The First Party System

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The First Party System


Opposition to Hamilton. As he prepared to leave office in September 1796, President George Washington published a Farewell Address warning his countrymen against the baneful effects of the spirit of party. Party spirit, Washington continued, agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against the other [and] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption. Washington hoped that party spirit would give way to national unity, and so too did James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but Alexander Hamiltons plans for a commercial society that resembled Britain slowly led to the development of political parties. Madison and his fellow Virginian John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives, began organizing opposition in Congress early in 1790. A tour of New York, Vermont, and Connecticut in the spring and summer of 1791 gave Madison and Jefferson a chance to discuss their political concerns with local leaders and with each other. By October 1791 Madison and Jefferson had helped Philip Freneau establish the National Gazette in Philadelphia to provide an alternative to John Fennos proadministration newspaper, the Gazette of the United States. By the end of 1792 opponents of Hamiltons policies were calling themselves Republicans and using the pages of the National Gazette and other partisan newspapers to present themselves as true republicans who would protect the peoples liberties and interests from the Federalists. (Members of the opposition were also known as the Democratic-Republicans, but Jefferson and Madison did not like the term Democratic because it sounded too radical.)

The French Revolution. Most Americans supported the French Revolution in 1789, believing that their revolution had inspired the French struggle for liberty. But events in 1793 changed reaction along party lines. Frances declaration of war against Britain moved the United States government to declare neutrality, but Federalists sided with Britain, while Republicans sided with France. The Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton, believed that national interests were best served by maintaining a cordial commercial relationship with Britain. Federalists were also frightened by the violent direction of the French Revolution and the possibility that similar forces of disorder could be unleashed in the United States. French radicals had taken control and launched the Reign of Terror, executing the king and queen, hundreds of aristocrats, and moderate revolutionaries before they began killing each other. The connection between Democratic Societies and the Whiskey Rebellion convinced Federalists that French ideas threatened law and order in the United States. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had been trying since the 1780s to channel American trade away from Britain and toward France, but Republican support for the French Revolution was based more on ideological than on economic reasons. While Federalists believed Britain represented social order and stability, Republicans believed France was engaged in the cause of liberty against British tyranny and corruption. In October 1793 a public meeting in Caroline County, Virginia, warned that the breaking of the honorable and beneficial connection between the United States and France was a leading step towards assimilating the American government to the form and spirit of the British monarchy.


The political disputes of the 1790s and early 1800s divided friends, neighbors, and families. Dr. Nathaniel Ames and his younger brother, Fisher Ames, lived all their lives in Dedham, Massachusetts, and disagreed about every political issue. Nathaniel, an Anti-Federalist turned Republican, hated Federalists (British bootlickers) and lawyers (the Dregs of Misfortune and Misconduct). Fisher, a Federalist congressman, lawyer, and political essayist, condemned Republicans as Jacobins born in sin and trumpeters of sedition. Nathaniel supported the French Revolution and opposed the Jay Treaty, while Fisher did the opposite. Nathaniel believed Jeffersons election in 1800 would usher in a new age with returning harmony with Francewith the irresistable propagation of the Rights of Man, the eradication of hierarchy, oppression, superstition and tyranny over the world. Fisher thought, The next thing will be, as in France, anarchy: then Jacobinism, organized with enough energy to plunder and shed blood. When Fisher Ames died on 4 July 1808, Nathaniel, although personally reconciled with his brother, refused to attend his funeral because Federalist leaders took charge of the public event. Dr. Nathaniel Ames lived until 22 July 1822, still supporting Republican policies and denouncing Federalists, lawyers, and England.

Source: Charles Warren, Jacobin and Junto or Early American Politics As Viewed in the Diary of Dr. Nathaniel Ames (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931).

