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10.2: The Emergence of Partisan Politics

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    When the framers wrote the Constitution, they very much hoped they could avoid the emergence of permanent political parties. However, two distinct factions appeared by the mid-1790s. The Federalists coalesced in support of Alexander Hamilton’s vision for the nation early in the Washington administration. The Republicans, or Democratic-Republicans, formed in opposition to Hamilton’s vision. The opposition, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, took longer to develop, largely because no national leader could really conceive of a legitimate counter-party to the group in power. Most agreed any conflict would not strengthen the nation, but lead to disunion. In the 1790s, partisan politics was unsettling because people on both sides thought the future of the republic was at stake. The French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion helped contribute to the creation of the first party system in the United States, which in turn set the stage for the nation’s first partisan presidential election in 1796.

    Federalists and the Republicans

    The nationally-minded leaders who went to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 all agreed about the need to curb the excesses of democracy at the state level and create a stronger central government. Once the Washington administration began to outline its domestic and foreign policies, ideological divisions resurfaced among the president’s advisers and among members of Congress. Soon those divisions spread to the wider public through the partisan newspapers. During the debates over Hamilton’s plans for economic growth, two rival Philadelphia papers, John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States and Philip Freneau’s National Gazette, published essays by Hamilton, Madison, and others under pen names discussing the proposals. Both editors took the opportunity not just to address the political issues, but to sharpen the divide between those who supported Hamilton and those who did not. Soon more partisan newspapers appeared to help provide a political identity to voters during the infancy of the two-party system in the United States.

    While still hostile to the idea of political parties, people around the country began speaking of the Federalists and the Republicans by 1792. The emergence of the Democratic-Republican clubs in 1793 further exacerbated the political divisions. The clubs, modeled on the radical Jacobin clubs in France, pledged to monitor the government and support opposition candidates. They communicated with one another much as the Committees of Correspondence had in the pre-revolution years, frightening many national leaders—Federalist and Republican alike. No elite could yet envision a truly democratic future for the nation where all citizens had an equal say in the government.

    At heart, Federalists and Republicans disagreed about how much power to vest in the central government or, conversely, about how capable the people were in governing themselves. Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Adams believed promoting social stability would best preserve the people’s liberty. Furthermore, the nation could only achieve stability if the government promoted the self-interest of the wealthiest farmers, merchants, and manufacturers. Federalists believed the government should serve the interests of the few; doing so would provide benefits for all and would create a strong national union. Federalists never opposed popular elections, but they felt once the people voted, they should leave the important decisions to those they elected. As evidenced by their position on the creation of a national bank, Federalists supported broad construction when it came to interpreting the Constitution. They took a wide view of the necessary and proper clause, seeing things like federally funded internal improvements as a legitimate government function.

    Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed any attempt to cater to minority interests would undermine the people’s liberty; government should work to support the interests of ordinary citizens—the majority. Any other course of action would put the nation back on the road to monarchy. Republicans spoke primarily for agricultural interests and values. They distrusted bankers, cared little for commerce or manufacturing, and believed that freedom and democracy flourished best in a rural society composed of yeoman farmers. They felt little need for a strong central government; it would only become a source of oppression. They wanted the central government to handle foreign policy and foreign trade. However, everything else should be left to the states. Moreover, Republicans supported strict construction when it came to interpreting the Constitution. Reading the Constitution literally would limit the opportunities the government had to undermine citizen’s rights.

    As the two parties formed, they attracted a diverse group of voters. Federalists attracted wealthy citizens with commercial and manufacturing interests; people who worked in the Atlantic seaports also found their agenda more appealing. Dependent on foreign trade for their livelihood, many artisans wanted to see the government pursue economic development. The Federalists were strongest in the North, but they also had a presence in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Republicans tended to attract wealthy landowners tied to plantation-based slavery. At the same time, ordinary farmers who wanted to see the economy remain tied to agriculture and less prosperous merchants who wanted to challenge the control of entrenched leaders supported the Republicans. Finally, the Republicans attracted many new immigrants with radical political ideas who fled England, Ireland, and other places in Europe. The Republicans were strongest in the South, as well as the western areas of Pennsylvania and New York. Since both parties developed support based on economic outlook and sectional interest, the coalitions remained fluid in the 1790s as they tried to broaden their constituencies. Therefore, partisan politics played a role in how the government responded to the French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion.

