top of page

Conspiracy, Collusion, and Intrigue...Oh My!

The bitter division between two political parties that we know so well today was already apparent during Washington's presidency. During his two administrations, the country divided over events in Europe due to the French Revolution. The Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported the British, while the Democratic-Republic Party, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, supported France. Washington declared neutrality in the conflict, but had to seek terms with the British after the British started targeting American ships. Washington sent John Jay, the former counterintelligence chief during the Revolutionary War, to negotiate an agreement with the British. The treaty was known as the Jay Treaty. The Federalists supported the Jay Treaty while the Democratic-Republicans opposed it.

Democratic-Republicans in the press exploded against Washington. The Aurora General Advertiser, a Philadelphia paper founded by Benjamin Franklin Bache (Ben Franklin's grandson), published articles that compared Washington to Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell. Thomas Paine called Washington "treacherous" and a "hypocrite." When Washington drafted his Farewell Address, he originally included a paragraph scolding the press for its behavior, but left that section out of the final document. However, in his Farewell Address, Washington warned his fellow Americans of the "dangers of (political) parties" and the "mischief of foreign intrigue." Unfortunately, after Washington left office, the country combined the two. In other words, the United States mixed politics and intelligence.

John Adams became the second president after Washington and inherited problems with France due to the Jay Treaty. He sent a delegation to France to negotiate with the French, who demanded bribes as part of the negotiations. Adams broke off the negotiations, but Democratic-Republicans in Congress demanded the release of the papers proving the French caused the negotiations to fail. When Adams sent the papers to Congress, he concealed the names of the three French officials involved using the initials X, Y, and Z. The scandal became known as the XYZ Affair.

As a result of the XYZ Affair, France and the United States fought a "Quasi-War" that involved the two countries navies fighting at sea. However, on land, the Quasi-War nearly caused a civil war between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Intelligence played a key role in the events. For example, Thomas Jefferson reported being followed by spies. The Federalists also claimed to have discovered a series of plots that involved collusion between the Democratic-Republicans and the French to attack the United States. The Democratic-Republicans fired back at the Federalists, dismissing the plots as propaganda, or the "fake news" of the day. The Democratic-Republicans also claimed that the Federalists were receiving help from the British secret services. All of this talk of conspiracies and intrigue involving spies and intelligence only further divided the political parties and the country.

If there is one toxic legacy--and lesson--of intelligence in the Early American Republic, it is that intelligence and politics don't mix. Unfortunately, the problem has always been a feature of American intelligence history, and it continues to the present day. Also, turn-about is always fair play in American politics. The Democratic-Republicans would soon do to the Federalists what the Federalists had done to the Democratic-Republicans by using intelligence for their own political gain.

Source: Library of Congress, Control Number 93509853

13 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page