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Federalist Party

Timeframe: 1794 - 1823

The Federalist Party was born out of the controversy over adoption of the proposed Federal Constitution in 1787-1788, before the American party system itself had been conceived. A well-defined Federalist party did not exist before 1794. After Washington's inauguration in 1789, debate arose in Congress and the cabinet over the proposals of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, subsequently enacted into law, that the national government assume state debts, fund the national debt at par value, and charter a national bank. The opposition to Hamilton rallied around Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison.

Hamilton pushed through schemes for paying the foreign debt, restoring national credit, and assuming state debts. A United States bank and postal system soon followed, as well as a protective tariff and bounty system to develop manufactures and agriculture. The effortless crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 gave ample evidence of the new national strength.

In the meantime, the refusal of the Federalists to form an alliance with France had fused the Democrats and the Republicans, the two opposition groups to which most of the Anti-federalists belonged. Thomas Jefferson organized and James Madison joined the new Democratic-Republican Party. Not until these congressional debates over Jay's Treaty of 1794 did two parties emerge clearly: the Federalist party led by Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican party of Madison and Jefferson From then on, the Federalists championed commercial and diplomatic harmony with Britain, domestic stability and order, and strong national government under powerful executive and judicial branches.

The most influential of the Federalists besides Hamilton were John Adams and John Jay, and Fisher Ames, Roger Sherman, Jonathan Trumbull, Rufus King, John Marshall, and the members of the "Essex Junto".

By the end of his second term Washington had become closely identified with the Federalists. Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, prepared in association with Hamilton, may be read as a basic text of Federalism. Washington's vice president, John Adams, was elected president as a Federalist in 1796. Adams retained Washington's cabinet officers and sought to continue his predecessor's policies. He prosecuted an undeclared naval war with France, and after the Federalists had gained control of Congress, he supported the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. But Adams met increasing opposition within his own party from the Hamilton faction, especially over his military priorities.

When, as much to undercut mounting Democratic-Republican opposition as to end the war, Adams opened negotiations with France in 1799 and reorganized the cabinet under his own control, the Hamiltonians broke with him. His actions probably enhanced the Federalist party's position in the presidential election of 1800 but not enough to defeat Jefferson.

The party was irreparably split. In the waning days of his presidency Adams was able to conclude a peace with France and to appoint moderate Federalist John Marshall as chief justice. Long after the party was dead, Marshall preserved its principles from the bench.

Finding themselves in the opposition, the Federalists at last created a well-disciplined system of state party organizations and adopted the trappings of democracy in order to lure the voters. Concentrated primarily in the Northeast, they also assumed more of the aspect of a sectional minority. Neglecting ideological consistency and turning against their previous commitment to strong national power, they opposed Jefferson's popular Louisiana Purchase of 1803 as too costly and destructive of Northern influence. As a result, they continued to lose power at the national level, carrying only Connecticut, Delaware, and part of Maryland against Jefferson in 1804.

Strong opposition of Jefferson’s Embargo Act, however, reinforced the Federalists. In 1808 they carried every New England state except Vermont, and also won in Delaware, in parts of Maryland, and in North Carolina. Moreover, the War of 1812 proved so unpopular in the North that in the elections that year, New York and New Jersey also voted Federalist, along with the remainder of Maryland. This resurgence was only temporary, however, for when the war ended, the northern commercial sections withdrew their support.

Meanwhile, many of the party’s old leaders were gone, leaving Rufus King and Charles C. Pinckney leading the party. Other Federalist leaders, as a result of the Hartford Convention of 1814 had been driven from public life.

In 1816, the Federalists carried only Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware, and by 1820 when they failed to have a national candidate, they ceased as a national party. Locally, Federalists managed to retain control in Connecticut and Delaware until after 1820 and in Massachusetts until 1823. The party also lingered for some time in Maryland and North Carolina.

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