise law compliance when Washington did everything possible to encourage compliance and avoid any hint on use of regular army. Interesting here is interplay between federal and local power such as Pennsylvania Governor Mifflin who tried to assure one side that law is enforced and other side it would be somewhat ignored.

Chapter 7

This is description of event of 1793 and 1794 when resistance to excise law was sporadically raised in various places, noncompliance and plain ignoring of the law was widely spread, and even talk about secession started in Kentucky and Georgia.

Chapter 8

This chapter about events in Pennsylvania where violence made it clear, that peaceful resolution become impossible. The locals started formation of militia against federal government

Chapter 9

This chapter moves to the summer of 1794 when Washington and Hamilton started to form militia to suppress rebellion, while still working with Mifflin trying to resolve situation, even if everybody by this time understood futility of this effort and need for raw power.

Chapter 10

Throughout August of 1794 both negotiations and preparation for military action continued in parallel. Eventually by September it became clear for leaders of rebellion that their chances are slim and that the best course of action was to submit to the law.

Chapter 11

This is description of further events of the fall of 1794 when incompliance continued leading to the new proclamation by Washington, who tried position rebels as a small minority dictating norms of behavior to majority.

Chapter 12

This chapter describes final preparation by Washington for military action to the delight of Hamilton. Washington was informed that government officials intimidated and many believe that there is no popular support to the tax. At this point Washington start moving troops.

Chapter 13.

Federal troops start moving in November 1794 and many leaders of rebellion were arrested. There was no serious resistance and by the end of November 1794 militias returned home and majority of participants in rebellion were pardoned with other accused rebels freed by the summer of 1795.

Chapter 14

This chapter is about post-rebellion finger pointing on who is to blame and such.

Epilogue 15

The epilogue discusses historical lessons stating that Hamilton had military approach trying to act quickly to suppress rebellion, while Washington acted as experienced politician using delay tactics to form opposition to rebellion, generate feeling of futility among rebels, and use military power more for intimidation than for actual fighting. Author makes important point here that this story demonstrated critical value of George Washington personality and popularity that allowed to resolve the crisis in such way, that led to establishment of the new loyalty not to personality of Washington, but rather to the Constitution and Federal government.


PART II The Genet Affair

Edmond Genet was revolutionary French government minister to USA who tried to force Washington to move US to French side in its conflict with Britain. In process he blatantly violated usual diplomatic norms trying to build support, including military support, for the French side by going directly to government opponents and even to the people, signing up volunteers, privateers, and sheltering bounty.

Chapter 1

This is brief description of immediate result of the French revolution in America when initial enthusiasm for it disappeared as soon as its excesses become known. As usual in American politics one side – Jefferson republicans continued their support, while other – federalists withdrew it.

Chapter 2

This is about Genet personality and objective that French had sending him to America: expedite payment of American debt and get America involved in supporting French side.

Chapter 3

This chapter describes Genet’s arrival and initial enthusiasm for him as the minister representing fellow republic. It also describes rejection of American government to take French side in conflict and Washington’s proclamation of neutrality that was developed out of contest between Hamilton and Jefferson pro and contra direct support.

Chapter 4

This is about Genet initial reaction and attempts to raise American enthusiasm for the French republic. It also discusses his attempt to start naval privateering based on US soil, specifically in Charleston with support of Jefferson and despite strong opposition by Hamilton.

Chapter 5-15

These chapters describe details of Genet intrigues, their eventual failure, and at the end his rejection of France after Jacobins taking power. The most interesting here is the description of attempt to reject American sovereignty, that was shown by Genet’s manners and actions, and believe that the new country could be controlled and manipulated to somebody’s else benefit. The part ends with Genet becoming an American and with discussion of lessons for the weak state that faces pressure from more powerful states to become their agent, rather than independent principal.



Chapter 1 – 10

Here author describes diplomatic event that demonstrated a very serious impact of the new American State on the way international business is done and, most important, the formation of American attitudes to international business. The case started with American delegation of three people sent to France negotiate relationships with this country, which demonstrated tendency to interfere in American internal affairs by supporting men and parties more responsive to French than to American needs. After consistent deterioration of relations during late 1790s American attempt to start dialog by sending minister Pinckney in 1796 was rejected by French with insult. Even more important was French decision to start naval attacks on Americans ships carrying trade with Britain. All this brought America to the brink of war with France and in attempt to resolve crisis Adams sent 3 men delegation: Charles Pinckney, Eldridge Gerry, and John Marshall. Author provides very brief history of Talleyrand and how he came to be the top French diplomat and then describes in details story of his attempt to extract bribe as a necessary condition for starting diplomatic discussion. This typical European approach to state business turned out to be unacceptable for America and led to scandal with some interesting details of quarrels between American delegates and behind the scene maneuvering. All this was to no avail and delegation come back with nothing in 1798. The most interesting part came after that, when American press both Federalist and Republican started very hot polemic on the issue resulting in US abrogating the treaties of 1778 with France and started preparation in line with unofficial slogan: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute”, which greatly increased popularity of Adams administration. However its failure to follow through despite increase in taxes and expansion of federal army under control of Hamilton caused suspicion that federalists are just trying consolidate their power. As result Adams popularity plummeted. Eventually the new delegation was sent to France, accepted by Napoleon, and signed treaty of 1800. Author characterizes this episode as important step in formation of American national identity.



PART IV The Alien and Sedition Acts

Chapter 1 – 7

The final case that author reviews is Federalists’ attempt to suppress opposition by using their control of legal and state power via set of laws known as Alien and Sedition acts. It led to imprisonment of some editors, journalists, and even bystanders who managed to say something wrong in a bar. The interesting thing however happened in America that never ever happened before in any other place: the population did not accept violation of free speech and despite or maybe because of very light level of enforcement: only 21 arrest were made, the opposition to suppression by far outweighed any other issues eventually leading to federalists’ loosing election and bringing Jefferson into the White House. Author notes that ironic part of it was inability of Federalists to suppress opposition probably was result of their adherence to traditions of due process, but it is impossible to know because both sides acted mainly within constitutional framework, paradoxically affirming viability of the main Federalist achievement – Constitution of the United States.


It is a great historical book demonstrating how these 4 crises formed American system by turning principles implemented in the paper document into ideas imbedded into minds of people and driving action of these people. Either accommodation found between the needs of government for money and unwillingness of people to give this money shown in whiskey rebellion, or establishment of loyalty to the American state above loyalty to some general international ideas of brotherhood, revolution, and such demonstrated in case of citizen Genet, or application of business rules of honesty in diplomacy and rejection of bribes demonstrated by XYZ affair, or massive rejection of attempt to suppress opposition to party in power, all these were the new features practically unknown to other countries. These other countries’ systems mainly were based either on high transnational ideas of religion combined with monarchial powers of kings, while the new country – America was based on ideas of individual freedom and voluntary cooperation, practically non-existent in explicit form anywhere else at the time. The one thing that I think author is somewhat missing in relation to the most important of these cases – sedition Acts, I think, is the role of potential violence in preventing Federalist from massively enforcing these acts and fixing or even canceling elections. In short they just did not have power. The Hamilton’s army was in infancy, while states militias, especially Virginia militia under control of Jefferson were much more potent force, making the idea of opposition suppression for the greater good by force highly problematic. The Federalists’ adherence to due process came not from their innate goodness and respect for the law, but rather from the weakness of their military capabilities.


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