Jacobins and Monocrats. As political parties began to develop in the 1790s, each side claimed that it would best protect republicanism and that the other side would destroy it. Federalists attacked Republicans as Jacobins who, like the members of the radical Jacobin clubs in France, promised the people equality only to gain power. The Republicans naive faith in democracy would demolish government, property, and established religion as it had in France. Only the real friends of liberty and order, as George Cabot called the Federalists, could save the country by leading the people instead of appealing to their emotions. Republicans, in turn, attacked Federalists as lovers of monarchy and aristocracy (monocrats) who cared only about merchants, speculators, and stockholders in the Bank of the United States and not about the common people. Each side exaggerated or misrepresented the others ideas, but Federalists and Republicans did appeal to different segments of American society, and they did offer alternative visions of republicanism. Federalist leaders were successful lawyers, merchants, and planters. They attracted northern merchants, manufacturers, urban artisans, South Carolina planters, and some small farmers who believed that a strong national government, a sound financial system, and a realistic foreign policy that recognized Great Britains commercial power would ensure liberty, prosperity, and social order. The Republicans philosophy stressing limited government, the westward expansion of small farms, and the end of foreign and domestic policies that helped only the monied aristocracy attracted most southern planters and small farmers, especially in the new western states. Republicans also began drawing support from small merchants, artisans, and laborers in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities; non-English immigrants; and members of religious minoritiesall of whom felt that the Federalists were denying them liberty, equality, and opportunity. Federalists could never let southern Republicans forget, however, that their fervent belief in democracy did not extend to the slaves that they held in chains.

Factions and Parties. The negative view of parties as factions, or temporary gatherings of individuals interested in protecting selfish interests or receiving political patronage, affected political thought throughout the period between 1783 and 1815. Each side clung to the belief that they were forced to react to the other sides attempt to overthrow the ideals of the American Revolution. In his first administration President Washington tried to remain above party disputes, but events after 1793 made that difficult. The connection between the Democratic Societies and the Whiskey Rebellion, Republican support for the radical phase of the French Revolution, and Republican attacks on his administrations allegedly pro-British sympathies in the aftermath of the Jay Treaty moved Washington to stand with the Federalist Party as the legitimate defenders of liberty and order. Jefferson was equally opposed to parties, but after the Jay Treaty, Republicans looked to him as the leader of a political opposition forced to organize for the protection of American liberty. Jefferson regarded his presidential election in 1800 not as a victory for the Republican Party but as a victory of republican principles. In his view, the future of the republic depended not on the existence of opposing parties, but on the hope that the Federalists would abandon their party and become Republicans. As the Federalists lost national influence, however, the Republicans began to splinter into factions that argued over presidential policies and political appointments. It was the experiences of this first generation of party leaders, so uncomfortable with the idea of parties, that laid the foundation for the eventual acceptance of political parties. Their presentation of ideas and programs through newspapers, pamphlets, and political organizations in the 1790s had enlightened and stimulated voters. By the 1820s, with the spread of universal white male suffrage, voters expected to participate in politics and to choose between two parties offering coherent ideas that addressed their concerns.


A = Administration Supporters; O = Opponents; F = Federalists; R = Republicans. The figures are for the beginning of the first session of each Congress.
Source : Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957 (Washington, D.C, : United States Bureau of the Census, 1960).
1st Congress (17891791)38 A 26 O17 A 9 OWashington F
2nd Congress (17911793)37 F 33 R16 F 13 RWashington F
3rd Congress (17931795)57 R 48 F17 F 13 RWashington F
4th Congress (17951797)54 F 52 R19 F 13 RWashington F
5th Congress (17971799)58 F 48 R20 F 12 RAdams F
6th Congress (17991801)64 F 42 R19 F 13 RAdams F
7th Congress (18011803)69 R 36 F18 R 13 FJefferson R
8th Congress (18031805)102 R 39 F25 R 9 FJefferson R
9th Congress (18051807)116 R 25 F27 R 7 FJefferson R
10th Congress (18071809)118 R 24 F28 R 6 FJefferson R
11th Congress (18091811)94 R 48 F28 R 6 FMadison R
12th Congress (18111813)108 R 36 F30 R 6 FMadison R
13th Congress (18131815)112 R 68 F27 R 9 FMadison R
14th Congress (18151817)117 R 65 F2SR-11FMadison R


Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978);

William Nisbet Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 17761809 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963);

Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 17801840 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969);

Charles Warren, Jacobin and Junto or Early American Politics as Viewed in the Diary of Dr. Nathaniel Ames (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931).

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The First Party System

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