Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Federalist Party

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Federalist Party

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, Charles C. Pinckney, DeWitt Clinton, Rufus King

1789; 228 years ago (1789)

1824; 193 years ago (1824)

Federalism Hamiltonianism Centralization Classical Conservatism Modernization Monetarism

The Federalist Party was the first American political party. It existed from the early 1790s to 1816; its remnants lasted into the 1820s. The Federalists called for a strong national government that promoted economic growth and fostered friendly relationships with Great Britain, as well as opposition to revolutionary France. The party controlled the federal government until 1801, when it was overwhelmed by the Democratic-Republican opposition led by Thomas Jefferson.


The Federalist Party came into being between 1792 and 1794 as a national coalition of bankers and businessmen in support of Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies. These supporters developed into the organized Federalist Party, which was committed to a fiscally sound and nationalistic government. The only Federalist president was John Adams; although George Washington was broadly sympathetic to the Federalist program, he remained officially non-partisan during his entire presidency.

Federalist policies called for a national bank, tariffs, and good relations with Great Britain as expressed in the Jay Treaty negotiated in 1794. Hamilton developed the concept of implied powers and successfully argued the adoption of that interpretation of the United States Constitution. Their political opponents, the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, denounced most of the Federalist policies, especially the bank and implied powers, and vehemently attacked the Jay Treaty as a sell-out of republican values to the British monarchy. The Jay Treaty passed, and the Federalists won most of the major legislative battles in the 1790s. They held a strong base in the nation's cities and in New England. After the Democratic-Republicans, whose base was in the rural South, won the hard-fought election of 1800, the Federalists never returned to power. They recovered some strength by their intense opposition to the War of 1812, but they practically vanished during the Era of Good Feelings that followed the end of the war in 1815.

The Federalists left a lasting legacy in the form of a strong federal government with a sound financial base, and after losing executive power they decisively shaped Supreme Court policy for another three decades through the person of Chief Justice John Marshall.


On taking office in 1789, President Washington nominated New York lawyer Alexander Hamilton to the office of Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton wanted a strong national government with financial credibility. Hamilton proposed the ambitious Hamiltonian economic program that involved assumption of the state debts incurred during the American Revolution, creating a national debt and the means to pay it off, and setting up a national bank, along with creating tariffs. James Madison was Hamilton's ally in the fight to ratify the new Constitution, but he and Thomas Jefferson opposed Hamilton's programs by 1791. Political parties had not been anticipated when the Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, even though both Hamilton and Madison played major roles. Parties were considered to be divisive and harmful to republicanism. No similar parties existed anywhere in the world.

By 1790 Hamilton started building a nationwide coalition. Realizing the need for vocal political support in the states, he formed connections with like-minded nationalists and used his network of treasury agents to link together friends of the government, especially merchants and bankers, in the new nation's dozen major cities. His attempts to manage politics in the national capital to get his plans through Congress, then, "brought strong" responses across the country. In the process, what began as a capital faction soon assumed status as a national faction and then, finally, as the new Federalist party." The Federalist Party supported Hamilton's vision of a strong centralized government, and agreed with his proposals for a national bank and heavy government subsidies. In foreign affairs, they supported neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain.

The majority of the Founding Fathers were originally Federalists. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and many others can all be considered Federalists. These Federalists felt that the Articles of Confederation had been too weak to sustain a working government and had decided that a new form of government was needed. Hamilton was made Secretary of the Treasury, and when he came up with the idea of funding the debt he created a split in the original Federalist group. Madison greatly disagreed with Hamilton, not just on this issue but on many others as well; he and John J. Beckley created the Anti-Federalist faction. These men would form the Republican party under Thomas Jefferson.

By the early 1790s newspapers started calling Hamilton supporters "Federalists" and their opponents "Democrats," "Republicans," "Jeffersonians" or—much later—"Democratic-Republicans". Jefferson's supporters usually called themselves "Republicans" and their party the "Republican Party." The Federalist party became popular with businessmen and New Englanders; Republicans were mostly farmers who opposed a strong central government. Cities were usually Federalist strongholds; frontier regions were heavily Republican. These are generalizations; there are special cases: the Presbyterians of upland North Carolina, who had immigrated just before the Revolution, and often been Tories, became Federalists. The Congregationalists of New England and the Episcopalians in the larger cities supported the Federalists, while other minority denominations tended toward the Republican camp. Catholics in Maryland were generally Federalists.

