Ironically, Britain’s greatest naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson is partially responsible for America’s Jeffersonian Revolution.
The Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800 was a political upheaval that replaced the aristocratic Federalists with the middle and working-class Republicans. Historians call this realignment the Jeffersonian Revolution because its leader was President Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia).
So how did a British admiral trigger a paradigm shift in American politics? Strangely, the answer lies in the chaos and hysteria unleashed by the French Revolution.
Between 1798 and 1800, America and France became caught in what is known as the Quasi-War.
The Quasi-War was a shooting war at sea between French and American ships. However, there was no formal declaration of war between America and France – hence the term Quasi-War. Instead, French crews used the Quasi-War as a pretext to raid American ships and steal their cargoes.
Officially, the causes of the Quasi-War were the Jay Treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom, and American refusal to repay French loans from the Revolutionary War. In reality, hysterical fear of the French Revolution’s ideology was the principal cause of the conflict.
American leaders, including President John Adams (F-Massachusetts), were afraid French ideology could trigger a violent revolution in the United States. News reports about the Reign of Terror and other violence in France drove the hysteria.
The hysteria included the fear of French immigrants and French ideas. Federalists responded to the hysteria by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts which gave the federal government the power to imprison suspected traitors and deport immigrants. Ironically, many of the immigrants were refugees from the violence of the French Revolution.
Many Americans, including Alexander Hamilton, feared the Quasi-War would lead to a French invasion of the United States. Such fears were not as irrational as they seem today. The French had invaded Ireland, and Napoleon Bonaparte would soon lead a harebrained invasion of Malta, Syria and Egypt.
The hysteria made the pro-British Federalists; whose policies included the organization of a Navy and a Marine Corps, popular. In addition, Adams mobilized a large army to defend the country from the French.
How Lord Nelson won the Quasi-War
Ironically, Napoleon ended the Quasi-War by invading the Ottoman Empire. Incredibly, Napoleon, then an ambitious young general, thought he could help France’s Indian ally Sultan Fateh Ali Sahab Tipu (popularly known as Tippu Sultan or the Tiger of Mysore) by seizing Egypt – then an Ottoman colony.
Bonaparte’s Egyptian adventure ended the Quasi-War by diverting the French troops and ships from America to the Mediterranean. How attacking Egypt could help Tippu Sultan’s war against the British East India Company remains a mystery. Notably, India is 4,257 kilometers from Egypt. I have to wonder if Napoleon owned an atlas.
Moreover, in Egypt, Bonaparte was fighting the Ottomans, not the British or the East India Company. Yet Napoleon easily conquered Egypt by defeating the decadent Ottoman puppets known as the Mamluks.
Admiral Nelson turned Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure into catastrophe at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798. Sir Horatio Nelson’s ships found the French fleet that had carried Napoleon to Egypt anchored in Aboukir Bay near the Mouth of the Nile.
The Battle of the Nile became a slaughter because Nelson’s fleet took the French by complete surprise. Nelson’s battleships attacked so fast, they were able to destroy many French ships before their crews could fire a shot. Only three of the French vessels were able to escape. The rest of the French ships were captured or destroyed.
At the Nile, Nelson ended any naval threat that France poised to either the United States or the British Empire. The French could move large armies across the sea, but their fleet was no match for the Royal Navy.
After the Nile, a French invasion of the United States became improbable, because the British could destroy any French fleet trying to reach North America. Instead, a French Army could become trapped on American soil and at the mercy of the US Army.
The Jeffersonian Revolution
One casualty of the Battle of the Nile was the Federalist Party’s hysterical foreign policy. With the French threat gone, the Federalists’ military buildup became pointless. Moreover, the hysteria about French ideology now looked silly. Adams became something of a joke, and the Federalist Party fell apart as the President and Hamilton started feuding.
Jefferson and his followers, the Republican Party (what some books call the Democratic-Republican Party), took advantage. Jefferson capably manipulated class warfare, and regional resentments to turn voters against the Federalists.
In particular, Jefferson’s followers accused the Federalists of being plutocrats, monarchists, and British agents. Republicans also played on Westerners’ resentments against the Federalists’ Eastern Liberal Establishment.
Voters responded by turning out the Federalist Congress and making Adams the first one-term President. However, Jefferson almost never became President because of some games played by a rival Republican, New York political boss Aaron Burr.
To explain in 1800, the person who got the most Electoral College votes became president and the first runner-up became vice president. Since Burr and Jefferson received equal numbers of votes the US House of Representatives had to pick the winner. The House chose Jefferson.
President Jefferson and First Consul Bonaparte
As President, Jefferson scrapped many of the Federalist policies, hence the term Jeffersonian Revolution.
The Revolution was far from complete. Jefferson cut the size of the federal government and reduced the military. However, he kept Adams’ professional military establishment and expanded it by establishing the US Military Academy at West Point.
Moreover, Jefferson changed American foreign policy by pulling away from Britain, ending Adams’ support for the Haitian rebels, and settling the dispute with France. Instead of fighting a Quasi-War, Jefferson bought half of North America from France in the Louisiana Purchase.
Ironically, the man responsible for the Louisiana Purchase was France’s new dictator, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte escaped from Egypt, returned to France, and overthrew the government, or Directory, in a coup.
After the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon lost his taste for overseas adventures. Instead, Napoleon concentrated on land operations in Europe and half-hearted plans for the invasion of Britain.
In hindsight, American history could have taken a different course, if there had been no Battle of the Nile. If the French threat remained, voters could have reelected Adams and the Federalists in and there would have been no Jeffersonian Revolution. The Federalists could have taken America in a different direction with a more centralized government and a pro-British foreign policy.