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USA - 1792-1828 - First Party System

Political factions or parties began to form during the struggle over ratification of the federal Constitution of 1787. Friction between them increased as attention shifted from the creation of a new federal government to the question of how powerful that federal government would be. The Federalists, led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, wanted a strong central government, while the Anti-Federalists, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, advocated states’ rights instead of centralized power.

During the period 1789-97, that covered by Washington's two administrations, there was nothing which can be called a clear cut issue sufficient to produce national parties. Of factional division there was no lack, and sectional differences and personal animosities supplied abundant excuse for disagreement.

But if one attempts to sift the evidence and examine the proof offered for the claims of party existence, he will in the end abandon the task as a profitless one. No two historians agree as to party names or divisions. One writer begins in 1790 by calling one of the factions the Anti-Federalist party and changes the name in 1793 to Republican. Another historian calls the same faction Constitutional Republican in 1792; by another its supporters are termed Democrats, while a fourth writer calls them Federal Republicans. The difficulty seems to have been that each historian has assumed the existence of clear party divisions for a given period of history.

Federalists coalesced around the commercial sector of the country while their opponents drew their strength from those favoring an agrarian society. As party lines were drawn in the new federal government, by early 1792 President George Washington tried to pacify the parties by addressing the chief protagonists — Alexander Hamilton, his secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, his secretary of state. Although both Hamilton and Jefferson promised to work together, the struggle between the Federalist and Republican parties continued unabated.”

The ensuing partisan battles led George Washington to warn of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his Farewell Address as president of United States. “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”

During the whole of Washington's first administration, Jefferson had made vain efforts to built up a party organization. Possibly a consciousness of his failure lay at the bottom of his earnest request that Washington stand for reelection. The outcome of his contests with Hamilton had not given him that assured sense of leadership necessary for success and none know so well as he what little progress had yet been made toward consolidating the hitherto factious opposition into a definitely organized party.

Opponents (Anti-Federalists) and supporters (Federalists) of the new constitution began to coalesce into political factions. In Virginia, Anti-Federalists led by Patrick Henry (1736–1799) defeated James Madison's election to the Senate and forced him into a campaign for the House of Representatives against a strong Anti-Federalist, James Monroe (1758–1831), later the fifth president. The rapid evolution of political parties from factions was an inventive American response to political conflict.

The Federalist opposition to the war in Massachusetts grew stronger as the war progressed, helped on, as it was, by British favor until in 1814 it took the extreme form to be found in the resolutions of the Hartford Convention. The ignominious defeat of the Federal party and its subsequent disappearance as an organization after the war followed as a natural consequence of its purely sectional opposition to a national war. Whatever may be said of Madison's motives in seeking re-election in 1812 and his abilities as a war president, the Republican party had committed the nation to a patriotic war, and property interests and constitutional theories alike had to give way. The Federal party, with consistent lack of foresight, sought by every means short of outright treason to cause this war policy of their opponents to fail, and their defeat was hardly less ignominious than it was well deserved.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:29:13 ZULU