    French Revolution

    The French Revolution began just as the new American government took shape in 1789. Most Americans celebrated the French people’s attempt to overthrow their aristocratic leaders and create a republic. They believed that their own effort to oust the British inspired the French cause for liberty. French actions, such as declaring three days of official mourning when Benjamin Franklin died in 1790 and extending honorary citizenship to George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, encouraged the American people to express sympathy for the Revolution. As Federalist John Marshall later noted, “We are all strongly attached to France…I sincerely believed human liberty to depend…on the success of the French Revolution.” However, two events in 1793 began to divide the American people as well as members of their government.

    When the Reign of Terror began with the execution of King Louis XVI, many Federalists questioned the liberty and equality of the French effort. These leaders thought the people had gone too far; legitimate revolution descended into popular anarchy. Federalists concluded that any attempt to encourage the French would destroy the American experiment. Alexander Hamilton suggested the Americans had fought for liberty, while the French fought for “licentiousness.” Republicans seemed undisturbed by the turn of events in France. They saw the violence as evidence of the people casting off the evils of monarchism. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison maintained the fate of France’s nobility served a “greater cause.” Citizens across the country expressed their sympathy for the French cause by wearing tricolored ribbons and singing revolutionary songs.

    More importantly, France began a war against Great Britain in February. To underscore their revolutionary effort, the French hoped to destroy all monarchies. Based on the Treaty of Alliance, the Americans had an obligation to assist the French. Under the terms of the treaty, each country pledged to defend the other in the event of a war with Great Britain. George Washington had to decide whether to live up to the commitments made in 1778.44 Regardless of their opinions about the French Revolution, his advisers thought the United States should be neutral in the war. Secretary of State Jefferson, although he did not want to take any action to harm the French, did not want to jeopardize American security. Secretary of Treasury Hamilton did not want to aid the French because it might interrupt his economic vision, which relied on good trade relations with the British.

    On April 22, 1793, Washington issued a proclamation stating the United States “should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers.” Moreover, the government would punish Americans citizens for “abetting hostilities” or carrying contraband. Although the proclamation did not include the word neutrality, the president hoped the message would convey the Americans’ desire to stay out of the European conflict. Federalists tended to support Washington’s position, whereas Republicans widely lambasted the neutrality policy. Immediately after it went into effect, Jefferson distanced himself from the policy, and Madison called it an “unfortunate error.”

    The neutrality proclamation also sparked a constitutional debate on the president’s authority to make foreign policy. Writing anonymously, Hamilton and Madison debated the issue in the partisan papers. Hamilton maintained the president had the authority to declare neutrality since the Constitution gave the executive department the responsibility to conduct business with foreign nations. Furthermore, he argued the provisions of the 1778 treaty only covered defensive wars, and France had launched an offensive war against Britain. In response, Madison opted to speak only about the larger constitutional issues raised by the proclamation, as opposed to addressing the policy itself. Since Congress had the power to declare war and ratify treaties, he argued it also had the power to declare neutrality. Furthermore, Madison suggested the opposition defined executive authority by looking to “royal prerogatives in the British government.”

    As Washington and his advisers mulled over neutrality, they also had to decide whether the government should receive the new minister, Edmond Charles Genet, when he arrived from France. Hamilton opposed receiving Genet unless the administration also indicated that the United States had suspended all treaties made with the former French government. He feared recognizing France would be the same as saying the United States backed their war. Jefferson, who had more affection for the French people and their cause because of his time in Paris, supported receiving Genet, which amounted to recognizing the French government. He argued against suspending the alliance because doing so would undermine the decision to recognize the government. On this issue, the president sided with Jefferson. However, no one in the Washington administration could have foreseen the problems Citizen Genet would cause.

    The French government sent Genet to the United States with three goals: encourage the Americans to live up to the provisions of the 1778 treaty; secure the right to outfit privateers (privately owned warships commissioned to prey on enemy ships) in American ports; and gain American assistance in undermining British and Spanish rule in the New World. When Genet arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, well-wishers met his ship and those good feelings continued. As he made the journey to Philadelphia, everywhere he went people showered him with praise and collected money for the Revolution. Across the country, he met with Democratic-Republican clubs. Moreover, he recruited soldiers to launch an attack on New Spain and sailors to work as privateers. Genet also turned the Little Sarah (a captured British ship held by the French in Philadelphia) into the Little Democrat and sent it out to attack British ships, something he told the Washington administration he would not do. To make matters worse, Genet threatened to take his cause to the American people if their government complained.

