Democratic Republicans

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The Democratic Republicans, sometimes known as Jeffersonian Republicans, and the Federalists created a vaguely defined, ramshackle first party system that played an important role in the politics of the new nation and several of its states between the early 1790s and the early 1820s. Frequently described as the democratic, liberal, republican, and secular alternative to the aristocratic, conservative, and religiously oriented Federalists, the Democratic Republicans have often been perceived as an extension of the ideas and ideals of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other figures. However, this essay, instead of focusing on

their famous leaders, will examine rank-and-file Democratic Republicans, the party's relatively weak organizational structure, and its position on important national and state issues. It will also consider the centrality of war and foreign relations to the party's development and eventual fragmentation.


A complex amalgam of sectional, class, ethnic, and cultural interests supported the Democratic Republicans. In the national elections between 1792 and 1816, they completely controlled the western states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, along with Georgia in the Deep South. After 1800 they dominated South Carolina and, during the entire period with relatively minor exceptions, both Virginia and North Carolina. They had to contest Maryland with the Federalists and failed to carry Delaware. At the other extreme, New England remained Federalist territory, with the Democratic Republicans carrying only a minority of the congressional elections. Also, with the exception of 1804 and 1816, they lost all the New England states to the Federalists in presidential elections, except for Vermont in 1808 and 1812. Victory or defeat depended upon the mid-Atlantic states, where a decision for George Clinton or for his nephew DeWitt Clinton in Pennsylvania would have made the uncle the vice president in 1792 and his nephew president in 1812. A victory in this state for John Adams in 1800 would have given him a second term as president. Jefferson, on the other hand, could have won the presidency in 1796 by carrying New York.

The same sectional patterns determined state politics. The Democratic Republicans controlled the western states and, barring a few elections, the entire South except Maryland and Delaware—where the Federalists remained dominant. In New England the Federalists usually won. Even when voter turnout reached extremely high levels in the gubernatorial elections of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire before and during the War of 1812 (1812–1815), levels that matched those under the second party system, the Federalists remained closely competitive. In Pennsylvania the Democratic Republicans, after winning the closely contested election of 1798, lost to an independent candidate supported by the Federalists in 1808, but they had little difficulty winning the 1805, 1811, and 1814 gubernatorial elections. In New York, after losing to John Jay in 1795 and 1798, they bounced back with a victory for George Clinton in the gubernatorial election of 1801; three years later Morgan Lewis, a Democratic Republican, defeated Aaron Burr. Despite Federalist opposition that received from 42 percent to 48 percent of the vote, they won the remaining gubernatorial elections between 1801 and 1816.

While sectional patterns became relatively clear, it is more difficult to associate the Democratic Republicans with specific class, ethnic, or cultural groups. Virtually everyone in the West and Georgia, regardless of these variables, voted for the Democratic Republicans, as did the great majority in most elections in the Carolinas and Virginia. In these states the elite, whether planters, the wealthy, or speculators, remained firmly aboard the Democratic Republican victory wagon. In contested states, the Democratic Republicans received support from merchants, manufacturers, gentlemen farmers, and Revolutionary worthies, as well as votes from yeomen farmers and immigrants. In New England both Democratic Republicans and Federalists turned themselves into popular parties in the period after 1807. Scattered data indicates that immigrants and poorer electors in coastal cities tended to vote for Democratic Republicans, but even there the Federalists received support from a significant proportion of these groups. In New England, especially Connecticut and Massachusetts and perhaps in New Hampshire and Vermont, the Democratic Republicans received support from Baptists and other religious denominations that believed themselves harmed by the peculiar state-local-Congregational Church establishment, and in Maine (then part of Massachusetts) the Democratic Republicans won the support of many who contested the land titles of wealthy speculators. But the overall picture indicates a much more complex portrait than the conventional one, which sketches aristocratic Federalists battling yeoman and artisan Democratic Republicans.


