Federalist Party

views updated May 23 2018


One of the first two U.S. political parties, the Federalists came into being, ironically, in the anti-party years of the early 1790s, when parties were thought to be dangerous factions undermining the Republic. Federalism had considerable early success, many significant achievements, and fleeting popular support. Federalists won the first three presidential elections, controlled Congress for most of the 1790s, established the new national government, and kept the nation at peace. Over time, however, the Federalists lost their popular support and with it, their grip on power. Out of power and in opposition to their bitter rivals, the Jeffersonian Republicans, or Democratic Republicans, Federalists either tried to imitate and mirror their opponents or devolved into stinging and increasingly self-defeating attacks. But the Federalist Party had a significant if brief moment during the 1790s and helped to set the agenda for early American politics and government.

emergence of parties

The first federal elections of 1788–1789 were not conducted along party lines. Members of Congress were elected, much as representatives had long been chosen, based on reputation and renown. Since they were now the officers of the new federal government and since the great majority had supported the ratification of the new Constitution of 1787, these men appropriated the term Federalist to indicate their support for the Constitution and the new regime. But party identities and identification were weak in the early Republic. Not until 1792 was there a clear opposition group in place to challenge the policies of the administration and its allies in Congress. Furthermore, attitudes toward parties were still negative and neither side claimed to be one. Rather, Federalists considered themselves "the government" or "the nation" and branded their opponents as a "faction," a term that had unhealthy, unrepublican connotations. The Democratic Republicans also denied that they were a party and claimed instead to be protecting the Constitution from the depredations of the Federalist "party" faction that had improperly seized control of the government. Scholars have debated whether it is proper to speak of Federalists and Democratic Republicans as full-fledged parties or merely as loose alliances or proto-parties. No matter where one falls out on this question, it is clear that the competition between the two entities—whatever we may choose to call them—was as intense as any ever seen in American political history and reflected two radically different visions for the future of the nation.

leaders and followers

The Federalists coalesced in the first several national Congresses and were comprised of a group of representatives and senators who supported the legislative initiatives of the administration of George Washington. Although President Washington and Vice President John Adams headed the administration, the party's intellectual and political leader was Alexander Hamilton, who began his tenure as secretary of the Treasury in September 1789 and cultivated allies in Congress. Hamilton's ambitious program— creation of a national bank, assumption of state debts from the Revolution, imposition of an excise tax, the establishment of public credit, and encouragement of manufactures—sparked heated opposition and touched off the first party conflict.

Federalism appealed to merchants, many large landowners, those engaged in commerce, and the wealthy more generally. Federalists were concentrated in urban port towns (especially in the Northeast), in New England, and in parts of Virginia and the Carolinas (especially Charleston). In addition to Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, key party leaders included John Jay (New York), Fisher Ames (Massachusetts), John Marshall (Virginia), Rufus King (New York), Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (South Carolina), and Thomas Pinckney (South Carolina), along with newspaper editors such as Noah Webster, John Fenno, and Benjamin Russell.

programs and issues

Federalists favored a strong central government and an activist state, stressing the energy and primacy of the executive branch. They favored a foreign policy of neutrality that would keep the United States out of the persistent conflict between Great Britain and France, though many Federalists sympathized with the British. Commercially, the Federalists sought to expand their trade networks with England and extend their shipping to other markets as well. Federalists also favored a loose construction of the Constitution, believing that whatever was not expressly forbidden could be fully legitimate and constitutional. Federalists seized on this interpretation to enact a powerful and sweeping vision of the United States, one that foresaw the country emerging under centralized authority as an industrial, financial, and military power to rival Britain.

