The Federalist party was one of the first two political parties in the United States, and thus in the world. It originated, as did its opposition, the Democratic-Republican party, within the executive and congressional branches of government during George Washington’s first administration (1789-1793), and it dominated the government until the defeat of President John Adams for reelection in 1800. Thereafter, the party unsuccessfully contested the presidency through 1816 and remained a political force in some states until the 1820s. Its members then passed into both the Democratic and the Whig parties.
Although Washington disdained factions and disclaimed party adherence, he is generally taken to have been, by policy and inclination, a Federalist-and thus its greatest figure. Influential public leaders who accepted the Federalist label included John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Rufus King, John Marshall, Timothy Pickering, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. All had agitated for a new and more effective constitution in 1787. Yet, because many members of the Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had also championed the Constitution, the Federalist party cannot be considered the lineal descendant of the pro-Constitution, or ‘federalist,’ grouping of the 1780s. Instead, like its opposition, the party emerged in the 1790s under new conditions and around new issues.
The party drew its early support from those who-for ideological and other reasons-wished to strengthen national instead of state power. Until its defeat in the presidential election of 1800, its style was elitist, and its leaders scorned democracy, widespread suffrage, and open elections. Its backing centered in the commercial Northeast, whose economy and public order had been threatened by the failings of the Confederation government before 1788. Although the party enjoyed considerable influence in Virginia, North Carolina, and the area around Charleston, South Carolina, it failed to attract plantation owners and yeoman farmers in the South and West. Its inability to broaden its geographic and social appeal eventually did it in.
Originally a coalition of like-minded men, the party became publicly well defined only in 1795. After Washington’s inauguration in 1789, Congress and members of the president’s cabinet debated proposals of Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the treasury, that the national government assume the debts of the states, repay the national debt at par rather than at its depressed market value, and charter a national bank. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison rallied opposition to Hamilton’s plan. Yet not until Congress debated the ratification and implementation of Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain did two political parties clearly emerge, with the Federalists under Hamilton’s leadership. Federalist policies thenceforth emphasized commercial and diplomatic harmony with Britain, domestic order and stability, and a strong national government under powerful executive and judicial branches. Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, prepared with Hamilton’s assistance, can be read as a classic text of partisan Federalism as well as a great state paper.
John Adams, Washington’s vice president, succeeded the first president as an avowed Federalist, thus becoming the first person to attain the chief magistracy under partisan colors. Inaugurated in 1797, Adams tried to maintain his predecessor’s cabinet and policies. He engaged the nation in an undeclared naval war with France; and, after the Federalists gained control of both houses of Congress in the 1798 elections, he backed the infamous and Federalist-inspired Alien and Sedition Acts.
In addition to a widespread public outcry against those laws, Adams met with mounting attacks, especially from the Hamiltonian faction of his own party, against his military priorities. When Adams, as much to deflect mounting Democratic-Republican opposition as to end a war, opened diplomatic negotiations with France in 1799 and reorganized the cabinet under his own control, the Hamiltonians broke with him. Although his actions strengthened the Federalist position in the presidential election of 1800, they were not enough to gain his reelection. His party irreparably split and he on his way to retirement, Adams was nevertheless able to conclude peace with France and to secure the appointment of moderate Federalist John Marshall as chief justice. Long after the Federalist party was dead, Marshall enshrined its principles in constitutional law.
In the minority, Federalists at last accepted the necessity of creating a system of organized, disciplined state party organizations and adopting democratic electoral tactics. Because their greatest strength lay in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware, the Federalists also assumed the aspects of a sectional minority. Ignoring ideological consistency and a traditional commitment to strong national power, they opposed Jefferson’s popular Louisiana Purchase of 1803 as too costly and threatening to northern influence in government. Largely as a result, the party continued to lose power at the national level. It carried only Connecticut, Delaware, and part of Maryland against Jefferson in 1804.
That defeat, the party’s increasing regional isolation, and Hamilton’s untimely death that same year threatened the party’s very existence. Yet strong, widespread opposition to Jefferson’s ill-conceived Embargo of 1807 revived it. In the 1808 presidential election against Madison, the Federalist candidate, Charles C. Pinckney, carried Delaware, parts of Maryland and North Carolina, and all of New England except Vermont. The declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812 brought New York, New Jersey, and more of Maryland into the Federalist fold, although these states were not enough to gain the party the presidency.
But Federalist obstruction of the war effort seriously undercut its newfound popularity, and the Hartford Convention of 1814 won for it, however unjustly, the stigma of secession and treason. The party under Rufus King carried only Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Delaware in the election of 1816.
Although it lingered on in these states, the party never regained its national following, and by 1828, it was dead. Its inability to accommodate early enough a rising, popular democratic spirit, often strongest in towns and cities, was its undoing. Its emphasis upon banking, commerce, and national institutions, although fitting for the young nation, nevertheless made it unpopular among the majority of Americans who, as people of the soil, remained wary of state influence. Yet its contributions to the nation were extensive. Its principles gave form to the new government. Its leaders laid the foundations of a national economy, created and staffed a national judicial system, and enunciated enduring principles of American foreign policy.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.