The state networks of both parties began to operate in 1794 or 1795. Patronage now became a factor. The winner-takes-all election system opened a wide gap between winners, who got all the patronage, and losers, who got none. Hamilton had many lucrative Treasury jobs to dispense—there were 1,700 of them by 1801. Jefferson had one part-time job in the State Department, which he gave to journalist Philip Freneau to attack the Federalists. In New York, however, George Clinton won the election for governor and used the vast state patronage fund to help the Republican cause.

Washington tried and failed to moderate the feud between his two top cabinet members. He was re-elected without opposition in 1792. The Democratic-Republicans nominated New York's Governor Clinton to replace Federalist John Adams as vice president, but Adams won. The balance of power in Congress was close, with some members still undecided between the parties. In early 1793, Jefferson secretly prepared resolutions introduced by William Branch Giles, Congressman from Virginia, designed to repudiate Hamilton and weaken the Washington Administration. Hamilton defended his administration of the nation's complicated financial affairs, which none of his critics could decipher until the arrival in Congress of the Republican Albert Gallatin in 1793.

Federalists counterattacked by claiming the Hamiltonian program had restored national prosperity, as shown in one 1792 anonymous newspaper essay:

To what physical, moral, or political energy shall this flourishing state of things be ascribed? There is but one answer to these inquiries: Public credit is restored and established. The general government, by uniting and calling into action the pecuniary resources of the states, has created a new capital stock of several millions of dollars, which, with that before existing, is directed into every branch of business, giving life and vigor to industry in its infinitely diversified operation. The enemies of the general government, the funding act and the National Bank may bellow tyranny, aristocracy, and speculators through the Union and repeat the clamorous din as long as they please; but the actual state of agriculture and commerce, the peace, the contentment and satisfaction of the great mass of people, give the lie to their assertions.

Jefferson wrote on February 12, 1798:

Two political Sects have arisen within the U. S. the one believing that the executive is the branch of our government which the most needs support; the other that like the analogous branch in the English Government, it is already too strong for the republican parts of the Constitution; and therefore in equivocal cases they incline to the legislative powers: the former of these are called federalists, sometimes aristocrats or monocrats, and sometimes tories, after the corresponding sect in the English Government of exactly the same definition: the latter are stiled republicans, whigs, jacobins, anarchists, disorganizers, etc. these terms are in familiar use with most persons."

Religious dimension

In New England the Federalist party was closely linked to the Congregational church, and when the party collapsed, the church was disestablished. In 1800, and others elections, Federalists targeted infidelity in any form. They repeatedly charged that Republican candidates, especially Jefferson, were atheistic or nonreligious. Conversely, the Baptists, Methodists and other dissenters, and the religiously nonaligned, favored the Republican cause. Jefferson told the Baptists of Connecticut there should be a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Party strength in Congress

Many Congressmen were very hard to classify in the first few years, but after 1796 there was more certainty,

Source: Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789–1989 (1989); the numbers are estimates by historians.

The affiliation of many Congressmen in the earliest years is an assignment by later historians. The parties were slowly coalescing groups; at first there were many independents. Cunningham noted that only about a quarter of the House of Representatives, up until 1794, voted with Madison as much as two-thirds of the time, and another quarter against him two-thirds of the time, leaving almost half as fairly independent.

Effects of foreign affairs

International affairs—the French Revolution and the subsequent war between royalist Britain and republican France—decisively shaped American politics in 1793–1800, and threatened to entangle the nation in wars that "mortally threatened its very existence." The French revolutionaries guillotined King Louis XVI in January 1793, leading the British to declare war to restore the monarchy. The King had been decisive in helping America achieve independence. Now he was dead and many of the pro-American aristocrats in France were exiled or executed. Federalists warned that American republicans threatened to replicate the horrors of the French Revolution, and successfully mobilized most conservatives and many clergymen. The Republicans, some of whom had been strong Francophiles, responded with support, even through the Reign of Terror, when thousands were guillotined, though it was at this point that many began backing away from their pro-France leanings. Many of those executed had been friends of the United States, such as the Comte D'Estaing, whose fleet had fought alongside the Americans in the Revolution. (Lafayette had already fled into exile, and Thomas Paine went to prison in France.) The Republicans denounced Hamilton, Adams, and even Washington as friends of Britain, as secret monarchists, and as enemies of the republican values. The level of rhetoric reached a fever pitch.

