From the beginning of the formation of a republic in the United States, many people feared the creation of factious voting blocks which would impose the will of a vocal minority on the majority of the people. Despite steps to avoid this, two political parties did form after George Washington stated that he would not seek another term and it became unclear who would be the next president. These parties were the Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists were conservative and as a result their beliefs centered on a strong central government. The Democratic Republicans were liberal and supported the rights of states and individuals. The two political parties which formed after Washington’s presidency, the Federalist Party and the Democratic Republican Party, expressed the polarized extremes of the young nation’s beliefs in terms of socioeconomic and political issues.
The first major divide between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans was over socioeconomic issues. The Federalists believed that the country should be led by the best people, who they viewed as the educated elite.1 They argued that only the highly educated could make informed decisions about important political decisions and that extending the vote to the many would result in mob rule, a disruption of the status quo, and ruin for the country.2 On the other hand, the Democratic Republican Party believed that the country’s leadership should be in the hands of the informed many. Like the Federalists they did not want to extend the vote to the mob, but they believed that common men could lead the country effectively once sufficiently informed.3 In addition, the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans differed over the relative importance of business and agriculture.
The Federalists supported business, including shipbuilding, trade, and the infant manufacturing that was developing in urban centers. As a result of this, the Federalists supported the creation of tariffs to protect growing domestic business and to generate revenue for the government. Also, they favored the creation of a national bank that could provide the capital necessary for businesses to start and grow. On the other hand, the Democratic Republicans supported agriculture, extolling the independent farm as the basic unit of the country. The Democratic Republican’s argued against tariffs because they made the goods that farmers could not produce on their own more expensive.
The Democratic Republicans supported state banks which would be accessible to all individuals and therefore provide the necessary capital to purchase land and start a farm.4 All of these factors led a different socioeconomic demographic to become loyal to each party. As a result of the support of business and the elite, the Federalists mainly received support form the urban upper class. As a result of the support of agriculture and the common people, the Democratic Republican Party mainly received support from rural farmers and recent immigrants.5
The second major divide between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans was over political issues. At the core of the Federalist political beliefs was a strong central government. They believed that strong central government was the only way to keep people in line and maintain the status quo. On the other hand, the Democratic Republicans believed in strong states’ rights and a weak central government. They believed that a strong central government would turn tyrannical and that it needed to be suppressed by the states and the people. As result of their belief in strong central government, the Federalists believed in an elastic interpretation to the Constitution and afforded the federal government all powers that it was not expressly forbidden. On the other hand, the Democratic Republicans beliefs in a severely limited central government led them to believe in a very literal interpretation of the Constitution that afforded the federal government only the powers that were specifically granted to it.6 In addition, the Federalists’ belief in strong central government led them to favor acquiring a national debt as a result of spending money for the good of the country.
The Democratic Republicans were opposed to a national debt because they felt that the federal government should not be allowed unlimited spending power. In addition, they argued that it placed an unnecessary burden on the taxpayers. The final point of political argument centered over the size and strength of the navy. The Federalists wanted a strong navy which would allow the United States to assert itself on the world stage.7 On the other hand, the Democratic Republicans were more isolationist and wanted a limited navy for defense only.
The Federalist and Democratic Republican parties differed in their core beliefs in socioeconomics and politics. The Federalists’ socioeconomic beliefs centered on rule by the educated elite and resulted in a conservative pro-business outlook. Their political beliefs centered on a powerful central government and resulted in the support of looser interpretation of the Constitution, unlimited national spending, and a strong navy. The Democratic Republicans socioeconomic beliefs centered on rule by the informed many and resulted in a liberal pro-agriculture outlook. The Democratic Republicans belief in a severely limited federal government led to the support of strict interpretation of the Constitution, limited national spending, and a defensive navy. The issues that these first two political parties brought to debate still lie at the foundation of many of today’s political viewpoints.
Introduction: AP US History Review – The Federalists vs. the Democratic-Republicans
Often times in human history, some of the most important events have been spoken words. In 1796 one such event occurred. The stage was set for one of America’s greatest leaders to give his lasting words on what he felt the young republic should entrench upon its foundation.
At his farewell address, George Washington, a colossal man in American history, warned the American people of the threats as he saw them. Here he warned against “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party.” He cautioned the American people of designing men who sought to divide the nation to gain political power.
As you prepare for your AP US History exam this is what you need to know about the Federalists vs. the Democratic-Republicans. Because George Washington said so! Even today this is a hotly debated topic and seemingly still somewhat undecided. How much power should the federal government have? And what can and can’t the federal government do with its power? That is why today some people like strong government and then again some people don’t.
What Was America Like Early On?
Despite Washington’s prophetic farewell words, the path was already set for America’s two political party system. In fact, this political back story had been brewing for quite some time – since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights. America as a new nation had many difficult decisions to make on how it was going to be as a country. There was no real precedence to follow. Many mistakes were made despite extreme caution issued by our founding fathers.
At that time, America’s founding fathers and the earliest American politicians were still divided on how much power the Constitution gave its leaders. Even before passing the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers released the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers arguing on behalf of and against a strong national government. Based upon the ideas of the Enlightenment and borrowed from the philosophies of men like John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu, these papers argued the constraints of power and a government not based upon monarchy but democracy.
