Jeffersonian Republican Party

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Jeffersonian (or Madisonian) Republicans appeared within three years of the inauguration of the federal Constitution, as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and lesser figures in the infant federal government united with, encouraged, and assumed the leadership of popular opposition to Alexander Hamilton's financial programs. This resistance, though, assumed the shape of the first political party only as a conflict over foreign policy politicized and mobilized a mass electorate for national competition. In this sense, the Jeffersonian Republicans originated in conflicting sympathies about the French Revolution and were preoccupied, throughout their history, with the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Alexander Hamilton's proposals for the funding of the national debt, federal assumption of the revolutionary obligations of the states, creation of a national bank, and federal encouragement of native manufacturers were intended to equip the new United States with economic and financial institutions similar to those that had permitted Britain to compete successfully in four great eighteenth-century wars. But imitation of the British, the constitutional interpretations necessary to defend such institutions, and the obvious contempt by some supporters of these measures for political involvement by the rabble, all generated potent fears that the republic was in danger. Some believed the pro-administration forces were conspiring to reintroduce hereditary power, which is why the opposition referred to itself as the "Republican interest." Such policies were clearly incompatible with the primarily agrarian economy and relatively modest differences between the rich and poor that Jefferson and Madison considered more appropriate for sound republics. By the end of 1791, the two Virginians and their allies in the Congress were reaching out for links with local politicians, had taken measures to secure initiation of a national newspaper to support their views, and were attacking their opponents' rising criticisms of developments in France.

war in europe and american politics

Foreign policy had influenced the dispute between the governmental factions even as it first took shape. In 1789, on the first day of business for the first federal Congress in the House of Representatives, Madison moved for commercial regulations that would discriminate against Great Britain, insisting that the Constitution had been framed and ratified in order to permit a stronger central government to retaliate against European restrictions on American commerce and ease the economic suffering that had marked the postwar years. Freer oceanic trade seemed indispensable if the United States was to avoid a premature transition to an urbanized and manufacturing economy. Madison and Jefferson believed the United States was capable of forcing freer trade by favoring nations, such as France, which had commercial treaties with the union, or by withholding exports of the food and other raw materials which they defined as absolute necessities of life. Hamilton opposed and helped defeat their yearly efforts to enact such measures, believing America would lose in any confrontation with a more developed power and that his financial system would be shattered in the process.

Then, in February 1793, the revolutionary French Republic, already heavily engaged with Austria and Prussia, declared war on Great Britain as well, initiating twenty years of worldwide conflict. Contrasting sympathies toward revolutionary France and Britain, both of which attempted to deny their enemy the benefits of neutral commerce, drew thousands of Americans into the party contest. Though neither party wanted the United States to get involved in European conflict, strict neutrality between Great Britain and republican France, to which America was linked by the treaty of 1778, was widely unpopular at first. During Washington's second administration, British seizures of several hundred American ships deepened opposition anger over what Republicans perceived as subservience to that country. When the crisis in Anglo-American relations was resolved, not by commercial confrontation, but by John Jay's Treaty of 1795, which Republicans considered damaging, demeaning, and likely to provoke a confrontation with France, Madison attempted to defeat it in the House of Representatives by refusing the appropriations necessary to carry it into effect. During the administration of John Adams, who defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796, the British treaty did provoke resentment, retaliation, and a limited naval war with revolutionary France. Concurrent Federalist attempts to suppress the Jeffersonian opposition culminated in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and Jefferson's and Madison's Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Wartime taxes and the crisis laws contributed importantly to the Republican victory in 1800.

jeffersonian policies

The Jeffersonian Ascendancy, stretching through the administrations of Jefferson and Madison and into that of James Monroe, was characterized by the consistent pursuit of the policies outlined during the 1790s. In foreign policy, the critical objectives were expansion to the west (especially by way of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803), freer oceanic trade, and commercial confrontation with nations that denied it. Economic warfare, mostly with Great Britain, climaxed in the Great Embargo of 1807, four years of fruitless search for other ways to use the weapon of withholding U.S. trade to force the British to relax their damaging, demeaning violations of the "rights" of neutrals, and eventual abandonment of these in favor of the War of 1812. Only after the conclusion of the war, as the Federalists collapsed and the country entered on a period of single-party rule, did the Jeffersonians approve creation of a second national bank, a moderately protective tariff, larger peacetime forces, and other policies they had initially opposed. By the mid-1820s, both the National Republicans (later Whigs) and their Jacksonian opponents claimed to be the rightful heirs of the Jeffersonian tradition.


Banning, Lance. The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Elkins, Stanley, and McKitrick, Eric. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Tucker, Robert W., and Hendrickson, David. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Lance Banning

See also:Federalist Party; Hartford Convention; Quasi-War and the Rise of Political Parties; War of 1812.

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Jeffersonian Republican Party

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