During the Federalist Era, the American people and their leaders sought to define the character of their nation. The country transitioned from a loose confederation of states to a stronger coalition under the new national government. Nevertheless, many facets of the relationship between the people, the states, and the federal government still needed to be determined. Two political parties—the Federalists and the Republicans—emerged to debate the implementation of the Constitution. Federalists supported a strong central government, whereas Republicans favored a more limited central government. The 1790s became quite contentious because political leaders found it difficult to accept differences of opinion. Regardless of their party, they believed the nation was engaged in a life-and-death struggle for its future.
George Washington tried to implement Alexander Hamilton’s ideas for strengthening the nation at home and abroad in order to build respect for the new country. Questions about supporting economic development and developing a pro-French or pro-British foreign policy emerged during his tenure. Washington’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion suggested he most definitely leaned towards the Federalist outlook; it also increased opposition to his policies. By 1796, political divisions created a tense atmosphere as the nation sought to select a new president. In the nation’s first partisan election, Federalist John Adams defeated Republican Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson became the vice president because Electoral College voters did not vote by party simply for two candidates.
Political divisions continued to afflict the nation when John Adams took over. The United States became involved in the Quasi-War after the XYZ Affair exposed the nefarious nature of the French government. Republicans disliked the war, but they opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts (an effort by the Federalists to curb the Republicans’ power) even more. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson won the presidency for the Republican Party. Many Americans believed the nation experienced a second revolution of sorts because power had transferred peacefully from one political party to another.
As the United States entered a new century, the true revolutionary character of Jefferson’s election remained unclear. Washington and Adams had done much in their presidencies to shape the character of the presidency and of the nation. When Jefferson took office, people wondered how much their relationship to the central government really would change. Would Jefferson truly abandon a strong national government and defer to the states, or would his changes be more cosmetic than substantial? Republicans anticipated future changes, while Federalists dreaded them.