The Democratic Republicans provided some cohesion to this mixture of sectional, group, and individual interests through organizations, legislative cohesion, patronage, and a powerful press. At the national level they organized a congressional caucus in 1800 that made significant nominations for the vice presidency that year and in 1804, 1812, and 1816 and that selected James Monroe as their presidential candidate over William H. Crawford in 1816. Organization in the Senate and the House resulted in cohesive voting patters among Democratic Republican members of Congress during the battle over Jay's Treaty (1794) in 1795; the divisions from 1797 through 1801 resulting from the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) and the election of 1800; the 1808–1809 session, which bowed to Federalist and factional Democratic Republican pressure and repealed the embargo; the sessions leading into the declaration of war in 1812; and those during the war itself. Cohesion among the Democratic Republicans broke down after the war and during periods when the Federalists found themselves unable to offer effective opposition.

The Democratic Republicans were best organized in the contested states. Legislative caucuses selected gubernatorial and other candidates, and in some instances party structure ran down into congressional districts and counties. The Democratic Republicans also attracted seemingly nonpartisan organizations to their cause. Ethnic associations, fraternal organizations such as the Tammany Society, and the Democratic Republican societies of the mid-1790s are merely examples of the large numbers of organizations that often allied themselves with the Democratic Republicans. In states where they faced little or no opposition, the Democratic Republicans did not need to generate much organization.

A powerful press supported the Democratic Republicans. Many well-known editors continued their anti-British rhetoric after the Revolution and supported the Democratic Republicans when they emerged in the 1790s. From their beginning, Democratic Republicans always had key newspapers in the national capitals of Philadelphia and Washington and in most of the state capitals and leading towns. The papers and their editors created a network that distributed news, propaganda, and ideology to Democratic Republican voters and leaders. Patronage overlapped with the press as the national and state governments distributed printing contracts to editors and jobs, at various levels, to party supporters. Patronage sometimes created difficulties as party factions battled for contracts and jobs. While nowhere near the strength of later political organizations, the Democratic Republicans helped begin a process that would be further developed by the Whigs and Democrats.


These somewhat haphazardly organized Democratic Republicans took identifiable positions on a wide range of national and state issues. In 1790 and 1791 a group of former Federalists, led by James Madison, opposed the efforts of Alexander Hamilton to assume state debts and charter a public-private Bank of the United States. They and many former anti-Federalists joined together to oppose what they considered excessive taxation. Furthermore, during the bitter battles over the Quasi-War with France, they supported the freedoms of the Bill of Rights against efforts to pass and then to enforce the Sedition Act (1798) and also continued their opposition to increased expenditure for an enlarged army and navy. When they came to power in 1801, they let the Sedition Act die, repealed a new judiciary act that established circuit courts, failed to renew bankruptcy legislation, cut expenditures for the army and navy, and eliminated direct and excise taxes. The implementation of their early policies reached a high point when they refused to recharter the Bank of the United States in 1811.

They then discovered that waging a successful war required an expansion of national power. During the War of 1812 they raised taxes, resorted to borrowing, and attempted to strengthen military and naval forces. This new initiative continued after the war, and during the famous 1815–1816 session of Congress, the Democratic Republicans—aided by the evaporation of foreign policy as a major issue and the splintering of Federalist opposition—took a new tack and passed legislation that chartered a Second Bank of the United States, imposed a small protective tariff, backed programs for a more powerful peacetime army and navy, provided for new coastal fortifications, and gave aid to the states for internal improvements. Those Democratic Republicans supporting these policies were by 1817 well on their way to becoming National Republicans, while those who remained loyal to their previous values considered themselves to be the true and Old Republicans.

During this period the states made most of the important political decisions. The supposedly more democratic Democratic Republicans gave similar backing to bills for gradually ending slavery in New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) than did their Federalist opponents. They also gave little attention to strengthening the legal and political status of women; did little to amend or reform state constitutions; and, except in Massachusetts and Connecticut, gave little support to efforts to expand the suffrage. They did attempt to dismantle the complex state and town congregational establishment, and in Massachusetts they gave assistance to the residents of the Maine district who opposed the claims of land speculators. In some states they attempted to modify the judicial system and reduce the power of judges. They had little enmity toward banking or internal improvement projects chartered by the states. They also, despite the rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson, gave relatively little assistance to establishing and funding systems of public education. Like their opponents, they kept taxes low and had little hesitation in using state libel laws to attempt to silence those of their editorial opponents who were most offensive to the Democratic Republicans.

