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The Federalists: America’s First Political Party

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Today, the Republican and Democratic Parties take turns holding the reins of power in the United States, but other political parties have existed through our nation’s history. In the beginning, there were no formal parties. George Washington warned against partisan politics during his farewell speech upon leaving office as president. But for better or for worse, American politics have been defined by the conflict 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 monetary policies earned strong opposition. Hamilton and others who preferred a strong central government formed the Federalist Party in 1791, including John Jay, Rufus King, John Marshall, and John Adams. The group wanted a strong central government rather than to give power to the states.

The Federalists favored a good relationship with Britain, which was at war with France. They wanted to assume state debts, pay the national debt, and establish the Bank of the United States. The group opposed widespread voting rights, called democracy “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 a member of a political party. 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 had a sort of undeclared war with France. To fund this campaign, the Federalists raised taxes. They also signed Jay’s Treaty, which strengthened the alliance with Britain.

The Federalists’ policies – especially Jay’s Treaty – drew a lot of opposition. With control of the presidency, Congress, and the courts, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. This law gave the government power to punish the press for publishing “scandalous” things about it, and also allowed it to deport foreigners.

Adams finally made peace with France in 1799, but this split the party. Some members followed Adams, and others supported Hamilton. With both the Hamilton Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (another political party) 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 party was officially dissolved in 1824.

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