Decline of Federalism: 1797–1800

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Decline of Federalism: 1797–1800

Between the presidential inauguration of John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) in March 1797 and the U.S. presidential election of 1800, political divisions in the nation grew wide and deep. Both Adams and former president George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) dreaded the formation of political parties. Political parties are organized groups of people who have similar viewpoints or philosophies about how to run the government. Washington and Adams believed that political parties were self-serving, supporting only their own interests rather than the common good. However, the U.S. Constitution did not address the issue of political parties, so Washington, Adams, and other leaders did not have any legal framework to prevent or control the development of such parties.

People tend to associate with others who think as they do; hence the growth and organization of political parties proved unavoidable. By the mid-1790s, two political parties existed in the United States: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (formerly called Republicans). The Democratic-Republicans of the 1790s were an entirely different party than the modern Republican Party, which formed in the 1850s. The Democratic-Republican Party eventually developed into the modern Democratic Party.

Dividing into two parties

Federalists tended to be wealthy, highly educated men possessing great natural abilities as forceful speakers and sharp thinkers for shaping the new government. Federalists believed that only men of their intellect, not the common man, could successfully carry out this task. They favored a strong national government and promoted development of businesses and manufacturing. Despite their distrust of political parties, Washington and Adams both thought like Federalists. The men Washington chose to help him run the government, his administration, were mostly Federalists. One exception was Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826).

Words to Know

alien: A person who holds citizenship in one country but resides in a different country.

bond: A paper certificate the government sells to raise money; the government buys back the certificate (repays the money) at a later date.

electors: A certain number of persons in each state who are elected by the general public or legislature to cast votes for the president and vice president.

neutrality: A political policy of not publicly favoring any one warring nation over the other and not taking part in the conflict.

sedition: Behavior or language intended to incite rebellion against an authority or the government.

Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) was the leader of the Federalists; in fact, Federalists were often called Hamiltonians. Hamilton had served as secretary of the treasury when Washington was president. With brilliance, drive, and Washington's backing, Hamilton had created a sound economic base upon which the national government could build. Hamilton achieved this by promoting a number of major economic policies. These policies included creation of a national banking system, creation of a national mint to establish a national monetary system, establishing new federal taxes, and using the new revenue from the taxes to pay off large national and state debts, largely resulting from the war.

The Federalists approved of Hamilton's policies, but many Americans were strongly opposed to his ideas. This opposition group became known as the Democratic-Republicans. Because they were led by Thomas Jefferson, they were often called the Jeffersonians.

Two Political Parties in a Nutshell


Also called Hamiltonians

Led by Alexander Hamilton

Favored a strong national government over the rights of states

Favored taxes to support the national government

Created a national bank

Promoted industry and manufacturing over agricultural interests

Resided mainly in Northern states

Pro-Britain, anti-France


Also called Jeffersonians

Led by Thomas Jefferson

Favored a limited national government and supported the rights of states

Opposed taxes that seemed to favor Federalist businessmen and bankers

Opposed the national bank

Promoted agriculture over industry and manufacturing

Resided mainly in Southern states

Pro-France, anti-Britain

Because of Hamilton's economic policies, farmers throughout the United States and almost all citizens of Southern states began to turn against the Federalists by the mid-1790s. They turned to Jefferson, an Anti-Federalist who had served as secretary of state in Washington's administration through 1793. Jefferson believed in a philosophy that became the basis of belief for the Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson, sharply differing with Hamilton, wanted the United States to be a farming nation, not an industrial power. Britain's powerful aristocracy (the wealthy elite) had become wealthy and overpowering from industrial might. British wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. Jefferson did not want the same thing to happen in America. He stressed that America should strive for a peaceful farming society called an agrarian society. He thought the government should encourage and support American settlers moving into western lands, not increase their financial burden with policies such as the whiskey tax. He advocated a more limited national government than the Federalists, and like the U.S. Constitution's main author, James Madison (1751–1836), he feared a national bank would concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few.