Paris in 1793 sent a new minister, Edmond Charles Genêt (known as Citizen Genêt), who systematically mobilized pro-French sentiment and encouraged Americans to support France's war against Britain and Spain. Genêt funded local Democratic-Republican Societies that attacked Federalists. He hoped for a favorable new treaty and for repayment of the debts owed to France. Acting aggressively, Genêt outfitted privateers that sailed with American crews under a French flag and attacked British shipping. He tried to organize expeditions of Americans to invade Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Florida. When Secretary of State Jefferson told Genêt he was pushing American friendship past the limit, Genêt threatened to go over the government's head and rouse public opinion on behalf of France. Even Jefferson agreed this was blatant foreign interference in domestic politics. Genêt's extremism seriously embarrassed the Jeffersonians and cooled popular support for promoting the French Revolution and getting involved in its wars. Recalled to Paris for execution, Genêt kept his head and instead went to New York, where he became a citizen and married the daughter of Governor Clinton. Jefferson left office, ending the coalition cabinet and allowing the Federalists to dominate.

Jay Treaty

The Jay Treaty battle in 1794–95 was the effort by Washington, Hamilton and John Jay to resolve numerous difficulties with Britain. Some of these issues dated to the Revolution, such as boundaries, debts owed in each direction, and the continued presence of British forts in the Northwest Territory. In addition America hoped to open markets in the British Caribbean and end disputes stemming from the naval war between Britain and France. Most of all the goal was to avert a war with Britain—a war opposed by the Federalists, that some historians claim the Jeffersonians wanted.

As a neutral party, the United States argued, it had the right to carry goods anywhere it wanted. The British nevertheless seized American ships carrying goods from the French West Indies. The Federalists favored Britain in the war, and by far most of America's foreign trade was with Britain; hence a new treaty was called for. The British agreed to evacuate the western forts, open their West Indies ports to American ships, allow small vessels to trade with the French West Indies, and set up a commission that would adjudicate American claims against Britain for seized ships, and British claims against Americans for debts incurred before 1775. One possible alternative was war with Britain, a war that America was ill-prepared to fight.

The Republicans wanted to pressure Britain to the brink of war (and assumed that America could defeat a weak Britain). Therefore, they denounced the Jay Treaty as an insult to American prestige, a repudiation of the French alliance of 1777, and a severe shock to Southern planters who owed those old debts, and who were never to collect for the lost slaves the British captured. Republicans protested against the treaty, and organized their supporters. The Federalists realized they had to mobilize their popular vote, so they mobilized their newspapers, held rallies, counted votes, and especially relied on the prestige of President Washington. The contest over the Jay Treaty marked the first flowering of grassroots political activism in America, directed and coordinated by two national parties. Politics was no longer the domain of politicians; every voter was called on to participate. The new strategy of appealing directly to the public worked for the Federalists; public opinion shifted to support the Jay Treaty. The Federalists controlled the Senate and they ratified it by exactly the necessary ⅔ vote, 20–10, in 1795. However, the Republicans did not give up and public opinion swung toward the Republicans after the Treaty fight; and in the South the Federalists lost most of the support they had among planters.

Whiskey Rebellion

The excise tax of 1791 caused grumbling from the frontier including threats of tax resistance. Corn, the chief crop on the frontier, was too bulky to ship over the mountains to market, unless it was first distilled into whiskey. This was profitable, as the United States population consumed, per capita, relatively large quantities of liquor. After the excise tax, the backwoodsmen complained the tax fell on them rather than on the consumers. Cash poor, they were outraged that they had been singled out to pay off the "financiers and speculators" back East, and to salary the federal revenue officers who began to swarm the hills looking for illegal stills.

Insurgents in western Pennsylvania shut the courts and hounded federal officials, but Jeffersonian leader Albert Gallatin mobilized the western moderates, and thus forestalled a serious outbreak. Washington, seeing the need to assert federal supremacy, called out 13,000 state militia, and marched toward Washington, Pennsylvania, to suppress this Whiskey Rebellion. The rebellion evaporated in late 1794 as Washington approached, personally leading the army (only two sitting Presidents have directly led American military forces, Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion and Madison in an attempt to save the White House during the War of 1812). The rebels dispersed and there was no fighting. Federalists were relieved that the new government proved capable of overcoming rebellion, while Republicans, with Gallatin their new hero, argued there never was a real rebellion and the whole episode was manipulated in order to accustom Americans to a standing army.

Angry petitions flowed in from three dozen Democratic-Republican Societies created by Citizen Genêt. Washington attacked the societies as illegitimate; many disbanded. Federalists now ridiculed Republicans as "democrats" (meaning in favor of mob rule) or "Jacobins" (a reference to The Terror in France).

