Growing Pains: Federalists vs Republicans


Following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the new nation faced numerous domestic and international obstacles that threatened its continued existence.

Federalists v Republicans

The Federalist Party was America’s first political party, formed chiefly by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton during his tenure in George Washington’s cabinet. The Federalist Party believed in strong central Government, a national banking system and good relations and trade with England. The Federalist Party quickly gained strength throughout New England and in the urban areas of the middle states. Those who opposed the Federalist Party would become known as Republicans or Jeffersonians. Led by Thomas Jefferson, Republicans favored an agricultural economic base rather than one based on banking and opposed the idea of strengthening ties with Great Britain. Republicans dominated the politics of the Southern states and much of America’s farmlands. The partisan politics that emerged in the 1700’s threatened to tear the new country apart as Both Hamilton and Jefferson were key members of George Washington’s cabinet. Washington tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the two, but was known to favor Hamilton’s view on politics above anyone else. As a result, Jefferson would resign as Secretary of State in 1793, after he unsuccessfully introduced legislation in Congress that would have effectively dissolved Hamilton’s position as Secretary of the Treasury. Republicans would win back the seat of power in 1801 with the election of Thomas Jefferson as President and the subsequent splitting of the Federalist Party. The Federalist Party would be virtually dissolved after expressing opposition to the War of 1812 and completely gone by 1825.


As President George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton made many controversial proposals and programs aimed at strengthening the new nation’s financial state. In his landmark “Report on Public Credit,” Hamilton made a proposal that would send shockwaves through the leadership of the new nation. During the American Revolution, the states (former colonies) incurred significant debts. Hamilton proposed that the new Federal Government assume the state debts. To Hamilton, this would legitimize and the strengthen the Federal Government by putting it in charge of a national debt, rather than each state being in charge of its individual debt.

Opposition to Hamilton’s idea came from political rivals Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed the plan gave too much power to the Federal Government. Furthermore, their home state of Virginia had already paid half of their individual debt. Madison also opposed other parts of Hamilton’s plan which called for the postponement of payment on debts previously incurred by the Federal Government. The Federal Government did not have the money to pay bonds issued to veterans of the Revolutionary War. As a result, these bonds were being sold at a fraction of their face value, making speculators rich. The divergence of viewpoint between Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton only increased as time progressed, resulting in a major rift and eventually the formation of two distinct parties: the Federalists, led by Hamilton, and the Republicans, led by Jefferson. Eventually, however, Hamilton’s Assumption plan would be approved on July 26, 1790, after he, Jefferson, and Madison made a compromise: Hamilton agreed to use his influence to locate the nation’s capital along the Potomac River and Jefferson and Madison agreed to lobby for approval of Assumption in Virginia. A southern capital was important to Jefferson and Madison so that the more populated northern states would not exert undo power on the southern states.

French Revolution

In the early 1790s , events in France would further divide the two political parties and lead to unprecedented episodes of political “mudslinging,” accusation, and threats of unrest. On Jul 14, 1789, the medieval fortress known as the Bastille, which was said to represent the tyranny of the French Monarchy, was sacked, serving as the flashpoint for the French Revolution. In perhaps the darkest era in French history, France’s social and political systems were completely sacked by radical political groups and masses of poor “citizens.” The monarchy was overthrown and King Louis XVI, who was instrumental in the victorious result of the American Revolution, and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded along with thousands of others who spoke out against the radicals. In a period of time that came to be known as “The Enlightenment,” France’s former society built on aristocratic and feudal privileges was chaotically transformed into one that supposedly honored reason and the unalienable rights of men. The French Revolution would stir passionate feelings of support and opposition in America.

With the onset of the French Revolution and the subsequent execution of the King and Queen of France, Hamilton and the Federalist Party took the position of opposition toward the Revolution and warned that the Republican Party had visions of a similar revolution in America. Republicans supported the Revolution and overthrow of the monarchy, and accused Federalists of making secret deals with England and of trying to establish a monarchy in America. All across America, support for the French Revolution was strong. Numerous “Jacobin” clubs sprouted up, professing their political support for the ideals of the French Revolution. “Jacobin” was the French term that referred to a political radical.

Citizen Genêt

In 1793, the new Minister of France, known as Citizen Genêt, was sent to America to gain support for the budding Revolution. On April 8, 1793, Genêt arrived in Charleston, S.C. to great fanfare. Genêt’s first goal was to organize a team of Americans to serve as privateers (pirates) against British shipping interests. After successfully recruiting privateers, Genêt set sail for Philadelphia, drumming up support along the way and encouraging the formation of Jacobin clubs. Such clubs were formed to promote support for the French Revolution and were numerous in France. The word “Jacobin” is French for political radical.

