Federalist Party (United States)

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The Federalist Party was a political party in the early history of the United States. It was formed in the first Washington administration (17891793) to support the fiscal policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and came to support a strong national government, a loose construction of the constitution, and a more mercantile, less agricultural economy. Its early leaders included John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. It was opposed by the Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. (Sometimes labeled the "Democratic-Republican Party" by historians, this Republican Party has no relationship to the modern Republican Party.)

For most of the existence of the Federalist Party, Great Britain and France were fighting a series of wars that would become known as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. This European struggle kept threatening to spill over into North America, and the two parties became identified with support with one or the other of the combatants: Federalists tended to be Anglophiles, while Republicans tended to favor the French Republic. The Federalists controlled the government for most of the 1790s, and, by 1798, they were arming the country to fight a war with France that never happened. The Quasi-War with France was one factor that contributed to the Republican takeover of Congress and the Presidency in the "Revolution of 1800". The Federalists withdrew to their New England strongholds until the War of 1812 aroused enough opposition to the Republicans to give them another chance. The Federalists were unable to capitalize on this opportunity, however, and, with the end of the war, the party collapsed nearly everywhere.


The rise of the Federalist Party

With the start of the new government under the Constitution, President George Washington made his former aide de camp, Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was immediately tasked with coming up with a plan to restore public credit. Hamilton proposed a fairly ambitious program and organized alliances to get these measures passed through the Congress. The measures he proposed were far from universally popular. In particular, they were well liked by the commercial North, and were heartily disliked by the agrarian South. This spurred James Madison, Hamilton's ally in the fight to establish the Constitution of the United States, to join with Thomas Jefferson in opposing Hamilton's program.

By 1790 or 1791, coalitions were forming in Congress for and against the Hamiltonian program. Hamilton supporters were called "Federalists" and the opponents "Republicans". The people in the middle had no organization and were quickly pulled one way or the other. Thus there were political parties in Congress, but not yet in the states.

In 1791, Jefferson and Madison travelled widely looking for alliances with factions and parties at the state level. Their major success came in New York, where long-term governor George Clinton, and ambitious newcomer Aaron Burr, signed up. (Hamilton was the son-in-law of General Schuyler, one of Clinton's enemies.) Hamilton likewise realized the need for support in the states; he formed connections with local factions, and used his network of Treasury agents to link together friends of the government, especially businessmen in the cities.

The state networks began to operate in 1794 or 1795, thus firmly establishing what has been called The First Party System in all the states. The winner-take-all system generates a duality in state politics (the winners and the losers), with the losers especially interested in gaining support by a national connection. Patronage now became a factor. Hamilton had over 2000 Treasury jobs to dispense, while Jefferson had one part-time job in the State Department (which he gave to journalist Philip Freneau) and Madison had none. In New York, however, Clinton stole the election for governor and used the vast state patronage fund to help the Republican cause (or at least his own version thereof.)

Washington tried and failed to moderate the feud between his two top cabinet members. He was reelected without opposition in 1792. The Republicans nominated New Yorker George Clinton to replace John Adams as vice president, but Adams won. The balance of power in Congress was close, with some members still undecided between the parties. In early 1793 Jefferson secretly prepared resolutions for Congressman Giles to introduce that would have repudiated the Treasury Secretary and destroyed the Washington Administration. Hamilton brilliantly defended his administration of the nation's complicated financial affairs—which none of his critics could decipher until the arrival in Congress of the brilliant Albert Gallatin in 1793.

French Revolution

The French revolutionaries guillotined King Louis XVI in January 1793, leading the British to declare war. The Republicans who had been cheering every word from France suddenly began to worry whether the French might be going too far. In the Republican newspapers, the policy was unswerving support, even through the Terror when thousands were guillotined, including many friends of the US, such as the Comte D'Estaing whose fleet defeated the British at Yorktown. (Lafayette had already fled into exile.)

Paris sent an ambassador, Citizen Genet, whose travels through the country in the summer of 1793 were designed to mobilize pro- French sentiment and encourage Americans to support France's war against Britain and Spain. Genet hoped for a favorable new treaty and for repayment of the debts owed to France. Acting aggressively, Genet outfitted privateers that would sail with American crews, but under a French flag, and attack British shipping.