Washington refused to run for a third term, establishing a two-term precedent that was to stand until 1940 and eventually to be enshrined in the Constitution as the 22nd Amendment. He warned in his Farewell Address against involvement in European wars, and lamented the rising North-South sectionalism and party spirit in politics that threatened national unity. The party spirit, he lamented:

serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

Washington never considered himself a member of any party, but broadly supported most Federalist policies.

Newspaper editors at war

The spoils system helped finance Federalist printers until 1801, and Republican editors after that. Federalist Postmasters General, Timothy Pickering (1791–94) and Joseph Habersham (1795–1801) appointed and removed local postmasters to maximize Party funding. Numerous printers were appointed as postmasters. They did not deliver the mail but they did collect fees from mail users and obtained free delivery of their own newspapers and business mail.

To strengthen their coalitions and hammer away constantly at the opposition, both parties sponsored newspapers in the capital (Philadelphia) and other major cities. On the Republican side, Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache blasted the administration with all the scurrility at their command. Bache in particular targeted Washington himself as the front man for monarchy who must be exposed. To Bache, Washington was a cowardly general and a money-hungry baron who saw the Revolution as a means to advance his fortune and fame, Adams was a failed diplomat who never forgave the French their love of Benjamin Franklin and who craved a crown for himself and his descendants, and Alexander Hamilton was the most inveterate monarchist of them all.

The Federalists, with twice as many newspapers at their command, slashed back with equal vituperation. John Fenno and "Peter Porcupine" (William Cobbett) were their nastiest penmen, and Noah Webster their most learned. Hamilton subsidized the Federalist editors, wrote for their papers, and in 1801 established his own paper, the New York Evening Post. Though his reputation waned considerably following his death, Joseph Dennie ran three of the most popular and influential newspapers of the period, The Farmer's Weekly Museum, the Gazette of the United States and Port Folio.

Ceremonies and civil religion

The Federalists were conscious of the need to boost voter identification with their party. Elections remained of central importance, but the rest of the political calendar was filled with celebrations, parades, festivals and visual sensationalism. The Federalists employed multiple festivities, exciting parades, and even quasi-religious pilgrimages and "sacred" days that became incorporated into the American civil religion. George Washington was always their hero, and after his death he became viewed as a sort of demigod looking down from heaven to bestow his blessings on the party. At first, the Federalists focused on commemorating the ratification of the Constitution and organized parades to demonstrate widespread popular support for the new Federalist Party. The parade organizers incorporated secular versions of traditional religious themes and rituals, thereby fostering a highly visible celebration of the nation's new civil religion.

The Fourth of July became a semi-sacred day—a status it maintains in the 21st century. Its celebration in Boston emphasized national over local patriotism, and included orations, dinners, militia musters, parades, marching bands, floats and fireworks. By 1800, the Fourth of July was closely identified with the Federalist party. Republicans were annoyed, and staged their own celebrations on the same day—with rival parades sometimes clashing with each other, which generated even more excitement and larger crowds. After the collapse of the Federalists starting in 1815, the Fourth of July became a nonpartisan holiday.

Adams Administration, 1797–1801

Hamilton distrusted Vice President Adams—who felt the same way about Hamilton—but was unable to block his claims to the succession. The election of 1796 was the first partisan affair in the nation's history, and one of the more scurrilous in terms of newspaper attacks. Adams swept New England and Jefferson the South, with the middle states leaning to Adams. Thus Adams was the winner by a margin of three electoral votes, and Jefferson, as the runner-up, became Vice President under the system set out in the Constitution prior to the ratification of the 12th Amendment.

The Federalists were strongest in New England, but also had strengths in the middle states. They elected Adams as president in 1796, when they controlled both houses of Congress, the Presidency, eight state legislatures and ten governorships.

Foreign affairs continued to be the central concern of American politics, for the war raging in Europe threatened to drag in the United States. The new President was a loner, who made decisions without consulting Hamilton or other High Federalists. Benjamin Franklin once quipped that Adams was a man always honest, often brilliant, and sometimes mad. Adams was popular among the Federalist rank and file, but had neglected to build state or local political bases of his own, and neglected to take control of his own cabinet. As a result, his cabinet answered more to Hamilton than to himself. Hamilton was especially popular because he rebuilt the Army—and had commissions to give out.

