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The Federalists: America’s First Political Party

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While the Republican and Democratic Parties take turns holding the reins of power in the United States today, there has been a range of other political parties through our nation’s history. At the beginning of the nation, there were no formal parties, as they were generally believed to be the ruin of a republican system of government. George Washington warned against partisan politics during his farewell speech upon leaving office as president – but to no avail. For better or for worse, American politics has been defined by the adversarial relationship between opposed parties to the present day.

The Federalist Party – not to be confused with the earlier faction of the same name, which pushed for the ratification of the Constitution – was the first official political party in the United States. Alexander Hamilton served under President Washington as secretary of the treasury, and his fiscal policies earned strong opposition. Hamilton and others who preferred a strong central government, including John Jay, Rufus King, John Marshall, and John Adams, formed the Federalist Party in 1791.

The Federalists favored commercial and diplomatic accord with Britain, which was at war with France. Much like the earlier group of Federalists during the battle for the Constitution, this party consisted of men who wished to strengthen the nation centrally rather than support the power of the states. They favored assuming state debts, paying the national debt, and establishing the Bank of the United States. They opposed widespread suffrage, ridiculed democracy as “mob rule,” and were seen by many as a party of elitists.

In 1797, John Adams became the Second President of the United States – and the first to do so as an avowed member of a political party. The Federalist’s term as president marked the beginning of the end, however, and the party fractured and eventually faded away.

The Federalists were generally united in their desire for peace with Britain, and Adams was no exception. When it came to France, however, the group was split. Some wished for peace with that country as well, while others wanted to fight. Adams engaged in a sort of undeclared war with France. To fund this campaign, the Federalists raised taxes. They also signed Jay’s Treaty, which consolidated an alliance with Britain.

Opponents protested, pointing to how quickly the party, which claimed that a strong national government would protect liberty, betrayed the people and abused its power. With control of the presidency, Congress, and the courts, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. This law restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country, making it possible for them to be deported if they crossed the government, and also greatly limited freedom of speech and the press by criminalizing the publication of “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government.

Adams finally achieved peaceful diplomatic relations with France in 1799, but this split the party as some followed Adams and others supported Hamilton. With both the Hamilton Federalists and another party, the Democratic-Republicans, campaigning against him, Adams was unable to win re-election in 1800. While the Federalists did continue to win some state elections, they never again put a president in office. The group did make another push for power when the War of 1812 began to go poorly, but once Andrew Jackson turned the tide and public morale began to rise, the Federalists came to be seen as seditious and cowardly. The party was officially dissolved in 1824.

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