The Two Teams – The Federalists vs. the Democratic-Republicans
In one corner were the Federalists. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, were made up primarily of merchants, bankers, and industrialists alongside many wealthy plantation owners in the North and in the South. Most were well-educated property owners. The bulk of the group lived in New England. The Federalists passionately believed a large, powerful government was needed in order to control the factions. Certainly, this stemmed from the past failures of the Articles of Confederation (the government before the U.S. Constitution) and its failures to not only tax the newly formed Thirteen Colonies nor raise an army but also to control the newly formed republic.
The Federalists also believed that the common American at that time was largely ignorant and incapable of making intelligent decisions when it came to running the country. Because most of the Federalists were very wealthy, they did not want the power of voting in the hands of the lesser classes and believed with great fervor that the elite should rule.
In the other corner were the Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans were led predominantly by Thomas Jefferson. Democratic-Republicans were mostly craftsmen and artisans, settlers in the frontier (which at that time was just past the Appalachian Mountains in the Northwest Territory), and poor farmers. Most were not very well educated. Although Jefferson himself was a man of great genius, his allure to these people lay with the fact that he was a complicated man who believed very strongly in the strength of a nation run by common man under a form of self-government.
This basic disagreement had been going on in American politics for quite some time before the two political factions finally split. In fact, during Washington’s presidency, Hamilton served as Washington’s first Secretary of Treasurer and Jefferson served as Washington’s Secretary of State. Can you imagine how heated the arguments were between both Jefferson and Hamilton behind closed doors? It is a wonder Washington got anything done! Likely both men were whispering into Washington’s ears bipolar advice about the nation, national power, and the duties of president and the direction of our country’s government (even though Washington was a Federalist in many views).
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Hamilton vs. Jefferson
Like today, federal politics was very heated and passionate. During Washington’s presidency, Jefferson feared that Hamilton was going to move away from the republican structure of government under the Constitution and form a government based more closely on monarchy modeled after the English Constitution. Perhaps Jefferson’s fears were founded as the Federalist dominated national government during the 18th Century. Under Washington’s presidency, Hamilton and Jefferson battled constantly.
Hamilton, a renowned financier, was extremely powerful and wildly popular. Facing a wartime debt from the American Revolution, Hamilton attacked the debt, established the nation’s Federal bank system, the First Federal Bank of 1791, and created the U.S. Mint. Facing tremendous outside pressure, Hamilton resigned from his position in 1795. In the same light, Jefferson serving as first Secretary of State and using his experience as a foreign ambassador guided a young America against constant foreign affairs. Jefferson finally got so fed up with the constant barrage from Hamilton that he too resigned from his position in 1793.
The 12th Amendment
The same groups that formed during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and had battled under Washington’s presidency formed again under the newly elected presidency of John Adams during the election of 1796. In fact, the split was so powerful that it necessitated the passing of the later 12th Amendment. The 12th Amendment was only ratified to change the Electoral College process by allowing both the president and vice-president to be on one political ticket. The framers of the Constitution in 1787 instead had focused on a nation run by the “best men,” but this was before the political factions had taken root. Not that it had not been in their minds – it had been a pretentious topic during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
This is why during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution the Federalist Papers were also adopted. Coined by some of our greatest minds – written anonymously by men like James Madison, Jefferson, and under pseudonyms like Brutus and a Farmer, these papers constituted a sort of ideological war and were the basis of the differences that led to the later two-party political system.
Why the 12th Amendment Was Created
During the election of 1796, the Electoral College cast votes for four different men. Adams won by a narrow margin of 71-68 electoral votes. Adams (a Federalist) became president with his vice-president being Jefferson (a Democratic-Republican). Despite their differences, both had a favorable political relationship in the past and were able to see past these differences to work together for the most part during Adams’ presidency.
Once again in the election of 1800, the last election before the passing of the12th Amendment, the Electoral College still cast one vote per man. Jefferson, who now ran on a political ticket with Aaron Burr (who later shot and killed Hamilton in a duel) were Democrat-Republicans both running for President. Also running was Adams, who ran with Charles Pinckney, were Federalists both running for president. Jefferson won this election by a vote of 73-65 over Adams. Jefferson became president, and Burr became his vice-president (despite a tie vote between Jefferson and Burr that had to be decided by the House of Representatives and a stepping down by Burr).
Had this amendment not been passed, then both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans would have went on and be elected president and vice-president. Can you imagine what it would be like today if two people of two very different political parties could be elected as president and vice-president? Chaos!
1804 Election Results, Democrat-Republicans in blue color
The Election of 1804
During Jefferson’s election as president in 1804, the two-political system took hold. Jefferson easily defeated the Federalist, Pinckney, after the passing of the 12th Amendment. Presidential and vice-presidential votes were cast together with Jefferson’s vice-president being George Clinton (who also served under Jefferson’s successor, James Madison) winning by a landslide. Jefferson’s 45 percent point margin of victory remains the highest margin of victory in a presidential election in which there were multiple major party candidates. Every election for president after the election of 1804 was based upon this election. After this election, the Federalist Party was essentially defeated and washed away into political afterthought.
The Importance Today
Today this interpretation of power is known as the “strict versus loose” interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Does the U.S. Constitution give the federal government power that is only in writing or power that is implied? And just like then, it is still hotly debated today. Since the passing of the “necessary and proper” clause in Article I of the Constitution and the decision of the Supreme Court case McCulloch vs. Maryland in 1819, the federal government has slowly become more and more powerful. And to many historians today, we as a country are a far cry from our republican roots and founding.