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.
To achieve a better understanding of the issues that divided the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, students may need to review some events contemporaneous to the development of the first party system in the United States. The handout "Timeline of Events Related to the Development of the U.S. Party System" provides a list of events from 1787 to 1801.
How the handout will be used will differ from class to class, depending largely on the background students bring to the lesson and the available time. Though not comprehensive, it attempts to provide the highlights in a brief form. It offers links to short secondary accounts and primary documents and a small selection of quotes from some of each. Several classroom options are available. The timeline can be given to students as a handout to use for reference. The class can review the entire timeline or relevant portions of it without reference to the links. Student groups or individuals can be assigned primary documents and asked to select one or two especially pertinent excerpts. (If desired, students can use the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom, as an aid to their analysis.) Student groups or individuals can be assigned one of the five sections of the timeline to study in order to share with the class the significant events from those years. The teacher can use the timeline as the basis for a lecture or a handout custom-made for the needs of the class. Students can use the timeline as the basis for their own timeline(s) of the events they consider most significant.
However you choose to use the handout, the goal is to provide the conditions for a discussion of the following:
Students who have completed this lesson or who have sufficient prior knowledge should be able to respond effectively to the bulleted discussion points above orally or in writing. You might consider using a jigsaw strategy as a way of having the class examine each of the questions in depth. Divide the class into three groups and assign one of the first three questions to each of the groups. Once the students have completed their examination of the timeline and related documents, have each group report their conclusions back to the entire class. When the class has completed this exercise, move on to the fourth question and ask the students to decide what additional events or circumstances were critical to the formation of these first parties.
1 class periods