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A Description of the Emergence of the First Party System in America.

After the Revolutionary War, with the yoke of British rule thrown off and patrio
tism abound, Americans were optimistic about the destiny their new nation was to
possess in the coming years. However, as the 1790s approached, America found it
self becoming more and more divided along party lines. This bitterness only cont
inued as the national government was becoming more solidified, as those who favo
red a strong national government (Federalists) found themselves at odds with the
unfortunately named Antifederalists, who feared that an overbearing central gov
ernment would interfere with the individual rights of the states.
Trouble began to brew as the country was adopting the Consti
tution, a document that, while groundbreaking in design, was hardly popular thro
ughout the Union. As the drafters of the Constitution met in Philadelphia, it be
came quickly obvious that the success of the document would boil down to a balan
ce between the power of state governments and the national government, a practic
ally useless body limping along under the harsh constraints of the Articles of C
onfederation. The reason that this issue caused such a snag in the drafting of t
he Constitution was part of the national feeling at the time. The Revolution and
British persecution was fresh in everyone’s mind, and some felt that the federal
government, if allowed too much power, would merely take on the oppressive role
of the British crown. After much debate, the Constitution was signed, but ratifi
cation was where the battle began. Those who supported the document labeled them
selves Federalists and believed in a strong central government with the power to
collect taxes and field armies. Their opponents, who wanted state governments t
o have priority and the ultimate say in legislative affairs, were labeled Antife
deralists. When it came to time to sway the public on the issue, Federalists alw
ays made sure they were more prepared than their opponents, fielding better spea
kers and sometimes using intimidation and threats to get their way. While both s
ides were working towards what they thought would be best for the nation, the Fe
deralists won out in the end, though it was hardly a landslide, a sign that citi
zens were divided evenly enough that trouble was likely not far off.
In fact, trouble was to start almost immediately, as the newly elected S
ecretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, presented his soluti
on to the nation’s financial woes: a credit system that reduced the states’ involvem
ent with the national economy and provided for the federal government to take on
the Revolutionary War debt of the states. An opposition led by James Madison, t
he man behind the Constitution, defeated both proposals. A second proposal by Ha
milton was the creation of a national bank, a point of contention that would i
ncrease tension immensely between the two opposing groups of Hamilton and Madiso
n. While the bank succeeded, to the chagrin of those who believed banks would cr
eate a “monied interest” (Divine, 202), Hamilton wanted to go farther in his ambitio
ns. He submitted a proposal to Congress stating his wishes for the federal gover
nment to put into effect a system of tariffs and industrial bounties that would
help push America along in its race to gain an economic foothold in the world. B
oth Madison and Jefferson railed against these programs, which they saw to be ba
d economic programs, as well as moral and political outrages. Even with Washingt
on stepping in to attempt to calm the situation, it was too late. While no offic
ial political parties had been formed, there were clearly two opposing viewpoint
s on the same sensitive issues.
By Washington’s second term, international problems had thro
wn domestic affairs into chaos. The two sides began to use foreign policy as a p
latform for their own ideologies, each side comparing the other to France or Bri
tain, even going so far as accusations of treason! It was during this time that
formal political parties came into being. The Republicans, also called Jefferson
ians, led by Thomas Jefferson, stood for states’ rights, a French alliance, and ca
ution against commerce and aristocracy. The Federalists believed that a strong c
entral government, a British alliance, and economic planning on the national lev
el were the keys to a successful America prominent on the world stage. When Fran
ce declared war on Britain in 1793, neither the Federalists nor the Republicans
wanted to take part. However, the two differed in how that should be accomplishe
d. Republicans wanted absolute neutrality, while Federalists wanted to side with
Britain and their powerful navy. Neither option really worked out, as the Frenc
h proved deceptive and the British outright arrogant. When Jay’s Treaty was reveal
ed to the public, it caused a wave of hysteria. In the House of Representatives,
Republicans attempted to deny the funds needed to support the treaty. Washingto
n supported Jay, and through some deft political maneuvering, managed to carry t
he day for the treaty. It was upon the signing of Jay’s Treaty into law that the p
arties became solidified in their contempt and frustration with one another. The
y stood for different things, that much was clear, and both would continue to fi
ght for their own ideals. At this time, some began to point out the negative sid
e of political parties in public forums as a threat to the Union, and lamented t
he loss of common purpose that had reigned during the revolutionary years. Becau
se these early parties believed that opposition of any had to be eradicated, a v
ery tense political atmosphere was created during this time.