    At first, Thomas Jefferson had encouraged Genet’s efforts to drum up support for the war. But no matter how much Jefferson wanted to help the French, the Little Democrat incident forced him to approach Washington about Genet’s threats to appeal directly to the American people. When the president found out, he was furious. At heart, he worried how other European governments would view the United States if it allowed Genet to dictate policy. Washington’s cabinet agreed the Americans had to request Genet’s recall. Jefferson sent a letter to the French government detailing Genet’s activities, taking care to separate those actions from the intentions of the government. The letter also underscored the American desire to continue its friendly relationship with the French.51 France recalled their ambassador, but Genet sought asylum in the United States. Washington granted the request because he recognized Genet would likely become another victim of the Reign of Terror if he returned.

    The Citizen Genet Affair further exacerbated the growing tensions between the Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalists pounced on Genet’s blunders. They sought not only to build support for neutrality, but to also undermine the Republicans. Across the country, Federalists sponsored resolutions supporting the Washington administration; they also indicated their opponents were dangerous radicals. Not to be outdone, the Republicans suggested their opponents sought to create discord between France and the United States in order to restore a British-like monarchy in the United States. Partisan newspaper editors outdid themselves in attacking the opposition. Only respect for George Washington, says Gordon Wood, kept the partisan feuding from becoming completely unmanageable. However, by the time John Jay went to London to deal with problems between the United States and Great Britain (some of which were caused by the Anglo-French conflict) the American people had clearly divided along pro-French and pro-British lines.

    Whiskey Rebellion

    The Federalists and the Republicans found another reason to worry about the opposition’s intentions: the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1790, the Washington administration sought to levy a direct tax on the American people to help defray the costs of Hamilton’s financial program. The secretary of treasury knew indirect import duties would not entirely cover the costs of putting the nation on solid financial footing, so he proposed an excise tax on distilled spirits, which the Federalist-dominated Congress approved. However, several Republicans predicted the people would refuse to pay.

    As foreseen, the federal government struggled to collect the whiskey tax. Just as in the years leading up to the American Revolution, the people expressed hostility to a direct tax put in place by a faraway central government. Taxing distilled spirits meant the farmers farthest from the centers of commerce felt the burden most heavily. Perishable goods often did not survive the trip to market; however, when turned into alcohol, grain became portable. In cash-strapped areas of the country, people also used whiskey as a form of currency. Therefore, people in states south of New York began almost immediately to protest the excise tax. They tarred and feathered tax collectors, sent petitions to Congress requesting a repeal of the tax, and attacked fellow citizens who paid the tax.

    Federalists concluded that in order to preserve the union they must enforce the tax. Such public outbursts against legitimate laws passed by the central government would lead to anarchy. Hamilton decided to focus on four counties in western Pennsylvania. With Philadelphia the home of the central government, it looked bad that the government could not even collect the tax in the Pittsburgh area. Furthermore, government officials at least attempted to collect the tax in Pennsylvania. Anti-tax sentiment was so high the Washington administration could not find people to take jobs as tax collectors in most other states. In 1792, at Hamilton’s urging, Washington issued a proclamation to condemn the efforts to resist the tax and to threaten strict enforcement. However, not until 1794 did the federal government attempt to back up the proclamation when the violence in Pennsylvania escalated.

    That summer, federal officials had attempted to enforce the whiskey tax. In response, approximately 500 members of the local militia units converged on the home of General John Neville, the excise inspector for the region. They demanded he resign his position and stop all efforts to collect the tax. Neville tried to defend his home, but the attackers set the house on fire and escaped into the countryside. Two weeks later, on August 1, about 6,000 militiamen gathered outside of Pittsburgh to continue their protest against the tax. Some wanted to attack Neville’s headquarters, but cooler heads prevailed and the group dispersed. However, western Pennsylvanians continued to meet in smaller groups where they set up mock guillotines and talked about attacking the nearby federal arsenal. Rumors of secession and civil war circulated through the region.

