Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: The First American Party System: U.S. Political Parties: The Principle of Legitimate Opposition

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican, and Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 4

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.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the chief characteristics of legitimate political opposition in a democracy?
  • What are examples that demonstrate each of those qualities?
  • What are the essential elements of an organized political party?

Learning Objectives

  • Cite critical factors leading to the development of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.


Though intended for the teacher, all or part of the following background information may be useful for some students.

Your students are undoubtedly familiar with the trappings of today's political parties (advertisements, campaign events, party symbols, and the like). The Federalists and Republicans of the first U.S. party system had few of the superficial elements that we commonly associate with political parties. However, they did develop the organizational underpinnings that enabled them to establish bases of support and to promote their policies, programs, and philosophies.

In his introduction to the History of U.S. Political Parties (Schlesinger, Arthur M., gen. ed. History of U.S. Political Parties. 4 vols. New York: Chelsea, 1973. xxxiii), Arthur Schlesinger says, "The political parties of the United States are the oldest in the world." There had been groups referred to as parties before this time, but what had not existed were political parties representing legitimate opposition to one another, a "system under which one political party operated and another opposed the government" (Schlesinger, xxxiii) while being recognized as a legitimate part of the political landscape.

In The Idea of a Party System, Richard Hofstadter defines legitimate democratic opposition as "responsible, effective, constitutional opposition" (University of California Press, 1970. p. 4). He goes on to explain each element of his definition:

…When we speak of an opposition as being responsible, we mean that it contains within itself the potential of an actual alternative government—that is, its critique of existing policies is not simply a wild attempt to outbid the existing regime in promises, but a sober attempt to formulate alternative policies which it believes to be capable of execution within the existing historical and economic framework, and to offer as its executors a competent alternative personnel that can actually govern. (Hofstadter, p. 4).

In other words, a party in opposition must provide a viable alternate program and personnel with the potential to carry out that program.

… When we speak of an opposition being effective, we mean not merely that its programs are expected to be capable of execution, that its alternative policy is real, but that its capability of winning office is also real, that it has the institutional structure and the public force which make it possible for us to expect that sooner or later it will in fact take office and bring to power an alternative personnel (Hofstadter, p. 5).

A party in opposition must have a structure that enables it to engage the public through communication and organization so that eventually it can come to power by way of election and attempt to implement its program. The tension between having a program and being effective (that is, having the potential to rise to power through popular election), often results in changes to the party program in the face of events and changes in popular opinion.

… When we speak of an opposition being constitutional, we mean that both government and opposition are bound by the rules of some kind of constitutional consensus (Hofstadter, p. 4).

A party in opposition questions the policies of the governing party and not the legitimacy of the government itself since both parties observe the same set of ground rules, the Constitution. In turn, the party in power does not question the legitimacy of opposition. (The power of the incumbents to limit opposition was tested by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Although the question of their constitutionality has never been resolved by the judiciary these laws contributed to the defeat of the Federalists in the elections of 1800 and the demise of the Federalist Party. The complementary EDSITEment curriculum unit Certain Crimes Against the United States: The Sedition Act touches on these issues.)

It is essential to realize that the two-party system was a work in progress during the first quarter-century of our republic.

The idea of a legitimate opposition—recognized opposition, organized and free enough in its activities to be able to displace an existing government by peaceful means—is an immensely sophisticated idea, and it was not an idea that the Fathers found fully developed and ready to hand when they began their enterprise in republican constitutionalism in 1788 (Hofstadter, p. 8).

Until about 1814, when the country experienced a period—the so-called "Era of Good Feelings"—in which only the Democratic-Republicans were able to effectively mount a national campaign, both parties were attempting to eliminate the other. After 10 years of "good feelings," the need for opposition proved so strong that a second two-party system, more clearly articulated than the first, developed.

This unit of study concentrates on the programs of the Federalists and Republicans in the context of events contemporaneous to their formation. During the 1790s each of the parties created an organization necessary to constitute legitimate opposition and achieved control of the federal government (Adams in 1796, and Jefferson in 1800).