When the Whiskey Rebellion, a group of farmers protesting
an excise tax on whiskey, occurred in 1794, Federalists wasted no time in labeli
ng them anarchists who would use violence to overthrow the national government.
Washington arrived at the scene with thousands of militiamen only to find that t
he “rebellion” had dispersed. This worked to alienate the public from Federalists ju
st as Jay’s Treaty had alienated Republicans. Shortly after, blame began to fly. W
ashington and the Federalists blamed Republicans for inciting unrest. Republican
s blamed Federalists for using military force against American citizens. As Wash
ington left office and John Adams entered, the mood was vile. Both parties were
convinced that the other was trying to destroy the country. When Hamilton exploi
ted a loophole of the electoral college in an attempt to lose Adams the presiden
cy, others found out and the Federalist party became more tense than ever before
. Adams, a Federalist, was hopeful that he could work with his Republican vice-p
resident, Jeffersion, but partisan pressure got in the way, and the two fell out
of favor. The XYZ Affair happened almost immediately, creating an explosion of
Federalist outcry for war with France. This led to Federalist legislation pushin
g for an expanded military and new ships, intended as preparation for a French i
nvasion. (In reality, Federalists saw a large military as a way to squash Republ
icanism domestically.) Hamilton took the job as second in command of the army (a
t Washington’s request), and he began to build its power immediately. Adams did no
t agree with this course of action and ignored the bills presented to him. As th
e army sat doing nothing, Americans began to view it as an unnecessary expense.
With the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts, Federalists
hoped to crush political dissent with legislation. Republicans believed that the
existence of a free government was at risk, and Jefferson and Madison drew up t
he Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions reminding Americans of the rights that Fede
ralists were taking away. In the meantime, France had told America that if new r
epresentatives were sent, the unfortunate incidents of the XYZ Affair could be f
ixed. Some Federalists mocked this news and pushed for war. Adams, however, alwa
ys on a path to peace, sent a new representative. High Federalists were not plea
sed, and with the news that peace with France was coming, Americans spoke out ag
ainst the cost of a standing army even more. When it came time for the elections
of 1800, the Federalists had divided again, this time amongst themselves. Hamil
ton attempted once again, and failed once again, to undermine Adams and elect Ch
arles Cotesworth Pinckney. In fact, the election was tied between Thomas Jeffers
on and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives determined Jefferson to be the b
etter choice, and he was elected ten states to four. Adams appointed as many Fed
eralists as he could in his final days of office, much to the chagrin of Thomas
Jefferson, who viewed this as an abuse of government power. However, Adams was t
o be the first and last Federalist to be president. After Jefferson’s election and
term of service, they found that they had lost touch with the majority of Ameri
cans, who believed Jefferson’s policies benefitted the common man, and many though
t – not incorrectly – that Federalists believed the general public incapable of runn
ing an effective government.
Unlike in other parts of the world, the transfer of power f
rom Federalist to Republican was a peaceful one. There were no riots, no bloodsh
ed or coups, which is somewhat surprising if you take into account the friction
both parties had between each other over the course of the prior ten years. The
Federalists would eventually cease to function as a political party and dissolve
in the Jacksonian era, which saw the rise of the Whigs and the Democrats. The f
irst party system was a disruptive time in American history, but it proved that
our government was capable of functioning even through the stress of the politic
al events of the time. It was by no means a pleasant period, but it was a necess
ary growing pain of our country’s young government, and serves as a reminder today
that a country is not made of political factions, but of people.