These views were exemplified by Federalist actions on some of the major policy debates of the 1790s. In the Neutrality crisis of 1793, Federalists rejected Republican calls to aid France in favor of a strict impartiality so as not to antagonize Great Britain. In 1794, Federalists called out troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion among western Pennsylvania farmers angered over an excise tax. The next year the Federalist-controlled Senate approved the unpopular Jay's Treaty, a commercial agreement with England that—for all of its shortcomings—maintained the peace between the two nations.

ideology and culture

Beyond programs and issues, the Federalist Party also was marked by an attitude or an ideology of unabashed elitism that defined the party at least as much as its policies and programs. That elitism did much to undermine the Federalists in their day and to stigmatize them in historical treatments since. Federalists generally subscribed to an older conception of politics that stressed deference by the people to their leaders. Federalists believed that once the tiny electorate had selected its duly chosen leaders (the "constituted authorities," in a favorite Federalist phrase), the public's responsibility between elections was to defer to the judgment of those leaders, not to try to influence officials toward alternative positions. The party was unprepared to operate in any system not premised on deference, since it lacked a grass-roots (or even top-down) political organization. These beliefs led Federalists—most prominently George Washington himself—to vehemently denounce the Democratic Societies (popular clubs which met to discuss topical political issues and sometimes produced addresses and resolutions) as dangerous, extraconstitutional bodies of great potential mischief and to mock them as "self-created societies." This attitude did much to explain both the party's conception of governing and politics and its eventual downfall as these sentiments grew increasingly anachronistic in a democratizing society.

This attitude was also reflected in the political culture of the Federalists. The party centered its celebrations around Washington, especially his birthday of 22 February, which became the highest holy day of the Federalist calendar. The day was marked throughout the nation with parades, the firing of cannon, and dinners, toasts, and processions, all of which served to solidify in the public mind the link between Washington, the administration and its policies, and the Federalist Party. While Washington tried to remain above politics and party and govern as a disinterested national leader, he increasingly sided with Hamilton over Jefferson on political matters and behaved more like a partisan. By the end of his second term, Washington was acting as (and was seen by his opponents) as a strong Federalist despite his Farewell Address of 1796, which warned against domestic political divisions.

Federalist political culture mirrored its ideology by promoting deference. But despite their reservations and ambivalence, Federalists at times practiced popular politics and mobilized public opinion effectively on behalf of their measures. Federalists consistently and explicitly linked Washington's incomparable stature to support for party policy. By framing issues as a choice between supporting Washington and legitimate government or supporting some foreign or radical element (be it Citizen Genêt, the Whiskey rebels, the Democratic Societies, or opponents of Jay's Treaty), Federalists regularly rallied the public to their side. Federalists utilized newspapers, petition drives, sometimes even door-to-door campaigning to press their points and produce the desired results. Even though many Federalists were troubled by the use of such tactics, the party often wielded them to great effect, frustrating and defeating their opponents.


Difficulties under Adams. The Federalists began to lose their popular touch when Vice President John Adams succeeded Washington in 1797. Far less popular than Washington and much less adroit politically, Adams was also plagued by a disloyal cabinet and by a fierce division in Federalist ranks between those loyal to the president and those who took their marching orders from Hamilton, out of office but still highly influential. The party also lost its once-sharp political touch. In an ill-advised effort to stamp out the Democratic Republicans and their partisans in the press (all of whom Federalists considered illegitimate anyway), the Federalist Congress passed in 1798 the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were designed to curb the influence of recent immigrants and make criticism of government leaders or policies illegal. But these efforts backfired disastrously. Rather than destroying the opposition, the acts and the high-handed, arbitrary way they were carried out invigorated and revived the Republicans, especially the party newspapers. When he stood for reelection in 1800, Adams presided over a badly divided party and faced a furious and revived opposition. Matched against Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Adams lost the contest, winning sixty-five electoral votes to seventy-three each for his Republican rivals. After a protracted process, the House of Representatives ultimately selected Jefferson as president. When Adams returned to Massachusetts in a bitter fury, no one could know that the Federalists had had their last taste of the presidency.

Elections of 1804 and 1808. After Adams's narrow loss in 1800, younger Federalists in particular tried to regroup by appropriating the organizational tactics and campaign methods of the Republicans to build a national political party organization. Despite such efforts, Federalists never again came close to winning the presidency. Jefferson was reelected by a 162 to 14 margin in the electoral college in 1804, defeating Charles C. Pinckney, who carried only Connecticut and Delaware. In 1808 Federalists again ran Pinckney, this time against James Madison. Federalist fortunes revived only briefly due to the unpopularity of Jefferson's embargo of 1807, which was designed to hurt Britain but which seemed to do the most damage to the American commercial economy. Even with this issue handed to them by the Jeffersonians, Federalists could do little better in 1808. Pinckney again ran strongly in New England, where opposition to the embargo was strongest and carried Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Delaware plus scattered electors from Maryland and North Carolina. Despite making a stronger showing than four years earlier, Pinckney nonetheless lost decisively, carrying just 47 electoral votes to Madison's 122.