Alien and Sedition Acts

After an American delegation was insulted in Paris in the XYZ affair (1797), public opinion ran strongly against the French. An undeclared "Quasi-War" with France from 1798 to 1800, saw each side attacking and capturing the other's shipping. It was called "quasi" because there was no declaration of war, but escalation was a serious threat. The Federalists, at the peak of their popularity, took advantage by preparing for an invasion by the French Army. To silence Administration critics, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The Alien Act empowered the President to deport such aliens as he declared to be dangerous. The Sedition Act made it a crime to print false, scandalous, and malicious criticisms of the federal government, but it conspicuously failed to criminalize criticism of Vice President Thomas Jefferson.

Several Republican newspaper editors were convicted under the Act and fined or jailed, and three Democratic-Republican newspapers were shut down. In response Jefferson and Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions passed by the two states' legislatures, that declared the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, and insisted the states had the power to nullify federal laws.

Undaunted, the Federalists created a navy, with new frigates, and a large new army, with Washington in nominal command and Hamilton in actual command. To pay for it all they raised taxes on land, houses and slaves, leading to serious unrest. In one part of Pennsylvania the Fries' Rebellion broke out, with people refusing to pay the new taxes. John Fries was sentenced to death for treason, but received a pardon from Adams. In the elections of 1798 the Federalists did very well, but this issue started hurting the Federalists in 1799.

Early in 1799, Adams decided to free himself from Hamilton's overbearing influence, stunning the country and throwing his party into disarray by announcing a new peace mission to France. The mission eventually succeeded, the "Quasi-War" ended, and the new army was largely disbanded. Hamiltonians called Adams a failure, while Adams fired Hamilton's supporters still in the cabinet.

Hamilton and Adams intensely disliked one another, and the Federalists split between supporters of Hamilton ("High Federalists") and supporters of Adams. Hamilton became embittered over his loss of political influence and wrote a scathing criticism of Adams' performance as President of the United States in an effort to throw Federalist support to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney; inadvertently this split the Federalists and helped give the victory to Jefferson.

Election of 1800

Adams' peace moves proved popular with the Federalist rank and file, and he seemed to stand a good chance of re-election in 1800. If the Three-Fifths Compromise had not been enacted, he most likely would have won reelection since many Federalist legislatures removed the right to select electors from their constituents in fear of a Democratic victory. Jefferson was again the opponent and Federalists pulled out all stops in warning that he was a dangerous revolutionary, hostile to religion, who would weaken the government, damage the economy, and get into war with Britain. Many believed that if Jefferson won the election it would be the end of the newly formed United States. The Republicans crusaded against the Alien and Sedition laws, and the new taxes, and proved highly effective in mobilizing popular discontent.

The election hinged on New York: its electors were selected by the legislature, and given the balance of north and south, they would decide the presidential election. Aaron Burr brilliantly organized his forces in New York City in the spring elections for the state legislature. By a few hundred votes he carried the city—and thus the state legislature—and guaranteed the election of a Republican President. As a reward he was selected by the Republican caucus in Congress as their vice presidential candidate. Alexander Hamilton, knowing the election was lost anyway, went public with a sharp attack on Adams that further divided and weakened the Federalists.

Members of the Republican party planned to vote evenly for Jefferson and Burr because they did not want for it to seem as if their party was divided. The party took the meaning literally and Jefferson and Burr tied in the election with 73 electoral votes. This sent the election to the House of Representatives to break the tie. The Federalists had enough weight in the House to swing the election in either direction. Many would rather have seen Burr in the office over Jefferson, but Hamilton, who had a strong dislike of Burr, threw his political weight behind Jefferson. During the election neither Jefferson nor Burr attempted to swing the election in the House of Representatives. Jefferson remained at Monticello to oversee the laying of bricks to a section of his home. Jefferson allowed for his political beliefs and other ideologies to filter out through letters to his contacts. Thanks to Hamilton's support Jefferson would win the election and Burr would become his Vice President. Many Federalists held to the belief that this was the end of the United States and that the experiment they had begun had ended in failure. (This unintended complication led directly to the proposal and ratification of the 12th Amendment.) "We are all republicans—we are all federalists," proclaimed Jefferson in his inaugural address. This election marked the first time power had been transferred between opposing political parties, an act that occurred, remarkably, without bloodshed. Though there had been strong words and disagreements, contrary to the Federalists fears, there was no war and no ending of one government system to let in a new one. His patronage policy was to let the Federalists disappear through attrition. Those Federalists such as John Quincy Adams (John Adams' own son) and Rufus King willing to work with him were rewarded with senior diplomatic posts, but there was no punishment of the opposition.