He tried to organize expeditions of Americans who would invade Spanish territory, especially Louisiana and Florida. When told he was pushing American friendship past the limit, Genet threatened to go over Washington's head and rouse public opinion on behalf of France. This was blatant foreign interference in domestic politics and was in any case too democratic for the Federalists, who insisted elected officials represented the will of the people, not mass rallies. Genet's extremism seriously embarrassed the Republicans, and cooled popular support for promoting the French Revolution or getting involved in its wars. Recalled to Paris for execution, Genet kept his head and instead went to New York, where he became a citizen and married the daughter of Governor Clinton. Jefferson likewise left office, ending the coalition cabinet allowing the Hamiltonians to dominate.

Jay's Treaty was the effort by Hamilton to resolve numerous difficulties with Britain, some dating to the Revolution (such as the continued presence of British forts in Michigan), and some stemming from the naval war between Britain and France. France had numerous colonies in the West Indies, but could not reach them through the British naval blockade. It therefore opened trade to Americans.

As a neutral, the US argued it had the right to carry goods anywhere it wanted. The British nevertheless seized American ships carrying goods from the French West Indies. The Federalists favored Britain in the war, and by far most of America's foreign trade was with Britain; hence a new treaty was called for. Jay's Treaty of 1794 was probably the best that a militarily weak nation could have secured, but it was a treaty of unequals. The British promised to evacuate the western forts, opened its West Indies ports to American ships, allowed small vessels to trade with the French West Indies, and set up a commission that would adjudicate American claims against Britain (for seized ships), and British claims against Americans (for debts incurred by southern planters before 1775.)

The Treaty was a blow to American prestige, and a severe shock to southern planters who owed those old debts. Republicans thought a much better deal could have been made because Britain faced an aggressive France and was suffering from severe internal problems. Republicans lashed away at the Treaty, but the Federalists controlled the Senate and they ratified it by the necessary 2/3 vote, 20-10 in 1795. The pendulum of public opinion swung toward the Republicans after the Treaty fight—and in the South the Federalists lost most of the support they had among planters.

Unrest at home

The excise tax of 1791 caused grumbling from the frontier including threats of tax resistance. Corn, the chief crop on the frontier, was too bulky to ship over the mountains to market, unless it was first distilled into whiskey. The US was an alcoholic republic, consuming vast quantities of hard liquor. The backwoodsmen complained the tax fell on them rather than on the consumers. Cash poor, they were outraged that their meagre wealth had been singled out to pay off the financiers and speculators back east, and to salary the federal revenue officers who began to swarm the hills looking for illegal stills.

Insurgents shut the courts and hounded federal officials, but Albert Gallatin, an aristocratic immigrant from Switzerland, mobilized the moderates, and thus forestalled a serious outbreak. Hamilton and Washington, seeing the chance to assert federal power, called out 15,000 militia, and marched toward Pittsburgh. Protest evaporated as Washington approached in late 1795; the affair ended quietly, as the president pardoned the two ringleaders who had been convicted of treason. Federalists were relieved that the new government proved capable of overcoming rebellion, while Republicans, with Gallatin their new hero, argued there never was a real rebellion and the whole episode was manufactured in order to accustom Americans to a standing army.

In the face of angry petitions by three dozen "Democratic Republican" societies, Washington attacked the societies as illegitimate, and was now unequivocally in the Federalist camp. Washington, however, refused to run for a third term, warning in his Farewell Address against involvement in European wars, and lamenting the north-south sectionalism in politics that threatened national unity. The party spirit, he lamented:

serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, forments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

A new president

Hamilton distrusted Vice President Adams, but was unable to block his claims to the succession. The election of 1796 was the first party affair in the nation's history, and perhaps the most scurrilous in terms of newspaper attacks. Adams swept New England and Jefferson the South, with the middle states leaning to Adams. Thus Adams was the winner by a margin of three electoral votes, and Jefferson, as the runner-up, became Vice President.

To strengthen their coalitions and hammer away constantly at the opposition, both parties sponsored newspapers in the capital (Philadelphia) and other major cities. On the Republican side, Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache blasted the administration with all the scurrility at their command. Bache in particular targeted Washington himself as the front man for monarchy who must be exposed. To Bache, Washington was a cowardly general and a money-hungry baron who saw the Revolution as a means to advance his fortune and fame, Adams was a a failed diplomat who never forgave the French their love of Franklin and who cherished a crown for himself and his descendants, and Alexander Hamilton was the most inveterate monarchist of them all. The Federalists, with more newspapers at their command, slashed back with equal vituperation; John Fenno and "Peter Porcupine" (William Cobbett) were their nastiest pensmen, and Noah Webster their most learned; Hamilton established the New York Evening Post to promote his views (and occasionally wrote editorials for it.)

