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Washington and the Republicans
Digital History ID 188

Author:   George Washington


Washington writes to James McHenry (1753-1816), his former Secretary of War (and Adams's then current war secretary) to express his concern about the integrity of the army about to be raised in preparation for a possible war with France in the wake of the XYZ Affair. The letter contains one of Washington's most outspoken statements of distrust of the Democratic-Republican Societies, which had arisen in support of the French Revolution and which the former President had already blamed for inciting the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Adams offered Washington command of the provisional army being raised in event of war with France. At first, the former president refused the post, but McHenry ultimately persuaded him to accept the appointment.

In this letter, the former President expresses hostility toward the Republicans and supports the Alien and Sedition Acts, an attempt by the Federalist-controlled Congress to suppress political opposition and stamp out sympathy for revolutionary France. These acts gave the President the power to imprison or deport foreigners believed to be dangerous to the United States and made it a crime to attack the government with "false, scandalous, or malicious statements." While the Alien and Sedition Acts represent a low point in the history of American civil liberties, Washington's anger toward the Republicans was in many respects well-founded: The Jeffersonians were extraordinarily naive and idealistic in their dealings with Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic regime that was just emerging.


I have lately received information, which, in my opinion, merits attention. The brawlers against Government measures, in some of the most discontented parts of this state, have, all of a sudden become silent, and, it is added, are very desirous of obtaining Commissions in the army about to be raised.

This information did not fail to leave an impression upon my mind at the time I received it; but it has acquired strength from a publication I have lately seen in one of the Maryland Gazettes.... The motives ascribed to them are, that in such a situation they would endeavor to divide, & contaminate the army, by artful & seditious discourses, and perhaps at a critical moment, bring on confusion. What weight to give to these conjectures you can judge of, as well as I. But as there will be characters enough of an opposite description, who are ready to receive appointments, circumspection is necessary; for my opinion of the first are, that you could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country. Finding the resentment of the People at the conduct of France too strong to be resisted, they have, in appearance, adopted their sentiments; and pretend that, not withstanding the misconduct of Government have brought it upon us, yet, if an Invasion should take place, it will be found that they will be among the first to defend it. This is their story at all Elections, and Election meetings, and told in many instances with effect.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: George Washington to James McHenry

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