Jefferson in power

Jefferson had a very successful first term, typified by the Louisiana Purchase, which was ironically supported by Hamilton but opposed by most Federalists at the time as unconstitutional. Some Federalist leaders (see Essex Junto) began courting Jefferson's Vice-President and Hamilton's nemesis Aaron Burr in an attempt to swing New York into an independent confederation with the New England states, which along with New York were supposed to secede from the United States after Burr's election to Governor. However, Hamilton's influence cost Burr the governorship of New York, a key in the Essex Junto's plan, just as Hamilton's influence had cost Burr the Presidency nearly 4 years before. Hamilton's thwarting of Aaron Burr's ambitions for the second time was too much for Burr to bear. Hamilton had known of the Essex Junto (whom Hamilton now regarded as apostate Federalists), and Burr's plans and opposed them vehemently. This opposition by Hamilton would lead to his fatal duel with Burr in July 1804.

The thoroughly disorganized Federalists hardly offered any opposition to Jefferson's reelection in 1804. Federalists seemed doomed. Jefferson had taken away most of their patronage, including federal judgeships. The party now controlled only five state legislatures and seven governorships. after again losing the presidency in 1804, the party was now down to three legislatures and five governorships (four in New England). Their majorities in Congress were long gone, dropping in the Senate from 23 and 1796, 218 and 1800 to only six in 1804. In New England and in some districts in the middle states the Federalists clung to power, but the tendency from 1800 to 1812 was steady slippage almost everywhere, as the Republicans perfected their organization and the Federalists tried to play catch-up. Some younger leaders tried to emulate the Democratic-Republican tactics, but their overall disdain of democracy along with the upper class bias of the party leadership eroded public support. In the South, the Federalists steadily lost ground everywhere.

Federalists in opposition

Fisher Ames (1758–1808) of Massachusetts ranks as one of the more influential figures of his era. Ames led Federalist ranks in the House of Representatives. His acceptance of the Bill of Rights garnered support in Massachusetts for the new Constitution. His greatest fame however came as an orator who defined the principles of the Federalist Party, and the follies of the Republicans. Ames offered one of the first great speeches in American Congressional history when he spoke in favor of the Jay Treaty. Ames was part of Hamilton's faction He cautioned against the excesses of democracy unfettered by morals and reason: "Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows." He warned his countrymen of the dangers of flattering demagogues, who incite dis-union and lead their country into bondage: "Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty. What is to become of it, He who made it best knows. Its vice will govern it, by practising upon its folly. This is ordained for democracies."

Jefferson Administration

The Federalists continued for several years to be a major political party in New England and the Northeast, but never regained control of the Presidency or the Congress. With the death of Washington and Hamilton, and the retirement of Adams, the Federalists were left without a strong leader. John Marshall, as Chief Justice, stayed out of politics. A few younger leaders did appear, notably Daniel Webster. Federalist policies favored factories, banking, and trade over agriculture, and thus became unpopular in the growing Western states. They were increasingly seen as aristocratic and unsympathetic to democracy. In the South the party had lingering support in Maryland, but elsewhere was crippled by 1800 and faded away by 1808.

Massachusetts and Connecticut remained the party strongholds. Historian Richard J. Purcell explains how well organized the party was in Connecticut:

It was only necessary to perfect the working methods of the organized body of office-holders who made up the nucleus of the party. There were the state officers, the assistants, and a large majority of the Assembly. In every county there was a sheriff with his deputies. All of the state, county, and town judges were potential and generally active workers. Every town had several justices of the peace, school directors and, in Federalist towns, all the town officers who were ready to carry on the party's work. Every parish had a "standing agent," whose anathemas were said to convince at least ten voting deacons. Militia officers, state's attorneys, lawyers, professors and schoolteachers were in the van of this "conscript army." In all, about a thousand or eleven hundred dependent officer-holders were described as the inner ring which could always be depended upon for their own and enough more votes within their control to decide an election. This was the Federalist machine.

After 1800 the major Federalist role came in the judiciary. Although Jefferson managed to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 and thus dismissed many lower level Federalist federal judges, the effort to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1804 failed. Led by the last great Federalist, John Marshall as Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835, the Supreme Court carved out a unique and powerful role as the protector of the Constitution and promoter of nationalism.