Election of 1812. The closest the Federalists came to winning the presidency was in 1812 as a significant antiwar sentiment hindered Madison's reelection. Federalists tried to make common cause with anti-war Republicans and ran a fusion ticket that, while potentially adding new members to their base, also ran the risk of upsetting many Federalists who worried that an alliance with Republicans would undermine the party's independence and legitimacy. New York City mayor De Witt Clinton was nominated for the presidency with Pennsylvania's Jared Ingersoll as the vice presidential nominee. In the end, Madison prevailed by only 128 electoral votes to 89 for Clinton. Pennsylvania proved to be the key as Madison carried its 25 electoral votes. Had Clinton carried them, he would have won the election by a narrow margin.

Hartford Convention. Now thoroughly routed, losers of four consecutive presidential elections and increasingly becoming a regional party only, Federalists struggled with their future as the War of 1812 raged. In December 1814 and January 1815, delegates representing each of the New England states met at Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss their grievances. Some delegates urged secession of the New England states from the union. That proposal was defeated and the convention issued a moderate set of proposals (such as opposition to the three-fifths clause in the Constitution and to territorial expansion) designed to strengthen the power of the states and restoring the influence of New England Federalism. The Hartford Convention became, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, in the eyes of some, a near-traitorous gathering as news of the resounding victory of the Battle of New Orleans (8 January 1815) arrived and with it the prospect of peace. By merely discussing secession at Hartford, the Federalists finished themselves as a viable political party in many minds. Rufus King was nominated for the presidency against James Monroe in 1816 but he lost badly, 183 electoral votes to just 34, as King carried only Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts. The 1816 election marked the effective end of the Federalist Party at the national level. The party lingered for awhile in New England but never again nominated a presidential candidate. Some Federalists retreated into literary endeavors, hoping to redirect culture and society—a political project carried on by other means.

The Hartford Convention, the presidential election defeats, and the slow evaporation to extinction as a party stood in stark contrast to and marked a sad end to what had once been a visionary and vibrant party with many achievements to its credit. Federalists, it can be argued, served the nation well in their time but ultimately were too much at odds with the direction of the nation's political development to survive as a party.

See alsoAdams, John; Alien and Sedition Acts; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1796; Election of 1800; Hamilton, Alexander; Hartford Convention; Jay's Treaty; Jefferson, Thomas; Newspapers; Washington, George; Whiskey Rebellion .


Banner, James M., Jr. To The Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Ben-Atar, Doron, and Barbara B. Oberg, eds. Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Estes, Todd. "Shaping the Politics of Public Opinion: Federalists and the Jay Treaty Debate." Journal of the Early Republic 20, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 393–422.

Fischer, David Hackett. The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Foletta, Marshall. Coming to Terms with Democracy: Federalist Intellectuals and the Shaping of an American Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Kerber, Linda K. Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Newman, Simon P. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Todd Estes

Federalist Party

views updated May 23 2018


FEDERALIST PARTY. The name "Federalist Party" originated in the ratification debates over the U.S. Constitution. In 1788 the group that favored ratification and a strong central government called themselves "federalists," which at that time indicated a preference for a more consolidated government rather than a loose "confederation" of semi-sovereign states. After the Constitution was ratified, the term "federalist" came to be applied to any supporter of the Constitution and particularly to members of the Washington administration. The term received wide currency with the publication of a series of eighty-one articles by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the ratification of the Constitution. Thus, in the early 1790s, not only George Washington, John Adams, and Hamilton, but even Madison, then the floor leader of the administration in the House of Representatives, were all "federalists."

