Republicans (Jeffersonian)

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Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson teamed up with Virginia Congressman James Madison in 1792 to form the Republican party. The party dominated U.S. politics from 1800 until 1824.

The Republicans, also called the Jeffersonians, were a U.S. political party led by Thomas Jefferson.[1] In 1790, a congressional faction coalesced around Virginia congressman James Madison to oppose the policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, then secretary of state, joined Madison to contest the elections of 1792. The party dissolved in 1825. The word "republican" is from Latin res publica, meaning "that which concerns the public." The Founding Fathers greatly admired the Roman Republic.

Unlike modern class warfare liberals, the Jeffersonians did not advocate redistribution of wealth. Madison denounced "a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property" as examples of "improper or wicked" ideas.[2] However, they did share certain traits with modern liberals, including a conflicted attitude toward the military. As president, Jefferson insisted that he was a man of peace and did not need the navy built under his predecessor, John Adams. Yet one of his first acts in office was to put that navy to work attacking the Barbary pirates. By the beginning of 1812, the Jeffersonians had thoroughly demilitarized the country. Yet they eagerly waged war on Britain, a state with a powerful military, particularly at this time when its resources were fully mobilized to fight Napoleon. Another trait the Jeffersonians shared with modern liberals is that they were united less by ideology than by the conviction that their opponents were evil. To the Jeffersonians, Hamilton's Federalists were "monarchists" and "elitists." The fetish for a minimal federal government, once a central ideology, was dropped in 1816. The "nationalist" policies adopted at this time were often the same as the policies the party had condemned when the Federalists advocated them.

In Jefferson's time, the party was known nationally as the Republicans. In New York and several other states, it was also called the Democrats.[3] The party had numerous factions, including the Quids and Malcontents in Pennsylvania, as well as the "Old Republicans" in the South.[4] The "War Hawks" of the South and West pushed for war against Britain in 1812. The party's two best-known factions were the Democrats and the Nationalists. After the Jeffersonian party dissolved in 1825, these two factions became separate parties. President Martin Van Buren, Jackson's successor and a New Yorker, gave his party the name Democratic Party. The modern Republican Party, founded in 1854, was named after Jefferson's party. To distinguish the two Republican parties, modern writers sometimes use the term Democratic-Republican party to refer to Jefferson's party.


The framers of the U.S. Constitution had not considered the possibility of national political parties and were surprised when they emerged. During the debate on ratification in 1787-1788, groups once active only in the politics of their own state began to coordinate with like-minded groups in other states. In every state, factions aligned as either "federalist" (for ratification) or as "anti-federalist" (against ratification). These groupings were precursors to the political parties that formed later. Both Madison and Hamilton were framers of the constitution as well as authors of The Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper columns that argued for ratification. In 1790, an "anti-Administration" congressional faction coalesced around Madison to oppose Hamilton's financial policies. In 1791, Hamilton, Adams, and other supporters of stronger national government founded the Federalist Party. Modern historians consider the Federalists to be America's first conservative party.

Jefferson, then secretary of state, joined Madison to contest the elections of 1792. This campaign marked the founding of the Jeffersonian Republicans as a party. In 1793-1794, French Ambassador Edmond-Charles Genêt recruited privateers based in U.S. ports to attack British shipping, citing a provision in the 1778 Franco-American treaty of alliance. President George Washington denounced Genêt's actions as a violation of U.S. neutrality. Genêt took his case to the American people and various pro-French groups, referred to collectively as the Democratic-Republican societies, were formed. The word "democracy" refers most specifically to the system of government of ancient Athens, which was admired by the French revolutionaries. Genêt named one of the vessels he outfitted the Little Democrat. After Genêt was recalled, many of the people involved in these societies continued to be politically active as members of Jefferson's party.

Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson in the 1796 presidential election. In the "Revolution of 1800," the Republicans gained control of the federal government. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address.[5] Jefferson was president from 1801 until 1809. Jefferson argued for a minimal federal government. He opposed a standing army and even a central bank. The charter of the Bank of the United States was allowed to expire in 1811. The navy Adams had built was allowed to deteriorate. It was replaced with "gunboats." These small vessels were designed strictly for coastal defense; Jefferson did not trust his successors with offensive capabilities. Later experience would show that gunboats were useless for coastal defense as well.

In letters from Monticello, Jefferson continued to provide advise and direction for many years after he retired. The War of 1812 led to a default by the U.S. Treasury in November 1814. This was a traumatic experience for Republicans used to thinking of themselves as the party of sound finance. While Jeffersonism turned out to be a bankrupt ideology, the Jeffersonians didn't plan to go down with in. They neatly pivoted and adopted much of the Federalist agenda that they had previously scorned. In a letter written in January 1816, Jefferson finally dropped his idealization of the yeoman farmer and hardily endorsed domestic manufacturing.[6] (This was manufacturing for the domestic market. Jefferson remained skeptical of exports.) In another dramatic reversal, a Second Bank of the United States was chartered in February 1816. The new policies were continued by President James Monroe (1817-1825). Those who supported Monroe's approach were referred to as "Nationalists." Those who remained loyal to the old small government, agrarian agenda were labelled "Democrats." The Missouri Compromise of 1820, approved over Jefferson's strenuous objections, was the last occasion when the former president tried to exert influence on policy.

When Andrew Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812 and victor of the Battle of New Orleans, ran for president in 1824, the party split into Jacksonian and Anti-Jacksonian factions. In 1830, the Anti-Jacksonians established the National Republican Party. This group evolved into the Whig Party. For the 1832 campaign, Jackson's supporters adopted a matching moniker: Democratic-Republican Party. The National Republicans soon disappeared, but the term "Democratic Republican party" continued to be used long after its original motivation was forgotten. This is largely because it proved to be a useful way to distinguish Jefferson's party from the modern Republican Party.



  1. "Republicans, Jeffersonian", Dictionary of American History, 2003.
    Wood, Gordon, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (2009), See Chapter 4 ("The Emergence of the Jeffersonian Republican Party").
  2. "The Federalist No. 10"
  3. In Washington Irving's short story "Rip Van Winkle" (1819), Rip is asked if he is "Federal or Democrat." N.B.: Not "Democratic Republican," which was not a contemporary usage.
  4. Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States Book 4) (p. 313). Oxford University Press, p. 313.
  5. "Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address"
  6. Wood, p. 705.

See also