Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican, and Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, symbolized opposing views on American governance and political parties in the new nation.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Fear of factionalism and political parties was deeply rooted in Anglo-American political culture before the American Revolution. Leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson hoped their new government, founded on the Constitution, would be motivated instead by a common intent, a unity. Though dominant, these sentiments were not held by all Americans. A delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, for example, asserted that “competition of interest…between those persons who are in and those who are out office, will ever form one important check to the abuse of power in our representatives.” (Quoted in Hofstader, p. 36) Hamilton argued from a slightly different perspective in Federalist #70: “In the legislature, promptitude of decision is oftener an evil than a benefit. The differences of opinion, and the jarrings of parties in that department of the government, though they may sometimes obstruct salutary plans, yet often promote deliberation and circumspection, and serve to check excesses in the majority.”
Political parties did form in the United States and had their beginnings in Washington's cabinet. Jefferson, who resigned as Washington's Secretary of State in 1793, and James Madison, who first began to oppose the policies of Alexander Hamilton while a member of the House of Representatives, soon united, as Jefferson wrote in his will, "in the same principles and pursuits of what [they] deemed for the greatest good of our country" (on the Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President). Together, they were central to the creation of the first political party in the United States. In the meantime, those who supported Hamilton began to organize their own party, thus leading to the establishment of a two-party system.
The rivalry between the Federalists and Republicans was bitter. Read with the class Jefferson on the Federalists (May 23, 1792) on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. (NOTE: At this point, avoid discussion of the various issues to which he refers; rather, ask the class to evaluate the tone of the rhetoric. Ask students to identify highly charged words in the passage, such as "corrupt," "vice," "idleness," "corrupting," "monarchy."):
… All the capital employed in paper speculation is barren & useless, producing, like that on a gaming table, no accession to itself, and is withdrawn from commerce & agriculture where it would have produced addition to the common mass: That it nourishes in our citizens habits of vice and idleness instead of industry & morality: That it has furnished effectual means of corrupting such a portion of the legislature, as turns the balance between the honest voters which ever way it is directed: That this corrupt squadron, deciding the voice of the legislature, have manifested their dispositions to get rid of the limitations imposed by the constitution on the general legislature, limitations, on the faith of which, the states acceded to that instrument: That the ultimate object of all this is to prepare the way for a change, from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy, of which the English constitution is to be the model. That this was contemplated in the Convention is no secret, because its partisans have made none of it.
This next activity will point out some of the differences between the parties that caused such strong feelings.
The early Federalists and Democratic-Republicans did not publish party platforms. They had no campaign slogans or posters. In this lesson, students will use statements from members of these parties to create party platforms and if desired, slogans or posters. Designate half the class as Federalists and half as Democratic-Republicans and distribute handouts as follows.
To the Federalist group:
To the Democratic-Republican group:
Students are responsible for creating a statement clarifying their assigned party's position on their designated issue using the group handouts and relevant documents from the "Timeline of Events Related to the Development of the American Party System". Students should note any changes in position over time. When compiled, the statements represent a party platform, which each student group should record on its party platform handout. In addition, for each position, students can create a slogan or a poster based on the position of the party. When the groups are done, both parties' positions, slogans, and/or posters should be shared for each issue in point/counterpoint fashion. One master copy of each group's platform should be duplicated for all members of the class.
Students who have completed this lesson should be able to respond effectively to the following:
Read and discuss with the class Jefferson's Letter to Elbridge Gerry, Jan. 26, 1799—sometimes informally called "Jefferson's Platform"—on the Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive, a link from the EDSITEment resource The American President (read from "I do then, with sincere zeal" to "that single ground of difference"). In discussion or writing, ask students to complete the following (the teacher can decide whether students can refer to the party platforms of each group):
2 class periods