European strife contributes to divisions

International events in the 1790s also contributed to the ever-widening gap between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. These included the French Revolution and negotiation of the Jay Treaty with Britain (see Chapter 5). The French Revolution began in 1789 as poor French peasants and workers successfully rebelled against the French aristocracy and overthrew the ruling government of France. Most Americans were supportive of this revolutionary cause. They viewed the French Revolution as similar to the American Revolution. By 1793, however, the revolution in France took an extreme turn as the revolutionaries beheaded thousands of the country's powerful and wealthy citizens, including deposed king Louis XVI (1754–1793; reigned 1774–92). Reports of this violence shocked many Americans. The rebellious French next declared war on Britain, hoping a revolutionary uprising would also take place there.

Federalists were appalled at the ruthlessness of the French revolutionaries and quietly wondered if the Democratic-Republicans might pose a similar threat to powerful, wealthy Americans—that is, to the Federalists themselves. With this possibility in mind, the Federalists turned against revolutionary France. They then focused on promoting better relations and trade with Britain, a stable and wealthy country.

Jefferson, Madison, and other Democratic-Republicans considered the bloodletting to be the price of freedom for the common people in France. They continued to see Britain as America's enemy and remained supportive of France. France had signed an alliance with the United States during the American Revolution and had sent war supplies and forces to help the colonists defeat the British. In return, the French now expected the United States to help them in their fight against Britain. The Democratic-Republicans agreed to give France assistance, but the Washington administration refused.

During these difficult years in Europe, President Washington had staunchly held to a policy of neutrality, not favoring either side. His Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 maintained that the United States would continue to trade internationally with any nation as long as war materials were not involved. Neither France nor Britain respected the neutrality policy. Both countries frequently seized U.S. ships, cargo, and crew attempting to trade with the enemy. The United States could not protect the merchant ships, because its navy had a grand total of only three ships.

In an attempt to improve their relations, the United States and Britain signed the Jay Treaty in November 1794. Britain agreed to remove its troops from forts in the Northwest Territory (see Chapter 5) and increase trade with the United States, but it refused to accept U.S. ships freely trading with other countries. The British made no guarantees that they would stop seizing U.S. ships. When news reports of these terms reached Americans, they were outraged. The treaty seemed to strengthen the U.S. trade relationship with Britain; it was an agreement that clearly favored Federalist interests. After the terms of the Jay Treaty were made public, more and more Americans became anti-British and anti-Federalist and moved to the pro-French, Democratic-Republican side. Democratic-Republicans remained loyal to France because France had helped America defeat Britain in the American Revolution.

Hostilities with France

When John Adams (1735–1826), a Federalist, became president in 1797, he inherited worsening relations with France. France thought the United States should honor the French-American alliance that was formed during the American Revolution; instead, the United States had focused on improving its relations with Britain via the Jay Treaty. The French, like the Democratic-Republicans in America, were angered by the Jay Treaty. They saw the treaty as a move to ally with Britain. In retaliation, France began seizing hundreds of American merchant ships carrying products to and from Europe and to and from the British and French West Indies. The ship seizures began in mid-1797.

Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike were unhappy with the seizures, but it was the Federalists who demanded war. Going against the wishes of his fellow Federalists, President Adams tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement. As war loomed, Adams, keeping stern but cool and collected, sent three U.S. diplomats to Paris to negotiate an end to the harassment. One of the Americans was John Marshall (1755–1835) of Virginia, a future U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.

As soon as the three arrived in Paris, they were met by three French diplomats who demanded a loan for France and asked the Americans to pay a bribe of $250,000 for the privilege of speaking to France's foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838). Although this was common maneuvering by European diplomats, the American diplomats were infuriated by the shady tactics. Hopes for negotiations quickly broke down, and the Americans returned to the United States. The incident became known as the XYZ Affair. The letters X, Y, and Z stood for the three French diplomats, whom President Adams declined to name when he reported the incident to Congress.

Even the Democratic-Republicans were angry with France over the XYZ Affair, but they still remembered France's help during the American Revolution, and they did not want to go to war against the French. In contrast, the Federalists were now ready to fight. Adams and the Federalist-dominated Congress established the U.S. Navy Department and hurriedly began expanding the navy.