The Washington administration found itself divided, however, over Hamilton's debt, banking, and manufacturing policies, all of which favored the commercial and financial interests of the Northeast over the agrarian interests of the South and West. Foreign policy questions also split Washington's cabinet in his first term, especially the problems arising from treaty obligations to the increasingly radical republicans in France. These questions deeply divided the government, and eventually caused the resignations of the secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison as floor leader. Nevertheless, these questions did not precipitate permanent, consistent political divisions in Congress or in the states.

The Emergence of a Party

The Federalist Party took permanent and consistent form in Washington's second term as president during the controversy over the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. John Jay negotiated a treaty that alienated the frontier interests, the commercial grain exporters of the middle states, and the slaveholders of the South. The division over foreign policy—between "Anglomen" who hoped for favorable relations with Britain and "Gallomen" who hoped for continued strong relations with France—generated a climate of distrust, paranoia, and repression that propelled these foreign policy divisions into sustained political conflict at the elite level and eventually promoted the expansion of a party press, party organizations, and strong party identification in the electorate.

Although the Federalist Party did not arise from the controversy over Hamilton's economic policies, those states and interests that had benefited from Hamiltonian policies tended to favor the Federalists from the beginning. New England and the seaboard states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina favored the Federalists in part because each of these states was dominated by commercial interests and an entrenched social and religious elite. Similarly, the urban seaboard interests and prosperous agrarian regions of Pennsylvania and New York also favored the Federalists. In New England, federalism was closely associated with the Established Congregational church in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In the middle states, Federalists tended to be Episcopalian in New York, Presbyterian in New Jersey, and might be either of these, or Quakers, in the area around Philadelphia. In Delaware, on the other hand, Federalists were more likely to be Episcopalians from the lower part of the state, rather than Presbyterians or Quakers from Wilmington.

In the South, federalism dominated only one state, South Carolina, and that was in part the result of its benefit from the Hamiltonian funding policy of state debts. Like the northern Federalists, South Carolina Federalists formed a solid elite in the Low Country along the coast. Mostly Episcopalian and Huguenot Presbyterians, their great wealth and urban commercial interests in Charleston, the South's only significant city, led them to make common cause with Hamiltonians in New England and the middle states. Elsewhere in the South, federalism thrived in regions where the social order was more hierarchical, wealth was greater, and the inroads of evangelicalism were weakest. Thus the Eastern Shore of Maryland, once Loyalist and Anglican, was a Federalist bastion, as were the Catholic counties of southern Maryland. The Tidewater of Virginia was another Federalist stronghold, as were the Cape Fear region of North Carolina and the Lowland counties of Georgia. Outside of a few New England exiles in the Western Reserve area of Ohio, Federalists did not gather much support in the new states of the West.

With strong political support across the Union at the time of Washington's retirement, the Federalists managed to hold the presidency for their party and for their candidate, John Adams, but only by three electoral votes. Adams allowed Washington's cabinet to retain their posts into his new term. They were followers of Alexander Hamilton, arch-Federalists, and far more ideological than Adams himself.

In 1798 the Federalists reached the peak of their national popularity in the war hysteria that followed the XYZ Affair. In the congressional elections of 1798 the Federalists gained greater support in their strongholds in New England, the middle states, Delaware, and Maryland. They made significant gains in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. North and South, the popular slogan in 1798 was "Adams and Liberty." Even as they gained strength over their Democratic Republican adversaries, however, they viewed their opponents with increasing alarm. In a time of war hysteria, extreme Federalists genuinely believed that many Jeffersonians had allied themselves with the most radical factions of Revolutionary France. At a time when the Democratic Republicans were out of favor, their criticisms of the Federalists took on a shrill, often vituperative tone.

The harsh personal criticism by the leading Democratic Republican newspapers prompted some Federalists in Congress to find a way to curb this "licentious" press, punish the opposition editors, and perhaps cripple Democratic Republican political chances in the upcoming presidential election. In Congress, Representative Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina and Senator William Lloyd of Maryland introduced legislation in 1798 known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act, modeled on the British Sedition Act of 1795, made it unlawful to "print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against any officer of the government. Under the energetic enforcement of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, the leading Democratic Republican newspapers in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Richmond, Virginia, were closed down in 1799.

