The 1796 election was America's first election where political parties with strongly opposed political principles begun to emerge at the local, state and national levels. Two parties emerged and adopted names that reflected their values and political principles. The Federalists campaigned in favour of the constitution and supported the Federal Administration while the Democratic-Republicans were the opposition and focused more on taking the Revolution to the ordinary American citizens. Foreign policy disputes further widened the rift between the two parties.
The Federalist Party came into place in 1787 when George Washington was elected as president with John Adams serving as the vice president. The collaboration of Washington who represented the Virginia state and Adams who was a representative from Massachusetts brought out unity in the nation and represented the Federalist Party.
The Democratic-Republican Party was formed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson when they felt that they had been overstepped by the federal government considering the plan of the treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Madison considered it to be offensive and immoral since it turned reins of government from the hardworking citizens to the speculators' class that profited.
According to Jefferson, the Hamilton program seemed to encourage economic inequalities as well as work against ordinary American people. Jefferson, with the help of a friend, Philip Freneau made publications of the national Gazette to counter the Federalist press. They came up with articles that attacked the Washington administration and also Hamilton's program. The publications included "Rules for changing a Republic into a Monarchy," which was aimed at the national government and the elitism of the Federalist Party. This opposition to the Federalists gave birth to the formation of Democratic-Republican Societies. The societies felt that the Washington administration designed domestic policies that aimed at enriching the few and ignoring everyone else.
Jefferson and Hamilton had different views of the National Bank. Jefferson was opposed to it because he felt that creating a bank is not an expression of power, that state banks would collapse, only the wealthy could invest and his opposition to national debt. On the other hand, Hamilton felt that it was a safe place to keep and acquire money, it would create a national currency, it would offer loans, and that national debt was good for the country as money would be in people's pockets.
Both parties had supporters from diverse segments of the American society. The Federalist party had supporters comprising mostly of those who supported Hamilton's economic policies; the creditors, the urban artisans and the merchants. The Democratic-Republican supporters included the farmers across the country, as well as high popularity among the ethnic groups with German and Scot-Irish origins. The Democratic-Republican key leaders like Thomas Jefferson were wealthy Southern Tobacco elites. Despite the Democratic-Republicans diversity, the Federalists carried more prestige due to their wealth and association with the retired president George Washington.
The Federalists advocated for a strong central government, limited voting rights only to men with property and Hamilton's economic policies. The Democratic-Republicans believed in a limited central government and a more direct rule by the people through state governments. They viewed the country as a country of small farmers and artisans who all had the right to vote.
The two parties had opposing domestic policies. The national bank got its support from the federalists in the sense that the national debt and the exercise duty was beneficial to the country. They also supported the hiking of the tariffs and felt that the state debts should be owned by the national government while on the other hand, the democratic republicans never shared the same thoughts as they felt that the government should not involve them in the state debts and that the tariffs should be lowered. Regarding foreign policies, the Federalists stuck to the notion of social hierarchy by their colonisers and felt that the country should have close ties with Great Britain. On the other hand, the Democratic-Republicans favoured close ties with France and supported the French revolution.
On policy issues, the Federalists considered themselves to be on the side of good government and order. They viewed the Democratic-Republicans as radicals who would extend the French revolution's Anarchy to America. The Democratic-Republicans never regarded the policies of the Federalists and considered themselves the champions of independence, equal rights, and free elective government. They viewed the Federalists as aristocrats seeking to establish a monarchical government.
While this created a hostile political environment, the 1976 presidential election outcome portrayed a very close balance between the two political divides. The Federalists narrowly won the election with John Adams being the president while the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson became the vice president as established by the constitution.
After election to be president, Adams took strong steps following what he considered as a foreign threat from France. The Federalist Congress passed the Sedition and Alien acts which were later signed into law by Adams. The laws consisted of various legislations. The Naturalization Act increased residency requirement for five years to a period of fourteen years for immigrants to be granted citizenship, with five years of declaring intentions. The Alien Act gave the president powers to deport foreigners who he thought would pose a threat to the United States security while the Alien Enemies Act gave the president powers to deport persons who were citizens of any country deemed an enemy of the United States or limit their freedoms during times of war. The Seditions Act targeted American citizens by forbidding public opposition to the federal government laws or uttering, writing, printing or publishing any false, malicious and scandalous writing against the federal government. The punishment for this was fine or imprisonment, and as a result, over twenty Democratic-Republican newspaper editors were arrested and charged, with some of them being imprisoned or fined. It also led to the imprisonment of Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont for his letter criticising president Adams.
Since opposition was yet to attain legitimacy in the politics of the time, the Federalist president and the Congress used the Seditions Act to keep in check the influence of the opposition. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed as tensions between the Federalist Party, and the opposing Democratic-Republican Party reached the peak. Under the leadership of President John Adams, the Federalists sought to establish a strong and orderly government as they feared chaos similar to those witnessed in the French Revolution. The Federalists were accused of reintroducing a tyranny like the one they had fought against during the American Revolution. They believed that minimising the central government would benefit the people of America.
Individual protections as per first amendment of the constitution were violated by the Sedition Act. As a result, the Democratic-Republicans directed their opposition of the laws to state legislatures, leading to Virginia and Kentucky to pass regulations that invalidated the federal laws within the two states. The Resolutions proclaimed that the states are joined under the Constitution, that as far as possible government expert to certain identified forces, that congressional demonstrations surpassing those forces are violations of the Constitution, and that each state must decide the defendability of elected laws and counteract the use of illegal elected laws in its region
As hostilities rose between the United States and France, the anti-alien laws started targeting pro-French or French immigrants. The Federalists thought that these immigrants would bring political ideas that would be dangerous to America. They also believed that the recent arrivals were likely to support the Democratic-Republicans. Patriots in the country were concerned, and they begged President Adams to reject the restrictive. Adams responded by publicly addressing the people, admonishing them against divisions along factions or foreign interference in the American government. The federal government enforced the legislation vigorously, but when the Democratic-Republicans assumed office in 1801, the Federalists were turned victims of the policies they made, after the Jefferson administration prosecuted several Federalist newspaper editors.
The partisan conflict of the 1790s fed and encouraged violent public revolts while the federal government struggled to suppress the revolts. The public protested violently against the foreign policies of the federal government. The political conflict became criminalised with each party attempting to make the other weak by the prosecution of the other's supporters for seditions violations. After thee, 1800 electoral Revolution, the Federalists, and the Democratic-Republicans continued the conflict between them for a few years. However, the Democratic-Republican victory's Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential elections never faced a serious threat of reversal, and the conflict became silenced. The Federalists' realisation and the animosity that has been dominant in the elections for many years up to 1800 made it remarkable that the 1800 elections came with peaceful power transition. It was much expected that the Revolution of 1800 would be violent just like previous revolutions throughout history and that executions and exiles would have followed it.
James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (1993).
Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (1980).
Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776-1809 (1963) p. 80.
Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (1989). The numbers are estimates.
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