Republicans, Jeffersonian

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REPUBLICANS, JEFFERSONIAN. The Jeffersonian Republicans emerged within three years of the inauguration of the 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 economic and financial programs. As their name implied, the coalition came together out of fear that the American experiment in popular self-governance—a revolutionary vision only twelve years old at the adoption of the Constitution—was profoundly threatened by the policies of the first secretary of the Treasury, the broad interpretation of the Constitution advanced in their behalf, and the antipopulistic sentiments expressed by some of Hamilton's supporters. After 1793, when revolutionary France and Britain entered into twenty years of war, the opposition deepened, broadened into foreign policy, and mobilized a large enough proportion of the population that the Jeffersonians are usually described as the first American political party. They defeated their Federalist opponents in the election of 1800 and vanquished them entirely in the years after the War of 1812. The modern Democratic Party, which celebrated its bicentennial in 1992, claims direct descent from these "Republican" progenitors. Today's Republicans did not originate until the 1850s, but might also fairly claim to be the heirs of Jeffersonian ideas.

Hamilton's proposals for the funding of the revolutionary war debt, federal assumption of the obligations of the states, creation of a national bank, and federal encouragement of native manufactures were intended to equip the new United States with economic and financial institutions similar to those on which Great Britain had been carried to the pinnacle of international prestige. Hamilton expected to secure the nation's freedom, promote prosperity and growth, and thus win the nation's firm allegiance to the fledgling Constitution. But Hamilton's proposals favored certain men and certain regions more immediately than others: states with large remaining debts, commercial and financial regions rather than the West and South, and the "moneyed" men whose fortunes swelled dramatically when bonds that they had purchased for a fraction of their value rose to par as a result of funding and could then be used to purchase bank stock. All of this, in Madison and Jefferson's opinions (and in that of numerous anonymous contributors to newspapers around the country), was profoundly incompatible with republican morality, with harmony among the nation's vastly different regions, and with the relatively modest differences between the rich and poor that seemed essential to a representative political regime. On top of that, the imitation of Great Britain, praise of institutions that were widely understood as driving Britain rapidly to ruin, a disregard for constitutional restraints (as these constraints were understood by others), and the obvious contempt of some of the most eager advocates of governmental measures for political involvement by the rabble all suggested that the proadministration forces might prefer—and might, indeed, be secretly conspiring to promote—a gradual reintroduction of hereditary power.

By the end of 1791, the two Virginians and their allies in the Congress were reaching out for links with local politicians, and Jefferson had given part-time work in his State Department to Madison's college classmate, Philip Freneau, encouraging the revolutionary poet to move to Philadelphia to found a national newspaper that might counterbalance praise of the administration's course. In this National Gazette, during 1792, Madison and others, writing under pseudonyms, developed a coherent condemnation of the dangers they perceived and urged the people to support "the Republican interest" in the fall congressional elections.

Conflicting 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 struggle during George Washington's second term, when war with Britain was averted only at the price of a demeaning treaty. During the administration of John Adams, who narrowly defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796, Jay's Treaty with Great Britain led to a limited, naval war with revolutionary France and to a Federalist attempt to repress the Jeffersonian opposition, culminating in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and Madison and Jefferson's Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of that year. Wartime taxes and continuation of the program of repression even after Adams moved toward peace with France contributed importantly to the decisive Republican triumph in the elections of 1800.

The Jeffersonian ascendancy, stretching through the administrations of Jefferson and Madison and into that of James Monroe, during which the Federalists disintegrated as a party, was marked by quite consistent pursuit of the policies that had been outlined during the 1790s: quick retirement of the public debt, reduction of the diplomatic corps and military forces, retraction of the federal government within the limits that Republicans insisted had been set at the adoption of the Constitution, withdrawal of that government from guidance of the nation's economic life, expansion to the West (especially by way of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803), free trade, and commercial confrontation with nations that denied it. Economic warfare, mostly with Great Britain, climaxed in the Great Embargo of 1808, which failed as Madison succeeded Jefferson as president, and was eventually abandoned in favor of a declaration of war in 1812. Only after the conclusion of that conflict, as the Federalists collapsed and the country entered a period of single-party rule, did the Jeffersonians approve the creation of a second national bank, a moderate protective tariff, larger peacetime forces, and other policies they had initially opposed. By the middle 1820s both the National Republicans (later Whigs), who followed Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, and their Jacksonian opponents claimed descent from Jeffersonian roots.


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

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

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

Lance G.Banning

See alsoAlien and Sedition Laws ; Federalist Party ; France, Quasi-War with ; Jeffersonian Democracy ; War of 1812 .