    Whatever sympathy the president possessed for the people’s concern about direct taxes evaporated when militia units gathered and threatened an attack on the federal government. Washington vowed to defend the union—quickly and decisively. He noted, “Neither the Military nor Civil government shall be trampled upon with impunity whilst I have the honor to be at the head of them.” Washington issued a proclamation on August 7 suggesting he would call out the militia to enforce the law. Since the governor and legislature of Pennsylvania had not asked for assistance, Washington sought a judicial writ giving him the power to use force if necessary. Hamilton wanted to deploy troops immediately; however, the president decided to send a peace commission to negotiate an end to the insurrection. When that effort failed, Washington called up 12,000 troops from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. On September 25, the troops set out for Pittsburgh under Washington’s command. By the time they arrived in October, the resistance movement had all but collapsed. The government arrested twenty men and took them to Philadelphia for trial. The president later pardoned the two convicted for treason, and the crisis ended.

    Nevertheless, the incident inflamed partisan passions. Federalists firmly believed they had saved the nation from disunion. They saw the rebellion as a test of the government’s strength; in crushing it so decisively, they had won. Washington, for example, thought European monarchies would take seriously the idea that a republican form of government could successfully enforce the laws and simultaneously protect liberty and property. On the other hand, Republicans saw the show of force as a sign Federalists planned to create a standing army and thwart democracy. Jefferson, who had already left the administration, implied in his public statements that the Federalists had conjured a rebellion to boost their power.

    Election of 1796

    By 1796 the aging George Washington, having served two terms, wanted to retire to Mount Vernon, and no one could change his mind. Four years earlier, Washington had threatened to retire because of the ideological divisions in his cabinet and the growing political partisanship among the people. His closest advisers talked him out of what they considered a dangerous action. During a meeting with the president, James Madison sympathized with the great sacrifices Washington had made but also encouraged him to stay on. When Washington consulted Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson a short while later, they concurred. All three felt as Jefferson did when he wrote, “The confidence of the whole nation is centered in you.” And so, Washington agreed to stand for reelection, and the Electoral College voted for him unanimously.

    However, the partisan rancor in his second term convinced the president he must retire. In part, Washington believed one way to quell the dissent was to set a precedent for the regular rotation of public officials. Republicans long accused Federalists of being monarchists. If he left office by choice, then he could mute such criticism. On September 19, 1796, George Washington announced his decision not to seek reelection to the American people. His “Farewell Address” appeared in newspapers across the country; he never delivered it as a spoken address. The address had three main themes: maintaining national unity, denouncing partisanship, and steering clear of permanent alliances with foreign countries.

    The address incorporated not only George Washington’s ideas about maintaining national unity, but those of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The president revived a draft Madison began in 1792 before their ideological differences drove them apart. Washington, according to historian Joseph Ellis, included Madison’s thoughts because he wanted to stress the importance of “subordinating sectional and ideological differences to larger national purposes.” He also thought the effect would be all the more potent since Madison had become one of the leaders of the opposition party. The president then passed his notes on to Hamilton, who took out the self-pitying remarks about partisanship. The former secretary of treasury (he had left the administration in 1795) believed Washington’s statement needed to “wear well.” Over the course of several months, they ironed out the final statement that unmistakably indicated the president would not seek a third term.

    Washington’s decision to retire set the stage for the first partisan president election in American history. No one had even bothered to challenge Washington in 1788 or 1792; he was, for many, the symbol of independence. In 1796, the people considered a long list of men with revolutionary qualifications, including Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and James Madison. However, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson emerged as the top choices. For much of their early political careers, the pair had worked together to secure independence. In the 1780s, they grew closer when Adams served as the minister to Great Britain and Jefferson served as the minister to France. They had grown apart in the 1790s as their ideological differences became more apparent. Adams dutifully supported the Federalist agenda, while Jefferson helped lead the opposition against a stronger central government. In the minds of the American people, Adams and Jefferson earned their fame as a pair, making the contest in 1796 even more heated. As Joseph Ellis remarks, “choosing between them seemed like choosing between the head and the heart of the American Revolution.”