In this lesson, students will look at examples of legitimate opposition in the Early Republic. Classes completing the other lessons in the unit should keep in mind the concept of "responsible, effective, constitutional opposition" as they review the party programs. They should note the various structural elements used in creating opposition (such as letters and newspaper articles) and the events that influenced party policies and philosophies.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Genesis of Political Opposition in the United States

Before the birth of opposition political parties, divisions among American political leaders developed over the ratification of the Constitution. The EDSITEment resource Harp Week features a cartoon, The Looking Glass for 1787, that demonstrates the depth of feeling over the issues. (If desired, use the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom to aid in your discussion.) The cartoon's precise meaning has been somewhat obscured by time, and we would now regard it as tasteless in its scatological humor. However, it demonstrates the depth of the divisions that arose over ratification, even though the opposing groups had not yet evolved into true political parties. The goals of each group in the cartoon were limited, with the Federalists working for ratification and the policies it implied. Although the Anti-Federalists outnumbered the Federalists in Connecticut’s Council of Twelve depicted in the cartoon, Connecticut became one of the first five states to ratify the Constitution.

Activity 2. Political Opposition Defined in Action

In the following activity, students will examine one primary document representing the characteristics Hofstadter uses to define legitimate opposition. The issues behind this and later documents are the core of the other lessons in the unit. The aim here is to provide a definition and concrete examples of legitimate opposition in the early years of the first American party system.

Discuss with students Hofstadter's characterization of political parties as “responsible, effective, [and] constitutional.” Review the meaning of each term while emphasizing that the first two-party system was a work in progress. Much of what was done in the name of party during this early period will appear similar to modern party activities; some will seem unsophisticated, some even unethical by present-day standards.

Together with the class, you will analyze the 1801 document To the electors of the Southern district of the State of New-York, on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, to see how it embodies the ongoing development of “responsible, effective, [and] constitutional” opposition. (NOTE: As with most American Memory documents, the link above leads to an image of the original document with links to larger images and a transcription of the full text. A link to bibliographic information is offered on the transcription page.) If desired, you may choose to use the annotated excerpts provided in the Master PDF, rather than the full document.

Not only will this teacher-led analysis introduce the key elements of legitimate opposition, but it will also serve as a model for primary document analysis in the subsequent lessons. In Lesson Three, students will complete a similar analysis in small groups. If desired, use the Analysis of Primary Sources on The Library of Congress, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, as an introduction. You may also find the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom, an effective aid to analysis.

Being responsible in opposition means having a viable program, one that can readily replace that of the party in power. The paragraph beginning with "Examine the history of the general Government for the last four years" asks voters to consider the Republican program on the basis of its criticism of Federalist policies. In the next paragraph, the author goes on to outline the general Republican program.

Being effective in a democracy means having the potential to garner enough public support to assume office. That requires communication of the party’s program. To the electors of the Southern district of the State of New-York was a broadside, defined in American Memory as "Single-sheet notice(s) or announcement(s) printed on one or both sides, intended to be read unfolded." Other methods of communication are exemplified by the following documents:

Being effective also requires an institutional structure, an organization. The extended title of the document mentions the General Committee of New York, an arm of the Republican Party at the state level.

Being constitutional means that parties in and out of power abide by the ground rules set by the Constitution. The passage and application of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by the Federalists in power threatened legitimate opposition. Note the sentence in the document “To the electors of Pennsylvania …” beginning, "Taxes were increased."


Students who have completed this lesson should be able to respond effectively to the following:

  • What are the chief characteristics of legitimate political opposition in a democracy?
  • What are examples that demonstrate each of those qualities?

Once you have reviewed the discussion points, ask students to consider additional ways in which a political party strengthens its base of support among voters and discipline among those members who are elected to office. Ask them to write a one-page paper in which they explain why communication is essential to creating and sustaining a political party.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets