The Federalist Party was a U.S. political party founded in 1791 by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. It rallied support for the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, and it promoted various policies designed to strengthen the national government. It was the world's first political party. Notable spokesmen included John Jay and author Noah Webster. Washington was never a member, but he did endorse most of its policies. The Federalists were opposed by the Republicans, a rival party led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Federalists elected Adams president in 1796. In 1799, the party was at the peak of its power. It controlled all branches of government, including Congress, the presidency, and the courts. That changed suddenly and dramatically when Jefferson defeated Adams in the "Revolution of 1800." Although Jefferson's margin of victory was narrow, the Federalists never recovered. Without outstanding leaders, the party was an antiquated, backward-looking organization. All the same, it was never the "elitist" party that its critics accused it of being. The voting strength of the party ranged from 48 percent for DeWitt Clinton in 1812 to 27 percent for Charles C. Pinckney in 1804. So it had support far beyond the "gentleman class," which was only 5 to 10 percent of the population.
The name "federalist" is derived from The Federalist Papers, a collection of newspaper columns that supported ratification of U.S. Constitution. These columns were written in 1787 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Those who supported ratification were called federalists, while those who opposed it were called "anti-federalists."
The Federalist Party was the first political party in the United States. In 1790, Hamilton proposed a set of reforms designed to put the new federal government on a strong financial basis. The plan divided Congress into factions. Those Congressmen who supported Hamilton's reforms became the Federalist Party. The opposition was led by Madison. Although Madison had been a leading federalist in the fight for ratification, he was not a member of Hamilton's Federalist Party. Conversely, Patrick Henry, the most prominent critic of ratification, did join Hamilton's party. (Both positions reflect Henry's longstanding rivalry with Madison.)
Hamilton's reputation suffered in 1797 when it was revealed that he had had an extramarital affair. Hamilton was the party's original thinker and idea man, but he had to work to control his impulsive and moody side. Washington was a father figure to Hamilton and could intervene. After Washington died in 1799, rivalry between Adams and Hamilton became intense. Hamilton wrote a pamphlet that accused Adams of being mentally unstable. The pamphlet succeeded in undermining Adams' bid for reelection, but it also effectively ended Hamilton's political career. Following Jefferson's triumph in the election of 1800, Adams retired to his farm in Massachusetts. After twelve years of dominance under presidents Washington and Adams, the Federalists found themselves in opposition and without outstanding leaders.
The party's base of support was in New England, a region dependent on trade with Britain. Meanwhile, Republican "war hawks" in the West and South saw war with Britain as a way of acquiring agricultural land in Canada and in the West. Federalist fortunes revived briefly during the War of 1812. In the 1812 election, DeWitt Clinton received 48 percent of the vote as the anti-war candidate. With the war continuing to go poorly, the Federalists sponsored the Hartford Convention in 1814 to propose constitutional amendments. After the Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the fear of defeat that inspired the convention was forgotten and involvement opened former participants to the accusation of treason.
The difficulties the U.S. encountered early in the War of 1812 demonstrated that the Federalists had been right about the need for a stronger national government. In 1816, Congress rechartered the Bank of the United States and enacted protective tariffs. Peace with Britain the adoption of nationalistic financial and economic policies meant that the issues that had long driven partisan rivalry no longer existed. In the spring of 1816, Rufus King, the last Federalist nominee for president, wrote, "I presume that the failure will, as I think it should, discourage the Federalists from maintaining a fruitless struggle." As King predicted, Republican James Monroe won the 1816 election in a landslide, kicking off a non-partisan "Era of Good Feelings." New Hampshire Congressman Daniel Webster, the most promising of the young Federalist leaders at this point, switched parties. In 1820, Monroe was reelected without opposition. Defeat in the Massachusetts governor's race of 1823 ended the party's history. Chief Justice John Marshall was the last Federalist in the federal government, serving until his death in 1835.
The Federalists advocated a strong national government, capable of holding its own in a world at war. At the state level they promoted strong state governments. Foreign policy was a decisive issue in the 1790s and the Federalists promoted friendship and trade with Britain, especially through the Jay Treaty, which was highly controversial but ratified in 1795. The Jeffersonians admired the French Revolution and feared that close ties with Britain would threaten republicanism and move the new republic back toward monarchy. In terms of economics, federalists subscribed to the Hamiltonian notion that the United States must engage in manufacturing and commerce in order to become a great power.
- John Adams (1797-1801)
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