The president and Congress are exceeding their authority. Whatever happened to individual rights? Taxes should be paid by everyone, not just a few. Should the Constitution be interpreted strictly or loosely? It is immoral to burden our children and grandchildren with our debts. These are arguments we hear today, but the same augments existed during the Federalist period when we became the United States of America.
The word “Federalist” can be confusing because it was used to describe two distinct groups. Many of our founding fathers are correctly called Federalists because they were an advocacy group that favored the adoption of the Constitution. Once the government became operational, two factions with two different views of the Constitution and the power of the national government emerged.
Those who supported a strong, activist central government and a “loose” interpretation of the Constitution called themselves Federalists. Those who favored a weaker central government and strict interpretation of the Constitution called themselves “Republicans.” (Republicans were also referred to as the Democratic-Republicans and Jeffersonians). Patriots like George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were Federalists. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe fell into the Republican camp.
Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, had distinct opposing views regarding fiscal policy. Hamilton planned for the creation of a national bank, wanted the federal government to assume all state debts, and proposed internal taxation, which included an excise tax on whiskey. Controversy over these proposals ultimately led to a split between Hamilton and Jefferson, who both were advocates for the Constitution.
Internal taxation was hated by most early Americans. The average American thought the imposition of the tax on whiskey was no different than the detested stamp tax and other levies that the British had imposed prior to the war. External taxes like a tariff were considered OK.
Hamilton’s idea about creating a national bank illustrated another very legitimate philosophical difference over the interpretation of the Constitution. How much power did the Constitution give the federal government? Jefferson argued that the creation of a national bank was unconstitutional because such an institution was not mentioned in the Constitution.
By 1798, supporters of Jefferson’s way of thinking began to organize Democratic-Republican Societies. The purpose was to coordinate opposition to the Federalists whom Republicans accused of violating individual rights. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions arose from those societies. These resolutions promoted the idea of states’ rights and that any state could declare federal law null and void. They also hoped to organize support for Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800.
The election of 1800 turned into a debacle when the Electoral College came up with a tie vote. Following constitutional directives, the election was turned over to the House of Representatives, and after 36 ballots were cast, Thomas Jefferson was declared the winner. (This resulted in the passage of the 12th Amendment that instructs electors to cast separate ballots for the president and vice president.)
President Jefferson appointed Albert Gallatin, a Congressman from western Pennsylvanian who opposed the whisky tax, as secretary of the treasury. Jefferson asked him to review the work of Hamilton because rumors flourished that there might have been fraud in some of Hamilton’s doings. Gallatin reported that he had found no irregularities. He even recommended that the whiskey tax be retained.
Jefferson and Congress did not respond favorably to all of Secretary Gallatin’s recommendations. The entire Federalist internal tax program to include the whiskey tax was repealed.
Is the political climate any different today? Modern-day Republicans think that the Constitution should be interpreted very strictly, and modern-day Democrats believe in loose interpretation. Proposals regarding fiscal policy are met with virulent opposition. Cries of fraud abound.
My hope lies with our enduring Constitution. Regardless of the philosophy and party that has been in control, our nation has survived much turmoil to include a Civil War. Even though I disagree with many policies that the current administration is advancing, I believe that our nation will survive just like it has for 200-plus years.
WILLEE COOPER is a former teacher and military spouse. A Hopkinsville resident, she is past president of the Kentucky Federation of Republican Women. Her column runs on the first and third Friday of each month. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.