The navy commissioned (officially brought into military service) privately owned American ships and their captains and granted them authority to seize French ships. Between 1798 and 1800, private ships together with new navy vessels, about forty-five in all, captured approximately eighty French ships. War had not been officially declared, but hostilities resulted in hundreds of deaths on both sides, especially on the sea near the West Indies. In support of Adams and the Federalists, the British gave war supplies to the U.S. Navy to battle the French. The anti-British, pro-French Democratic-Republicans protested and called for peace.

Alien and Sedition Laws

Meanwhile, taking advantage of anti-French sentiments, the Federalist-dominated Congress managed to pass a series of controversial laws. Federalist lawmakers designed the laws to halt the growing number of Democratic-Republicans and their opposition to Federalist policies. Through the 1790s, thousands and thousands of Europeans were leaving their home countries for the United States. Until or unless they became naturalized citizens, these immigrants were aliens, the term used to describe people who hold citizenship in one country but reside in a different country. After arriving in America, many of them began to see similarities between the Federalist-dominated U.S. government and the repressive governments of Europe. Therefore, most of these European immigrants, especially those from France, sided with the Democratic-Republicans.

Newspapers supporting Democratic-Republican views grew in number. Papers in cities all the way south to North Carolina published articles that opposed Federalist policies. Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769–1798), a grandson of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), published such articles in his Philadelphia paper, the Aurora. In 1798, responding to all the criticism, the Federalist-controlled Congress pushed through four laws known as the Alien and Sedition Laws. Federalists created these laws with two purposes in mind: to hinder the process by which European immigrants, many of whom were considered political radicals sympathetic to France, became citizens and to stop newspapers from printing criticism against the Federalist Party.

Three of the laws, the Alien Laws, made it more difficult for immigrants to become U.S. citizens or even to settle in the United States. The first law, called the Naturalization Act, lengthened the time foreigners had to live in the United States to become citizens. Under the act, naturalization (full U.S. citizenship for foreigners) required fourteen years of residence in the United States. Previously the required time was only five years. The second law, called the Alien Act, gave the president greater authority for expelling immigrants from the country or imprisoning them without having to specify any reason. The third law, the Alien Enemies Act, gave the president similar powers to expel or imprison aliens in time of war. In the past, America had typically welcomed immigrants, but the Alien Laws significantly changed that policy.

The most controversial of the Alien and Sedition Laws was the Sedition Act. The term sedition means behavior or language intended to incite rebellion against an authority or the government. The act established serious punishments—heavy fines and imprisonment—for anyone who wrote, published, or spoke in a manner considered critical of the government or its officials. The act was clearly aimed at the newspapers most critical of Federalist policies. It struck at the heart of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which provided for freedom of speech and press.

The Alien Laws were never enforced, but a number of newspaper editors and writers who spoke out against the Federalists were charged under the Sedition Act. Ten were actually brought to trial in front of juries who were influenced by Federalist judges. All ten were convicted, and several paid fines and spent a few months in jail. Ultimately, however, these laws backfired on the Federalists. People began to move away from the Federalist Party and into the Democratic-Republican camp, because in their view the provisions of the laws seemed un-American.

Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

In 1798 and 1799, leaders of the Democratic-Republicans fought hard against the Alien and Sedition Laws. Jefferson and Madison anonymously wrote several statements called resolutions. Jefferson's resolutions basically denounced the Alien and Sedition Laws as unconstitutional; in other words, Jefferson believed that in passing the laws, Congress had violated the U.S. Constitution. He concluded that it was up to the states to nullify (cancel) the acts. Kentucky's legislature approved Jefferson's resolutions, thereby voiding the acts in the state. Madison wrote a similar resolution against the acts, and the Virginia legislature adopted his resolution in 1798.