The Election of 1800

The election year of 1800 was the last time an incumbent Federalist engaged himself in a contest for the presidency. Despite Thomas Jefferson's referral to the election as a "revolution," the presidential contest was in fact narrowly won. Only five states allowed for the popular vote for presidential electors, and both parties used every means available—especially legislative selection of electors—to maximize their candidate's electoral vote. This was the first and last year the Federalists and Democratic Republicans contested every single state in the congressional elections. The Republicans won 67 of the 106 seats in the House of Representatives. Despite the decisive popular vote for the Democratic Republicans in Congress, the electoral vote was not at all a clear mandate for Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Thomas Jefferson owed his victory in the Electoral College to the infamous "three-fifths" rule, which stipulated that slaves would be counted in congressional (and electoral college) apportionment as a concession to the South.

Although the contest for president was mostly conducted in the legislatures and the congressional contests were conducted at the local level, the party press of both the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans played up the contrast between Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson was a "Jacobin," an "atheist," and a "hypocrite" with all his talk about equality, while keeping slaves. Adams was an "aristocrat," a "monocrat," and a defender of hereditary privileges. The religious issue played an important part in the election. The Gazette of the United States put this controversy in its starkest form: "God—And a Religious President; Or Jefferson—And No God!!!"

The Decline of Federalism

The Federalists lost more congressional seats in 1802 and in 1804, despite Hamilton's attempt to inject the religious issue into the former election. Their opposition to the Louisiana Purchase seemed to spell certain doom for them in the West. Thanks to the unpopularity of Jefferson's Embargo Act, however, the Federalist Party experienced a revival in New England and the middle states in 1808 at the congressional and state level. By 1812 the Federalist Party and dissident anti-war Republicans grouped together behind DeWitt Clinton and the "Friends of Peace." With the unpopularity of the war in the Northeast, the Federalists and their anti-war allies gave James Madison a close contest for his reelection. The Federalist Party gained seats in Congress in 1812 and 1814 as the fortunes of war seemed arrayed against the Americans.

Some of the more extreme Federalists, however, including Timothy Pickering and Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts and Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut, toyed with New England secession in the midst of this unpopular war. They met in Hartford, Connecticut, from 15 December 1814 to 5 January 1815. Although the Federalist delegates defeated a secession resolution, their party was thereafter associated with disloyalty, and even treason. The end of the war made the Hartford Convention nothing more than an embarrassing irrelevance.

The Federalist Party hung on, however, in a long twilight in the seaboard states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, and even enjoyed a modest revival in Pennsylvania and New York in the early 1820s. The Federalist Party never again held power at the national level after 1800 in the election triumph that Jefferson called a "revolution." The death of Alexander Hamilton in 1804 killed the one Federalist leader who had youth, national stature, and significant popular support.

The extended influence of the Federalist Party lay in the judiciary. With the appointment of many Federalists to the bench, John Adams ensured that the Federalists would continue to exert a dominant influence on the federal judiciary for many years to come. Federalist judges predominated until the Era of Good Feeling. Thereafter, federalism continued to have influence in the law, thanks in no small part to the intellectual authority of John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who remained on the Court until his death in 1835.


Banner, James M. To the Hartford Convention: Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Harper, 1970.

Ben-Atar, Doron, and Barbara B. Oberg, eds. Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Broussard, James. The Southern Federalists. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Chambers, William Nisbet. The First Party System. New York: John Wiley, 1972.

Dauer, Manning J. The Adams Federalists. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.

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

Fischer, David Hackett. The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Harper, 1965.

Formisano, Ronald P. The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790–1840. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Kerber, Linda. Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Miller, John C. The Federalist Era, 1789–1801. New York: Harper, 1960.

Sharpe, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Andrew W.Robertson

See alsoPolitical Parties ; Republicans, Jeffersonian ; Two-Party System .

Federalist Party

views updated Jun 11 2018


The Federalist Party, along with the Democratic-Republican Party, was one of the first two political parties in the United States, and hence in the world. It arose in the executive and congressional branches of government during George Washington's first administration (1789–1793) and dominated the government until John Adams's failed bid for reelection to the presidency in 1800. After that, the party never again held the White House, although it continued as a force in Congress until after the War of 1812, and in some states until the 1820s. Its remaining members then joined both the Democratic and Whig parties.