Anti-war party

As the wars in Europe intensified, the United States became increasingly involved. The Federalists restored some of their strength by leading the anti-war opposition to Jefferson and Madison, 1807–1814. President Jefferson imposed an embargo on Britain in 1807; the Embargo Act of 1807 prevented all American ships from sailing to a foreign port. The idea was that the British were so dependent on American supplies that they would come to terms. For 15 months the Embargo wrecked American export businesses, largely based in the Boston-New York region, causing a sharp depression in the Northeast. Evasion was common and Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Gallatin responded with tightened police controls more severe than anything the Federalists had ever proposed. Public opinion was highly negative, and a surge of support breathed fresh life into the Federalist party.

The Republicans nominated Madison for the presidency in 1808. Federalists, meeting in the first-ever national convention, considered the option of nominating Jefferson's Vice President George Clinton as their own candidate, but balked at working with him and again chose Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, their 1804 candidate. Madison lost New England excluding Vermont but swept the rest of the country and carried a Republican Congress. Madison dropped the Embargo, opened up trade again, and offered a carrot and stick approach. If either France or Britain agreed to stop their violations of American neutrality, the U.S. would cut off trade with the other country. Tricked by Napoleon into believing France had acceded to his demands, Madison turned his wrath on Britain, and the War of 1812 began. Young Daniel Webster, running for Congress from New Hampshire in 1812, first gained overnight fame with his anti-war speeches.

Madison Administration

Thus the nation was at war during the 1812 presidential election, and war was the burning issue. Opposition to the war was strong in traditional Federalist strongholds in New England and New York, where the party made a comeback in the elections of 1812 and 1814. In their second national convention, in 1812, the Federalists, now the peace party, nominated DeWitt Clinton, the dissident Republican mayor of New York City, and an articulate opponent of the war. Madison ran for reelection promising a relentless war against Britain and an honorable peace. Clinton, denouncing Madison's weak leadership and incompetent preparations for war, could count on New England and New York. To win he needed the middle states and there the campaign was fought out. Those states were competitive and had the best-developed local parties and most elaborate campaign techniques, including nominating conventions and formal party platforms. The Tammany Society in New York City highly favored Madison; the Federalists finally adopted the club idea in 1808. Their Washington Benevolent Societies were semi-secret membership organizations which played a critical role in every northern state; they held meetings and rallies and mobilized Federalist votes. New Jersey went for Clinton, but Madison carried Pennsylvania and thus was reelected with 59% of the Electoral votes. However the Federalists gained 14 seats in Congress.

Opposition to the War of 1812

The War of 1812 went poorly for the Americans for two years. Even though Britain was concentrating its military efforts on its war with Napoleon, the United States still failed to make any headway on land, and was effectively blockaded at sea by the Royal Navy. The British raided and burned Washington, D.C. in 1814 and sent a force to capture New Orleans.

The war was especially unpopular in New England: the New England economy was highly dependent on trade, and the British blockade threatened to destroy it entirely. In 1814, the British Navy finally managed to enforce their blockade on the New England coast, so the Federalists of New England sent delegates to the Hartford Convention in December 1814.

During the proceedings of the Hartford Convention, secession from the Union was discussed, though the resulting report listed a set of grievances against the Democratic-Republican federal government and proposed a set of Constitutional amendments to address these grievances. They demanded financial assistance from Washington to compensate for lost trade and proposed constitutional amendments requiring a two-thirds vote in Congress before an embargo could be imposed, new states admitted, or war declared. It also indicated that if these proposals were ignored, then another convention should be called and given "such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis may require". The Federalist Massachusetts Governor had already secretly sent word to England to broker a separate peace accord. Three Massachusetts "ambassadors" were sent to Washington to negotiate on the basis of this report.

By the time the Federalist "ambassadors" got to Washington, the war was over and news of Andrew Jackson's stunning victory in the Battle of New Orleans had raised American morale immensely. The "ambassadors" hastened back to Massachusetts, but not before they had done fatal damage to the Federalist Party. The Federalists were thereafter associated with the disloyalty and parochialism of the Hartford Convention, and destroyed as a political force. Across the nation, Republicans used the great victory at New Orleans to ridicule the Federalists as cowards, defeatists, and secessionists. Pamphlets, songs, newspaper editorials, speeches and entire plays on the Battle of New Orleans drove home the point.

They fielded their last presidential candidate (Rufus King) in 1816. With its passing partisan hatreds and newspaper feuds declined and the nation entered the "Era of Good Feelings". After the dissolution of the final Federalist congressional caucus in 1825, the last traces of Federalist activity came in Delaware and Massachusetts local politics in the late 1820s, where in 1829 Harrison Gray Otis was elected Mayor of Boston, and became the last major Federalist office holder. As late as 1828 the party won control of the Delaware state legislature, and as late as 1830 the Federalists controlled the Massachusetts Senate.