Kentucky and Virginia were the only states to adopt the resolutions. Disappointing Jefferson and Madison, the other states did not agree that states had the right to declare laws passed by Congress unconstitutional. The New England states—all Federalist states—argued forcefully that it was up to the Supreme Court, not the states, to decide the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. The Constitution did not specifically say that the Court had such power. However, the debates over Jefferson and Madison's resolutions led the Supreme Court to adopt the role of ruling on the constitutionality of congressional law (this occurred in 1803).

Although most states failed to adopt the resolutions, the debate did focus opposition against the Federalist-written laws. The Alien and Sedition Laws created many enemies and proved politically disastrous to the Federalists. They served as a rallying point for Democratic-Republicans in opposition to the Federalists.

Peace with France

The bitter division between America's two political parties continued to grow. The debate over the Alien and Sedition Laws had contributed to the discord, and U.S. relations with France caused ongoing conflict in Congress. President Adams made one more attempt at peace with France. Going against the wishes of many in the Federalist Party, he sent diplomats back to Paris in early 1800. Democratic-Republicans, moderate Federalists, and most Americans approved, but Hamilton and other Federalists hungry for war, many of whom were merchants who had their commercial ships and cargos seized by France, were dismayed.

Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), a military war hero in France, had seized control of the French government in 1799. Napoléon assumed dictatorial power and was focused on expanding the French empire in Europe. He had tired of the squabble with the United States, and besides, he hoped to one day builda French empire in North America, beginning in New Orleans and extending west of the Mississippi River. To achieve this goal, he needed to repair and improve relations with the United States. Under these circumstances, the United States and France agreed to a treaty in September 1800. Diplomatic representatives signed the treaty, which was called the Convention of Mortefontaine. The treaty released the United States from its 1778 alliance with France and renewed trade between the two nations.

The political situation in France in the late 1790s and the treaty of 1800 influenced the future of the United States in two major ways. First, the hostilities in France increased America's determination not to become involved in foreign affairs, a foreign policy approach that lasted into the twentieth century. Second, although no one foresaw this in 1800, the treaty paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, an 1803 agreement that allowed the United States to buy a huge portion of North American land from Napoléon (see Chapter 15). If America had been in a declared war with France, the purchase would have never taken place.

President Adams viewed the peace treaty with France as his greatest accomplishment. (Years later, Adams requested that the inscription on his gravestone refer to the responsibility he alone took to make peace with France in 1800.) Nevertheless, many Federalists were upset that Adams negotiated with the French, and they continued supporting Britain. However, much of the general public still regarded France as an ally and Britain as the foe. Out of step with the thinking of many Americans, the Federalist Party began to decline.

Election of 1800

By 1800, Americans firmly aligned behind either the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans or the Hamiltonian Federalists. The election of 1800 was the first U.S. presidential election contested between two organized political parties. As preparation for the election began, President Adams increasingly separated himself from the more staunch Federalists such as Hamilton. Nonetheless, the Federalists again chose Adams as their presidential candidate and then selected Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) of South Carolina to run with him. Democratic-Republicans, staying with their 1796 selections, chose Thomas Jefferson as their presidential candidate and Aaron Burr (1756–1836) to run with him.

Candidates were not elected by a direct vote of the people. The people of each state voted for electors, and then the electors cast votes for the candidates. The number of electors each state could have was equal to the total number of representatives the state had in the House and Senate. Each elector cast two votes, one for president and one for vice president.

The first four presidential elections were different from U.S. elections in the twenty-first century: In 1800—as in 1789, 1792, and 1796—the candidate with the most votes became president, and the runner-up (second-place) candidate became vice president. The parties tried to ensure that their most popular candidate would get the most votes and that their second most popular candidate would follow in the runner-up position. Their second candidate would become vice president by receiving the second highest number of votes. For example, Federalists were sure Adams would get more votes than Pinckney. Therefore, Pinckney was called Adams's running mate. If Adams got the most votes and Pinckney got the second highest number, they would be president and vice president. Under this system, the government could also end up with a president and vice president from two different parties. In 1796, Adams, a Federalist, received the highest number of votes, and thus became president. Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, came in second and served as Adams's vice president.