Among leading Federalist figures such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and John Marshall, George Washington was the greatest. Although he disdained political parties and disclaimed party loyalty, his policies and inclinations were those of a Federalist. The party's leading men had headed the movement in 1787 for a new, more effective constitution. Yet because their eventual opponents, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had also backed the constitution and joined the government formed under it, Federalists cannot be considered direct descendants of the proconstitution group, who were also called "federalists," of the 1780s. The Federalist Party, like its opposition, arose under fresh conditions around fresh issues in the 1790s.

The Federalist Party attracted those who wanted to strengthen national power by establishing a national banking system, protecting American commerce, exercising authority over the states, and employing military might against both domestic and foreign threats. The party's style was generally elitist, and its leaders opposed the spread of political and social democracy. Its centers of power were the commercial northeast, Delaware, parts of Virginia and North Carolina, and South Carolina. But it never appealed to slave-owning plantation owners or small farmers in the South and West. Its policies, ideology, and geographic limitations led to its defeats and demise.

federalist policies

The party formed around the successful 1790 proposals of Hamilton, the nation's first treasury secretary, that the federal government assume the states' revolutionary war debts, pay those debts at par rather than at their depressed market value, and charter a national bank. Secretary of State Jefferson and Congressman Madison led opposition to the plan. But it was only when the administration ordered troops to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794 and later when Congress debated the ratification and implementation of Jay's treaty with Great Britain in 1795 and 1796 that two political parties took public shape. With Hamilton's leadership, the Federalist Party became champion of a strong national government under executive leadership and judicial oversight, firm links with Britain, opposition to the French Revolution (or at least to a foreign policy that might favor France), and internal order imposed if necessary by military force. The classic statement of the party's philosophy, prepared with Hamilton's help, was Washington's celebrated Farewell Address of 1796 that deplored partisan division and urged avoidance of all permanent alliances with foreign powers (a veiled attack on the 1778 wartime alliance, still in force, with France). Washington's views now became firm party doctrine.

Succeeding Washington as an avowed Federalist in 1797, vice president John Adams became the first person to gain the presidency as a partisan. Adams at first maintained Washington's cabinet and policies. Adams engaged the United States in an undeclared naval war with France, the nation's first external military action since the revolution. Adams also supported the infamous Alien and Sedition acts after congressional Federalists, gaining control of both the House and Senate in the 1798 elections, introduced them. This marked the apogee of Federalist power.

A public storm greeted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which curbed free speech and made immigrants suspect. Also weakening the party, Hamilton's wing attacked Adams's priorities when in 1799 Adams opened negotiations with France to end the quasi war. The Hamiltonians finally broke with Adams when he reorganized his cabinet with men under his own control. Despite these actions, which Adams took in part to shore up his own political position, they were not enough to gain Adams's reelection. Before leaving office, however, he concluded peace with France and secured confirmation in the Senate of John Marshall, his choice for chief justice. While the party never regained the presidency, Marshall's court embedded its principals in constitutional law.

opposition party

Now in the minority, Federalists at last accepted the need to create a system of state party organizations and democratic electoral tactics to parallel those of the Democratic-Republicans. Even so, they became in effect a sectional minority party whose greatest strength was now found in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware. By opposing Jefferson's popular 1803 purchase of Louisiana as too costly in funds and dangerous to northern influence in government, the party again lost to Jefferson in 1804.

war of 1812: death of the federalist party

The presidential defeat and Hamilton's death the same year threatened to derail the party permanently. But Jefferson's 1807 embargo on all foreign trade revived it, although the party's candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, could not defeat Madison for the presidency the next year. Not even Madison's declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, when Federalists carried New York, New Jersey, and much of Maryland as well as its normal New England strongholds, could help the Federalist Party regain the presidency.

When Federalists followed up their opposition to declaring war with outright obstruction of the war effort, their newfound popularity quickly waned. The Hartford Convention of 1814, unjustly accused of secessionist and treasonous intentions, was a setback from which the party never recovered. Rufus King carried only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware against James Monroe in 1816.

