American Revolution of 1800

The American Revolution of 1800 by Daniel Sisson

This was originally a PhD dissertation, apparently for Douglass Adair, who Sisson says inspired his research. It begins well, and I was impressed enough after 30 pages to want a copy of this for my library (which is saying something, as I’ve pared that down to about 30 books). The reviewers almost unanimously hated it, and the book does bog down pretty quickly, while at the same time not going deep enough into unpublished primary material. Most of Sisson’s primary quotes seem to be lifted from secondary sources or published selections of his subjects’ papers.

Even so, Sisson’s thesis is provocative. He challenges historians with finding the modern two party system too soon in post-Revolutionary America, insisting that this was emphatically NOT the goal of anyone in the 1790s. Instead, he builds a definition of revolution based on Jefferson’s understanding of the classics. Following the Gracchi brothers, Sisson says, Jefferson and his Republican associates built a “second city” revolutionary movement to take power away from the Federalists they believed were betraying the spirit of ’76 and moving toward monarchy.

Sisson quotes Jefferson’s claim that “The Revolution of 1800 was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” One of his reviewers points out that this quote comes from a private letter, and is taken out of context. Regardless, it may highlight Jefferson’s understanding of what he was doing in the 1790s. Sisson opens an interesting train of thought here. Why did the ’76 revolution fail to produce the changes Jefferson wanted, requiring a second “revolution” in 1800? What did the 1790s teach Americans about the operation of democracy, in a world where there wasn’t the unanimity they may have expected? Did the Republicans think they were wiping out the monarchists and finishing the revolution, while at the same time they were showing Americans how to operate their democracy? Did Henry Adams undermine Jefferson’s own interpretation of his campaign and presidency?

Sisson claims “During the period of High Federalist ascendancy Jefferson noted again and again the Federalists’ lack of faith in the meaning of the first American Revolution.” (11) There’s a lot of space to examine the real intentions of the diverse group that united to produce the revolution, and no reason to suppose that Jefferson’s interpretation of its “meaning” is the true or legitimate one. It succeeded because he rallied the people to it in 1800, but was he following or shaping public opinion? Sisson also observes that Jefferson “adopted a posture of philosophical vagueness that allowed his opponents to read into his intentions a positive view of the future.” Jefferson’s ability to clothe (disguise?) his program to create a mass movement for it is interesting, but it’s precisely the idea of partisanship that Sisson is arguing against.

Sisson mentions Bernard Bailyn and Douglass Adair repeatedly; the best things I get out of this book may be echoes of them, and the references to their work—that I’ll now go and find.

Sisson portrays Adams’ firing of Pickering from his cabinet as his moment of clarity, when he realizes the High Federalists have betrayed the revolution and “plung[es] a sword” into his own administration. (21) It’s interesting that he refuses to throw Adams under the bus; but he needs to sustain that argument that the original revolution lived on in the minds of the founders, so how could Adams betray it? Even though his argument is weak, I come away from it with new interest in both Jefferson and Adams.

Jefferson’s remark that “The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed through all time,” (50) pretty much damns Sisson’s argument that the politicians of 1790 were unaware of partisanship. His point that they abhorred the idea of parties and factions in their writing begs questions about the purposes of the writings he quotes. Could Jefferson and his contemporaries have desired a one-party state in the same way current politicians desire “bipartisanship”? As a code for “us getting our way and the other guys seeing the errors of their ways?

Were the Republicans and Federalists REALLY scared it was going to come down to war again? Or were they using popular reaction to the French Revolution for political purposes? No doubt they were sincere; but maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we don’t like to see the “founding fathers” using all these tawrdy political devices to achieve what we consider our historic destiny?

To the extent that the standard histories see the 1790s as the beginning of a completely modern 2 party system, I think Sisson makes a compelling counter-argument. Ironically, it reminds me a lot of the 2008 campaign. Two parties each trying to completely wipe out the other, a candidate with a revolutionary goal which he dissembles in order to build a mass movement and avoid alarming his opponents, charges by ideological purists that “he’s not going far enough.”

Sisson opens some space around (what he claims is) the standard interpretation and stirs things up, as does Jefferson’s observation that the same parties have always existed. If this is the case, then what did the founders EXPECT to happen after they won? And, if the binary, 2-party choice continually reproduces these poles, is this really the way to go? If the only choices are black and white, then people will choose the pole they think is closest to their real color, even though it’s a poor match. Maybe the mistake is in mobilizing campaigns around these poles (or believing that’s what the founders were about), rather than changing the game so that everyone gets more of what they want. If Sisson’s point is that the founders thought they were doing that, then it was an interesting one.