Intellectually, Federalists were profoundly devoted to liberty. As Samuel Eliot Morison explained, they believed that liberty is inseparable from union, that men are essentially unequal, that vox populi [voice of the people] is seldom if ever vox Dei [the voice of God], and that sinister outside influences are busy undermining American integrity. Oxford-trained British historian Patrick Allitt concludes that Federalists promoted many positions that would form the baseline for later American conservatism, including the rule of law under the Constitution, republican government, peaceful change through elections, judicial supremacy, stable national finances, credible and active diplomacy, and protection of wealth.

In terms of "classical conservatism", the Federalists had no truck with European-style aristocracy, monarchy, or established religion. Historian John P. Diggins says that:

Thanks to the framers, American conservatism began on a genuinely lofty plane. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, John Jay, James Wilson,, and, above all, John Adams aspired to create a republic in which the values so precious to conservatives might flourish: harmony, stability, virtue, reverence, veneration, loyalty, self-discipline, and moderation. This was classical conservatism in its most authentic expression.

The Federalists were dominated by businessmen and merchants in the major cities who supported a strong national government. The party was closely linked to the modernizing, urbanizing, financial policies of Alexander Hamilton. These policies included the funding of the national debt and also assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, the incorporation of a national Bank of the United States, the support of manufactures and industrial development, and the use of a tariff to fund the Treasury. In foreign affairs, the Federalists opposed the French Revolution, engaged in the "Quasi War" (an undeclared naval war) with France in 1798–99, sought good relations with Britain and sought a strong army and navy. Ideologically the controversy between Republicans and Federalists stemmed from a difference of principle and style. In terms of style the Federalists feared mob rule, thought an educated elite should represent the general populace in national governance, and favored national power over state power. Republicans distrusted Britain, bankers, merchants and did not want a powerful national government. The Federalists, notably Hamilton, were distrustful of "the people," the French, and the Republicans. In the end, the nation synthesized the two positions, adopting representative democracy and a strong nation state. Just as importantly, American politics by the 1820s accepted the two-party system whereby rival parties stake their claims before the electorate, and the winner takes control of majorities in state legislatures and the Congress, and gains governorships and the presidency.

As time went on, the Federalists lost appeal with the average voter and were generally not equal to the tasks of party organization; hence, they grew steadily weaker as the political triumphs of the Republican Party grew. For economic and philosophical reasons, the Federalists tended to be pro-British – the United States engaged in more trade with Great Britain than with any other country – and vociferously opposed Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 and the seemingly deliberate provocation of war with Britain by the Madison Administration. During "Mr. Madison's War", as they called it, the Federalists made a temporary comeback. However they lost all their gains and more during the patriotic euphoria that followed the war. The membership was aging rapidly, but a few young men from New England did join the cause, most notably Daniel Webster.

After 1816 the Federalists had no national power base apart from John Marshall's Supreme Court. They had some local support in New England, New York, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. After the collapse of the Federalist Party in the course of the 1824 presidential election, most surviving Federalists (including Daniel Webster) joined former Republicans like Henry Clay to form the National Republican Party, which was soon combined with other anti-Jackson groups to form the Whig Party in 1833. By then, nearly all remaining Federalists joined the Whigs. However, some former Federalists like James Buchanan, Louis McLane and Roger B. Taney became Jacksonian Democrats.

The "Old Republicans," led by John Randolph of Roanoke, refused to form a coalition with the Federalists and instead set up a separate opposition since Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, Monroe, John C. Calhoun and Clay had in effect adopted Federalist principles of implied powers to purchase the Louisiana Territory, and after the failures and lessons of the War of 1812, raised tariffs to protect factories, chartered the Second national bank, promoted a strong army and navy and promoted internal improvements. All these measures were opposed to the strict construction of the constitution, which was the formal basis of the republicans; but the drift of the party to support them could not be checked. It was aided by the supreme court, whose influence as a nationalizing factor now first became apparent. The whole change reconciled the federalists to their absorption into the republican party. Indeed, they claimed, with considerable show of justice, that the absorption was in the other direction: that the republicans had recanted; and that the "Washington-Monroe policy," as they termed it after 1820, was all that federalists had ever desired.

The name "Federalist" came increasingly to be used in political rhetoric as a term of abuse, and was denied by the Whigs, who pointed out that their leader Henry Clay was the Republican party leader in Congress during the 1810s.


Federalist Party Wikipedia