After that, the party never regained a national following. By 1828 it became the first American political party to die out because it could not adjust to an increasingly democratic national spirit, especially in the nation's towns and cities. And among most Americans, mainly farmers suspicious of government, its policies of strong federal involvement in the economy kept it un-popular. Inconsistency in its stance toward military action (first undertaking a naval war with France, then treating for peace with that same nation, then actively opposing war with Britain) made the Federalist Party's true intentions suspect and laid it open to charges that it was nothing but an opposition party without consistent foreign or military policies of its own and was unwilling to defend the national interest.

Yet the party's contributions to the nation were extraordinary. Its principles were the foundations of the new government. Its leaders defined a national economy, created the judicial system, and gave voice to enduring principles of American foreign policy, chief among them a wariness of involvement in troubles overseas.


Banner, James M., Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Ben-Atar, Doron and Oberg, Barbara B., eds. Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

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

James M. Banner, Jr.

See also:Embargo; Hamilton's Reports; Hartford Convention; Quasi-War and the Rise of Political Parties.

Federalist Party

views updated May 11 2018


The Federalist Party was an American political party during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It originated in the loosely affiliated groups advocating the creation of a stronger national government after 1781 and culminated with the laws and policies established by Federalist lawmakers from 1789 to 1801. These laws and policies laid the foundation for a strong central government in the United States, thereby securing the transition from the provisional national government established during the Revolutionary War and continuing under the articles of confederation to the intricate system of checks and balances contemplated for the three branches of government in the U.S. Constitution.

The Federalist party's early leaders included alexander hamilton, john jay, james madison, and george washington. These men provided much of the impetus and organization behind the movement to draft and ratify the federal Constitution. Their support came from the established elites of old wealth in the commercial cities and in the less rapidly developing rural regions.

Even before the Articles of Confederation were ratified by the original 13 states in 1781, prominent Americans were criticizing the document for having failed to create a strong federal government. In 1783, George Washington, as commander in chief of the army, sent a circular to state governors discussing the need to add tone to our federal government. Three years later Washington and his political allies were referring to those who opposed strengthening the power of the central government under the Articles of Confederation as antifederal.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, those favoring a stronger central government drafted a Constitution that greatly increased the powers of Congress and the executive. Debate over ratification of the Constitution sharpened the lines separating those who called themselves federalists and those who called themselves antifederalists. Much of this debate was formalized in The Federalist, later called The Federalist Papers.

Originally written as 85 tracts under the name Publius, the pro-Federalist essays were published in New York City newspapers between October 27, 1787, and May 28, 1788. Each essay was written to persuade the people of New York to elect delegates who would ratify the federal Constitution in the forthcoming state convention. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were the principal authors, while John Jay wrote five essays. The Federalist Papers are today considered America's most important political treatise and the most authoritative source for understanding the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

After the Constitution was ratified, the Federalist party dominated the national government until 1801. The Federalists believed that the Constitution should be loosely interpreted to build up federal power. They were generally pro-British, favored the interests of commerce and manufacturing over agriculture, and wanted the new government to be developed on a sound financial basis. Accordingly, Secretary of Treasury Hamilton proposed tax increases and the establishment of a national bank.

During their 12-year reign, the Federalist party settled the problems of the revolutionary debt, sought closer relations with Great Britain in Jay's Treaty of 1794, and tried to silence their domestic critics with the alien and sedition acts of 1798. These repressive laws cost the Federalist party much of its support, including that of Madison, who with thomas jefferson organized the democratic-republican party.

The Democratic-Republicans, also known as just the Republicans, opposed the policies and laws of the Federalist party at every turn. Republicans were generally pro-French and pro-agriculture. They believed that the Constitution should be strictly interpreted, favored strong, independent states at the expense of the federal government, and opposed the creation of a national bank.

