By the end of George Washington’s presidency in 1797, the country had split into factions and two distinct political parties had emerged. The Federalists believed in a strong national government while their opponents believed that a strong national government would be no different from the monarchy they had fought against during the battle for independence. This video segment from The Supreme Court highlights the partisan battles between the Federalists, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, and Thomas Jefferson, his cousin and a strong opponent of Federalism.
In the early days of the republic, partisan politics shaped the powers of each of the three branches of government, including the Supreme Court. By 1789, the Constitution had been ratified by the thirteen states. Still, everyone did not agree upon how the new national government would function. In the ensuing battle over the issue of a strong national government versus the sovereignty of independent states two political schools of thought would emerge, lead by two rivaling distant cousins, Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall.
Jefferson and Marshall were both upper-class landowners who were strongly influenced by the events and outcomes of the French Revolution. Both had worked to shape the new republic, yet they differed vehemently on the way government should wield power. Jefferson formed the Democratic Republicans, a party that believed the national government should be limited and subordinate to state governments. This group was initially known as the Anti-Federalists. Marshall, a Federalist, saw in the French Revolution anarchy of the lower classes and advocated for a strong national government that best served as a cohesive, active power among the states.
In 1798, Federalist President John Adams, fearful of an impeding war with France, signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts prevented foreigners from becoming citizens and gave the president power to force anyone he wanted out of the country and to imprison anyone critical of the president or the government. Anti-Federalists like Jefferson were outraged with this "power grab," which reminded them of the British monarchy that had dominated the colonies before the Revolution.
Vice-President Jefferson railed against the Federalists, stirring popular dissent, while Jeffersonian pamphleteers, critical of President Adams, were thrown in jail under the provisions of the Act. Negative public reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped Jefferson win the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson's party now controlled the Executive Branch and both parts of the legislature. Only the judiciary would retain a Federalist majority, since many of those judges had been appointed under Adams.
The Supreme Court at this time was ill-defined, weak and had yet to establish the authority to examine laws and to find them unconstitutional. As a final act of leaving office, Adams appointed John Marshall, a fellow Federalist, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Although he disagreed with the Alien and Sedition Act, Marshall was now positioned for the biggest conflict that would divide Democratic-Republicans and Federalists.
The case that changed everything was Marbury v. Madison. The balance of powers among the three branches of government shifted dramatically when the Court issued the decision in this case. It defined the fundamental powers of the Court --- giving it more power because it established the power of judicial review. With judicial review, the Court could check the powers of the legislative branch. It could find laws passed by Congress unconstitutional, making them void.
NARRATOR: It was the tumble of partisan politics -- not the imperatives of the Constitution, not the majesty of the law -- that drew the Supreme Court into the momentous battles of the early republic, that vaulted a 45-year-old Virginia politician named John Marshall to the bench, and that started the Court toward its destiny as a dynamic and coequal branch of the federal government.
By the time George Washington retired from the presidency in 1797, the country had split into factions, the first political parties: new President John Adams and Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall on one side, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and his new party on the other. Their differences seemed fundamental -- and had widened as each side watched the democratically fueled French Revolution devolve into mass murder of the aristocracy.
KLARMAN: For Marshall, the French Revolution was anarchy, attacking order, attacking property. Jefferson's response was, it's a good thing to spill a little blood every once in a while. You need to do that. A little revolution is a good thing. It shakes people up.
NARRATOR: Federalists didn't intend to let unchecked democracy -- the mad passions of the people -- threaten their fragile new republic. To hold the mob in check, they championed a stout national government led by the educated and landed elite.
SIMON: Jefferson believed that the Federalists represented a new monarchy, not much different from that which we'd declared our independence from in Great Britain.
YOUNG: When Hamilton said, "I think we need a standing army," the Jeffersonians immediately assumed the worst. What are you gonna use this army for? To oppress us? To draw all power to yourself?
NARRATOR: The Federalists had, in fact, consolidated their power in government. They controlled the executive branch and the Congress and had appointed each and every federal judge.
From his Virginia plantation, Vice President Jefferson began running an all-out insurgency against the ruling party -- a "second revolution," he called it. He meant to ride people power to the presidency. As Jefferson stirred dissent, visions of the French Revolution danced in Federalist heads.
POST: Jefferson was known for his francophile leanings. And there was real concern that there would be bloodshed in, in Washington, um, if Jefferson came in. And you know, heads would roll, um, almost literally.
GORDON-REED: You could look back at and say it was ridiculous to think that Jefferson was going to lead a revolution that led to bloodshed. But at the moment, things were pretty much up for grabs.
NARRATOR: The politics of the day were partisan ... and ugly. And there was no precedent or tradition that demanded the judicial branch steer clear. Federalist-appointed lower court judges enforced the plainly unconstitutional Sedition Act, tossing Jeffersonian pamphleteers and politicians in jail for merely criticizing President Adams.
And as the election of 1800 neared, many of those judges campaigned openly against Thomas Jefferson. Then the Jeffersonians won ... big.
Jefferson took the White House from Adams, and his party men swept into majorities in the House and the Senate. But there was no way to sweep the nation's courts of Federalist partisans Jefferson despised. Judges were appointed for life. "The Federalists," wrote Jefferson, "have retired into the judiciary as a stronghold."
And John Adams meant to shore up the Federalist breastworks. In the aftermath of the election, the angry lame duck president installed his close friend and then secretary of state, John Marshall, as the new chief justice of the United States.
Marshall's appointment blocked Jefferson from naming his own chief. And it sent a clear signal to the incoming president: John Marshall would be watching him.
GORDON-REED: Jefferson was building a country and he had a very extended vision of where things were going to go. And I think he became pretty hard-core about people who got in the way. And he saw Marshall as someone who was getting in the way.
NEWMYER: The swearing-in of Thomas Jefferson has got to be one of the great ironic moments in American history because you have Chief Justice Marshall swearing in his second cousin, Thomas Jefferson, and both men pretty much by that time hated one another.
They feel that the policies represented by the other person was detrimental to American civilization. It was as fundamental as that. So you have Marshall holding the Bible, Jefferson has his hand on the Bible swearing to uphold the Constitution, which Marshall is absolutely sure he was going to destroy.
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