From the beginning of the presidential campaign of 1800, the Federalists and their candidate, incumbent president Adams, had two major strikes against them: the unpopularity of the Alien and Sedition Laws and dismay within the party that Adams had not waged an all-out war with France. Believing they were running behind the increasingly popular Jefferson, the Federalists decided to strike out at Jefferson on a personal level. They accused Jefferson of crimes and evil actions. For example, Federalists started a rumor that Jefferson had acquired his property by thievery and that he stole from a widow and her children. They warned that if Jefferson were elected, he would take away Bibles from churches and citizens. Increasingly, desperate to secure a Federalist victory, a Federalist newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, spread a rumor that Jefferson had died; therefore, the paper claimed, there was no reason to vote for him. There was no television or radio news, so Federalists could get away with passing false rumors around the countryside. Rumors spread much faster than real news.

Many feared the political parties would divide the nation and destroy it. The voting results brought an election crisis. Jefferson and Burr, the two Democratic-Republican candidates, tied. Each received seventy-three electoral votes. Adams won sixty-five votes, Pinckney received sixty-four, and New York governor and former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay received a single vote. The South was strongly Democratic-Republican and the North strongly Federalist. With Burr unwilling to concede the presidency to Jefferson as their party wished, the tie went to the House of Representatives for resolution. Each of the sixteen state delegations had one vote. Jefferson needed a simple majority of nine of the sixteen votes to become president. Democratic-Republicans had just won large majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1800 elections; however, the sitting members of the House were technically still in office, and they were mostly Federalists. They would be the ones to decide the presidential outcome. The resulting vote went through thirty-five ballots with Jefferson never receiving more than eight votes—one shy of victory. Delaware Federalist James Bayard (1767–1815) finally broke the tie on the thirty-sixth ballot. Hoping Jefferson would consider various sides of issues, he voted for Jefferson. Burr became vice president.

The transfer of presidential power from Adams's Federalist administration to the Democratic-Republican administration was calm and orderly, but Jefferson referred to it as a revolution, a different kind of revolution than those fought with armies. This was the replacement of one ruling political party by another, a major change in governmental power, through an orderly, peaceful means. Everyone involved accepted the results of the election, even though each party had waged a bitter battle for victory. This peaceful transfer of power was a victory for the American experiment of government by the people and for the people.

Fall of the Federalists

John Adams was the last Federalist president. Although by 1800 the Federalists had lost popularity, the Federalist administrations of Washington and Adams had strengthened the new nation both at home and abroad. Following the economic and political chaos of the 1780s, the Federalists had brought order and prosperity in the 1790s. Hamilton's economic policies of paying off war loans established good credit for the U.S. government. The national bank made loans available for investment in businesses. In addition, the Federalists had managed to steer a tricky course of neutrality in the European wars, and this policy led to rich profits from trade with many nations. Enjoying economic prosperity for the first time, the United States demonstrated enough strength to negotiate beneficial treaties with the major European powers of Britain, Spain, and France.

However, despite their contributions, the Federalists fell out of favor, mainly by passing the Alien and Sedition Laws in 1798 and continuing their unpopular pro-British foreign policy. The Federalists were men of great intelligence and ability, but they refused to try to appeal to the common American. They continued to look east toward Britain while common Americans sensed that the future of the country was to the west. In step with the majority of Americans, the Democratic-Republicans supported westward expansion to open new farmland and thereby gained political support.

To many people it seemed that the Federalists were acting arrogant, just as the British had acted before the American Revolution. In response, these people began to move into the Democratic-Republican camp. By 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party saw its support broaden from mostly farmers to include professionals, merchants, and growing numbers of city dwellers who believed the Federalists were out of touch with the American public. Indeed, the Federalists did not adapt, and the party never again won a presidential election (and disbanded altogether before the 1820 election).

For More Information


Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Dunn, Susan. Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Ferling, John E. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Web Sites

"Our Party: Our History." The Democratic Party. (accessed on August 1, 2005).

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Decline of Federalism: 1797–1800

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