A historian offers a “closer look at the 1790s” designed to “remind us that nationalism and patriotism once carried more positive meanings—and give us reason to believe they can do so again.”
In 1789, when the war hero George Washington became the first president, everyone expected great changes. They were not disappointed, writes Berkin (Emerita, History/Baruch Coll.; The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties, 2015, etc.) in this insightful political history of the following decade. Washington and his supporters may have called themselves Federalists, but Berkin astutely notes that they were nationalists. They had written the Constitution and fought for ratification, and they wanted to make it work. They eventually succeeded after overcoming four bitter crises, which the author recounts at great length. No one realized how much the 1791 excise tax on distilled spirits would upset frontier farmers, who protested, often violently. Washington fumed at this “whiskey rebellion” for three years before crushing it. In 1793, Edmond Charles Genet, the “young and brash” new French minister, began aggressively recruiting Americans to support France’s war against Britain. This outraged Washington’s administration, but by year’s end, he had self-destructed. The XYZ Affair is remembered as America’s refusal to pay the corrupt French government a bribe. In truth, American diplomats dithered for months before deciding that there would be no quid pro quo. Opponents denounced the 1798 Aliens and Sedition Act as an attack on free speech. Controversy during its short, stormy life centered on interpreting the Constitution, which, Berkin emphasizes, showed that Americans had begun taking it seriously.
Roughly 60 to 70 pages on each of the four political crises, filled with speeches, letters, editorials, polemics, debates, and legislation, may daunt some readers, but Berkin makes a reasonable case that the Founders’ resolve left the U.S. a viable nation.