    At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers had created the Electoral College to choose the president and vice president. Each state had the same number of electors as the number of people that served in United States Congress from that state. They could choose their electors in any way they saw fit. The electors could vote for any two candidates, as long as one of those candidates was not from their home state. The candidate with the highest number of votes became president; the candidate with the second highest number of votes became the vice president. If no candidate received a majority, then the House of Representatives, voting by state, would decide. Many of the framers anticipated most elections would end up in the House, and the Electoral College would serve more like a nominating body—determining the most qualified candidates for the presidency. As the political factions developed, political leaders began to speak more forcefully for a specific candidate, and the Electoral College never quite worked as envisioned in 1787.

    While both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wanted to be president, as disinterested gentlemen leaders they could not publicly say so. In 1796, political aspirations made a candidate seem less qualified, not more, for public office. Therefore, both men retired to their homes and allowed their supporters to speak on their behalf. The Federalists supported John Adams and Thomas Pinckney; the Republicans supported Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Electors cast ballots for two individual men and not a ticket of president and vice president, so the lead up to the election was somewhat chaotic, especially since behind the scenes. Alexander Hamilton schemed to encourage Federalists to choose Pinckney over Adams. As the election approached, hostility toward Jay’s Treaty seemed to give Jefferson the edge. However, economic conditions in the country suggested to some people that the Federalist agenda had achieved positive results.

    When the electors cast their ballots, John Adams took seventy-one votes to Jefferson’s sixty-eight, Pinckney’s fifty-nine, and Burr’s thirty. The remaining votes went to a smattering of other candidates. The votes lined up on sectional lines more so than party lines. Most voters in the North preferred Adams, and most voters in the South preferred Jefferson. The results also meant a Federalist would serve as president, and a Republican would serve as vice president. Some observers thought that because Adams and Jefferson worked together so well before, they would mend their political differences and help end the factionalism that characterized the Washington years. Initially, both men seemed willing to bridge the gap between the parties. Adams thought Jefferson could play a greater role in his administration than he had played during Washington’s administration. But hopes faded quickly, and the factionalism grew worse in the Adams years.

    Screenshot (239).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Presidential Election map | 1796–George Washington’s decision to retire set the stage for the first partisan president election in American history. Members of the Electoral College had to choose between John Adams, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pinckney. The Federalist Adams triumphed, but the Republican Jefferson became the vice president. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons


    In the wake of the battle over ratification of the Constitution, most Americans accepted the new government it created. However, many still harbored suspicions about the possibility of the government abusing the considerable power placed in its hands. Therefore, a new debate arose over the Constitution’s implementation, which led to the creation of the first party system. Federalists saw the federal government as a positive agent for change. If the nation’s social and economic elite headed a strong central government, they believed all society would prosper. Republicans favored a less powerful central government and sought to place restrictions on its operation. They trusted the people to maintain a virtuous political system.

    Inevitably, these two visions of the republic led to clashes between the leaders of both factions over the meaning of the French Revolution and the threat posed by the Whiskey Rebellion. As the Federalists looked at the farmers’ revolt in western Pennsylvania, they saw the excesses of the French Revolution coming to the United States. Thus, the federal government needed to step in to eliminate such threats to order. However, the Republicans saw in Washington’s decision to intervene in Pennsylvania the first signs of the federal government trampling on the people’s liberty.

    In 1796, the two parties vied to win the presidency in the nation’s first partisan election. The two leading candidates—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—both had the needed revolutionary credentials to run for president. Based on the provisions of the Electoral College, Federalist John Adams became president, and Republican Thomas Jefferson became vice president. Many people hoped the outcome would lessen political divisions, but during the Adams years tensions mounted as the two parties debated how to handle problems caused by the war between Great Britain and France.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In foreign affairs, Americans became deeply divided in the 1790s over

    1. relations with Spain.
    2. the rise of Napoleon.
    3. the French Revolution.
    4. the banning of the international slave trade.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 resulted in

    1. the repeal of the federal liquor tax.
    2. declining support for the Republicans.
    3. mass executions of the captured rebels.
    4. the sending of a massive army to western Pennsylvania.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    In the election of 1796, the Federalist John Adams became president, and his vice president was

    1. the Republican Thomas Jefferson.
    2. the Federalist Charles C. Pinckney.
    3. the Federalist Alexander Hamilton.
    4. the Republican Aaron Burr.


    This page titled 10.2: The Emergence of Partisan Politics is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.