The Democratic Republicans backed measures that favored the expansion of the new nation at the expense of foreign powers and native tribes, and supported American commerce against the Barbary States. Democratic Republican presidents purchased Louisiana in 1803, recognized a coup that seized the Spanish portion of eastern Louisiana in 1811, put pressure on Spain to cede Florida, and mounted a frustrated effort to seize Canada in 1812. At the same time they pressed for treaties with the native tribes that would surrender their land to the United States and backed efforts by William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor of Indiana, to seize control of large areas in the Northwest. During the War of 1812 James Madison, the second Democratic Republican president, supported the efforts of both Harrison and Jackson to destroy Native American military power in both the Northwest and Southwest and concluded treaties that seized a large portion of their lands.

In the first years of the nineteenth century and again in 1815, Democratic Republican presidents sent naval expeditions against the Barbary powers to support American commerce in the Mediterranean, and they pleased their southern slaveholding supporters by refusing to recognize Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's second republic, which had been created by a massive slave insurrection.

foreign policy

Differences over foreign policy overshadowed other differences between the two parties at both the national and state levels in defining the distinctive position of the Democratic Republicans. They supported the French Revolution even when the revolutionaries became involved in a war with most of the other European powers. During the early 1790s, they argued that the ideology of the French Revolution should be supported by good republicans. They accused their Federalist opponents, who seemed lukewarm toward the revolution, of being disguised aristocrats who planned to turn the new nation into a pale copy of William Pitt the Younger's Great Britain. Even when the Directory and Napoleon dampened Democratic Republican enthusiasm about the French and the direction of their revolution, the party remained critical and suspicious of the British; Democratic Republicans claimed that Britain used its hostility to France to control and even harm the rapidly growing commerce of the United States. During the years between 1795 and 1800, the Federalists used confrontation with France as grounds for supporting a larger army and navy and for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).

The Convention of 1800 ending the war with France, Jefferson's election victory that year, and peace in Europe temporarily removed foreign policy as a central issue and led to a brief period of almost complete Democratic Republican hegemony. But resumption of the world war and efforts by the British and French to throttle each other's commerce led to increasing tension. The British, having more opportunity to harm American commerce and to impress American sailors, again became the target of Democratic Republican hostility. Confrontation boiled over with the Chesapeake affair in 1807, which led to Jefferson's embargo, designed to protect commerce by preventing trade. This ended when the resurrection of the Federalist Party led to divisions among the Democratic Republicans, which in turn resulted in the repeal of the embargo and its replacement with nonintercourse legislation. The Democratic Republicans hoped to use this approach to force either or both the French and British to cease their assault on American shipping. These efforts failed and led to a declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1812. The war led to an intensification of partisan politics, American defeats, and substantial changes in Democratic Republican policies. The Treaty of Ghent ended the war but did not achieve any of the war's goals. The defeat of the French in early 1814, Napoleon's return from exile and defeat in 1815, and the conclusion of the War of 1812 the same year eliminated partisanship from much less vital foreign policy issues that had provided the Democratic Republicans with their basic reason for being since the early 1790s. The relaxation of partisan tensions led to the twilight of the Federalist Party, the end of the Democratic Republican Party, and the fading away of the first party system.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Bank of the United States; Election of 1796; Election of 1800; Embargo; Federalist Party; Internal Improvements; Jay's Treaty; Newspapers; Politics: Political Patronage; Presidency, The: Thomas Jefferson; Presidency, The: James Madison; Presidency, The: James Monroe; Quasi-War with France; Tariff Politics; War of 1812 .


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Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Process of Government under Jefferson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Goodman, Paul. The Democratic-Republicans of Massachusetts: Politics in a Young Republic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

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Van Beck Hall

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Democratic Republicans

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