After receiving a cold reception from George Washington, and after Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation of April 22, Genêt conceived of a plan to mobilize the American public to overthrow Washington and his cabinet. At this point, even Jefferson agreed that Genêt had gone too far and the new French Minister was recalled to France. Facing certain execution in France for misconduct, Genêt pleaded for asylum, which was granted by George Washington. The Genêt episode did much harm to the credibility of Republican support for the French Revolution and cooled popular support.

Jay Treaty

In 1794, the Jay Treaty was introduced in an attempt to solve political problems with England and to avert a second war. The treaty was designed mostly by Alexander Hamilton to address disagreements between the two nations concerning boundaries, debts, and the continued presence of British soldiers in northwestern forts. Republicans, who believed the Federalist treaty catered to British interests, decried it as an insult to the new nation and its credibility. Republicans further claimed that the Jay Treaty violated the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France that was still in effect. Thomas Jefferson led the charge in denouncing Jay, Hamilton, and the Federalists as monarchists bent on bowing to the British Crown. While many historians view the Jay Treaty as more generous to the English, it resulted in relatively peaceful relations between the two nations for a period of about ten years.

Public opinion concerning the Jay Treaty was initially negative, especially in the South. As part of the treaty, Southern slaveholders were not to be compensated for the loss of their slaves to British forces during the war. Nevertheless, Alexander Hamilton would eventually convince President Washington that the treaty was the best that could be expected and Washington, who nearly always sided with Hamilton, signed it. The treaty would officially go into effect on February 29, 1796 following Congressional approval.

Newspaper Wars

Political differences between the two political parties were exacerbated in the newspapers, which at the time, were wholly partisan, controlled by powerful politicians (including Jefferson and Hamilton) and vicious in nature. Republican newspaper editors Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache continually ripped Washington’s Federalist administration and even disparaged Washington himself, which at one time would have been considered political heresy. One of Thomas Jefferson’s “pamphleteers,” James Callendar, published History of the United States for 1796 which happily exposed the marital affair carried on by Alexander Hamilton with Maria Reynolds. While Hamilton admitted the affair, the indiscretion may have contributed to his eventual political demise. While Jefferson himself rarely wrote editorials for the newspaper, he often urged his supporters to. In a 1793 letter to James Madison, he entreats him to disparage Hamilton:

“for god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to peices [sic] in the face of the public.”

Federalists would prove no less vituperative in their writings about Republican virtue. Thomas Jefferson was often referred to as an atheist, coward, and Jacobin (French Revolutionary) Noah Webster, the eventual founder of Webster’s Dictionary, was first a Federalist newspaper editor. Alexander Hamilton, the undisputed leader of the Federalist Party, financed the newspapers and frequently wrote anonymous commentaries defending himself or his party, or, condemning the Republicans. Hamilton even started his first Federalist newspaper, the New York Evening Post, in 1801.

The John Adams Presidency

The downfall of the Federalist Party began with the election of John Adams in 1796. The result of the election was predictable: Adams took New England and Thomas Jefferson took the South. The middle states voted for Adams, who won the election by a small margin. Thomas Jefferson would become vice-president.

Adams quickly alienated members of the Federalist Party by failing to consult with them before making decisions. Unlike George Washington, Adams had no intention of including Alexander Hamilton in political affairs. Because many of Adams’ cabinet members were closely allied with Hamilton, there was a general perception that Hamilton was in control.

Relations between the United States and France took a turn for the worse after the passage of the pro-British Jay Treaty in 1796, which eventually resulted in strained relations between the two nations and the threat of war. Jeffersonian Republicans, convinced that Adams was withholding the truth regarding the French peace proposals in preventing the war, demanded he come clean. Adams subsequently released news of the XYZ Affair, an episode in which three French agents demanded bribes, concessions, and loans from the American Government in exchange for peace discussions. The rejection of French demands led to the Quasi-War in 1798, an undeclared naval war between France and the United States, in which each country seized naval vessels belonging to the other. Anti-French sentiment swept the new nation, severely damaging the standing of Jefferson and the pro-French Republicans. John Adams subsequently stunned his party by re-opening peace negotiations with France in 1799. Adams’ efforts proved successful and his diplomatic handling of the situation likely prevented the escalation of the war. Relations between Hamilton and Adams, however, continued to decline as Adams fired Hamilton supporters from his cabinet, causing the party to split into a faction that supported Adams and a faction that supported Hamilton. The split in the Federalist Party helped Thomas Jefferson win the Presidential Election of 1800.