The Federalist party lost control of the national government when Jefferson became president in 1801. The Federalists continued to diminish in popularity for the next 20 years. The party's last significant political victory came in the impeachment trial of samuel chase, associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court and staunch Federalist, who had been impeached by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives for what they called judicial misconduct. However, in his trial before the Senate, Chase and his attorney convinced enough Senators that the impeachment charges boiled down to little more than partisan politics and that convicting Chase would imperil the independence of the federal judiciary. Chase was thus acquitted on all eight articles of impeachment.

The Federalist party ceased to exist as a national organization after the election of 1816, in which Republican james monroe defeated Federalist Rufus King. However, the party remained influential in a number of states until it disappeared completely during the 1820s. Most Federalists, such as daniel webster, joined the National republican party in the 1820s and later the whig party in the 1830s.

further readings

Boyer, Paul S. 2001. Oxford Companion to United States History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hall, Kermit L. 1992. Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lenner, Andrew. 1996."A Tale of Two Constitutions: Nationalism in the Federalist Era." American Journal of Legal History 40 (January): 72-105.

Lynch, Joseph M. 2000 "The Federalists and The Federalist: A Forgotten History." Seton Hall Law Review 31 (winter): 18-29.


Republican Party; Whig Party.

Federalist Party

views updated May 23 2018

Federalist Party

The Federalist Party was the first lasting political party to arise in the United States. The supporters of a new federal constitution , drafted in 1787, were called Federalists due to their desire for a strong central federal, or national, government. The supporters were eventually drawn into an official political organization led by controversial Federalist Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), during the presidency of George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97).


When delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , in 1787, their assignment was to decide whether and how to strengthen the powers of Congress under the Articles of Confederation . Congress had functioned under the articles officially since 1781. After the American Revolution (1775–83) ended successfully (leading to American independence), Congress faced challenges stemming from lack of power over the states.

Within the first few days of the Convention of 1787, the delegates decided to abandon the Articles of Confederation and to write a new framework for the federal government. The process proved to be difficult as delegates were faced with resolving different needs among the vastly different states.

Those delegates who became known as Federalists worked to craft a strong central government. They believed that in order to maintain a unified nation of states, it was necessary to have a federal government that was more powerful than the individual state governments. The Federalists wanted a government with enough power to promote the security, financial stability, commercial prosperity, and general well-being of all of the states.

A group of delegates who thought that individual state governments should be more powerful than a federal government opposed the Federalists. These delegates sought to prevent an overly powerful central government, which they felt could result in tyranny at the expense of state's rights. They became known as the Anti-Federalists .

Because there were more Federalists than Anti-Federalists at the convention, the Constitution written that summer of 1787 contained many provisions that the Federalists wanted for a strong central government. Ratification, or approval, of the Constitution occurred in 1788 with a well-organized effort by the Federalists.

Party politics

The Federalists gained control of the first installation of government under the Constitution. Hamilton, one of the most vocal Federalists at the Constitutional Convention, was the first secretary of the treasury of the United States. He was responsible for establishing the United States as a strong economic force. His policies advocated a strong federal government, the creation of a national bank, and government support for commerce and shipping.

Although Hamilton's policies were important in establishing the United States as a respectable and successful nation in the eyes of other countries, they stirred concerns within the United States. Hamilton was aggressive with his opinions and policies, and opposition to his policies began to grow. During the 1790s, those who opposed Hamilton and his supporters organized under the Democratic-Republican Party , which was led by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). The Federalists, as a result, became more formally aligned into a political party.


While the Federalists enjoyed a powerful beginning, their party proved difficult to sustain. Although they managed to elect John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) president in 1796 after George Washington served two terms, the Federalists began to lose power after 1800. Lack of organization against powerful opposition from the Democratic-Republicans, internal divisions, aversion to compromise, and the death of Hamilton in 1804 led to the party's gradual demise. By 1817, the Federalist Party had dissolved into history.

Federalist Party

views updated May 21 2018

Federalist Party US political party led by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Jay. Formed in 1787 to promote ratification of the Constitution, it represented planters, merchants, bankers, and manufacturers. Hamilton, Jay, and James Madison (later an Anti-Federalist) wrote the ‘Federalist Papers’ essays, expressing support for sound financial management, government banking, and strong federal powers. They opposed the states' rights, agrarian philosophy of the Republican Party.

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Federalist party