Newspaper editorials

James Callender was a pioneer investigative journalist, whose smears and sexual innuendoes enlivened the Republican press. In 1797 James Monroe, a Republican leader, provided Callender with fantastic details about Hamilton's mysterious payments to a Mr Reynolds. Hamilton almost fought a duel with Monroe, but instead published a pamphlet that admitted in too much detail adultery with Mrs Reynolds, and paying blackmail to her husband. Hamilton convincingly denied he gave out Treasury secrets, but the episode destroyed his presidential aspirations.

Callender later went to prison for sedition; President Jefferson pardoned him and gave him cash but refused to appoint him to an honorable patronage position. Callender had his revenge by signing up with the Federalists who wanted the dirt on Jefferson. After investigations in the field in 1802 he published a report with many false charges, and one that has refused to go away: that the President kept a black mistress at his plantation and had slave children. Sally Hemings thus entered the picture, and to this day haunts Jefferson's memory. Jefferson's friends denied the story, as do most but not all historians (they think Jefferson disliked blacks so much he never would have made one his mistress.) As for Callender, he got drunk and drowned in a ditch in 1803.

Foreign affairs was the central concern of the Adams presidency, for the war raging in Europe threatened to drag in the United States. The new president was a loner, who made dramatic and sometimes rash decisions without consulting Hamilton or anyone else. The late Benjamin Franklin understood Adams was a man always honest, often brilliant, and sometimes mad. Adams was popular among the Federalist rank and file, but had no political base of his own. As a result his cabinet was more attuned to Hamilton than to Adams.

Alien and Sedition Acts

After an American delegation was insulted in Paris in the XYZ affair (1797), public opinion ran strongly against the French. The Federalists, at the peak of their popularity, took advantage by preparing for an invasion by the French army (a very unlikely possibility). There was an undeclared "Quasi-War" with France, 1798-1800, in which each side's warships attacked the other's shipping, and a few naval fights took place. To silence newspaper dissent the Federalists passed the Sedition Act, and imprisoned several opposition editors. The Alien Act threatened to deport aliens the president considered dangerous. Jefferson and Madison secretly wrote resolutions passed by the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures that declared the Alien and Sedition laws unconstitutional, and insisted the states had the power to challenge federal laws. These resolutions became known as the "Principles of 1798" and were the foundation of the states-rights, anti-nationalist factions for the next 63 years.

Undaunted, the Federalists created a navy, with sleek new frigates, and a large new army, with Washington in nominal command and Hamilton in actual command. To pay for it all they raised taxes on land, houses and slaves, leading to serious unrest. In one part of Pennsylvania the Fries Rebellion broke out, with people refusing to pay the new taxes. Fries was sentenced to death for treason, but pardoned by Adams. In the elections of 1798 the Federalists did very well, but the tax issue started hurting in 1799. Early that year Adams stunned the country and threw his party into disarray by announcing a new peace mission to France. The mission eventually succeeded, the quasi-war ended, and the new army was disbanded. Hamiltonians called Adams a traitor, and in turn Adams fired Hamilton's supporters still in the cabinet.

Adams' peace moves proved popular with the Federalist rank and file, and he seemed to stand a good chance of reelection in 1800. Jefferson was again the opponent and Federalists pulled out all stops in warning that he was a dangerous revolutionary, hostile to religion, who would weaken the government, damage the economy. and get into war with Britain. The Republicans crusaded against the Alien and Sedition laws, and the new taxes, and proved highly effective in mobilizing popular discontent.

Election of 1800

The election hinged on New York: its electoral votes were cast by the legislature, and given the balance of north and south, they would decide the presidential election. Aaron Burr brilliantly organized his forces in New York City in the spring elections for the state legislature. By a few hundred votes he carried the city—and thus the state legislature—and guaranteed the election of a Republican President. As a reward he was selected by the Republican caucus in Congress as their vice presidential candidate. Hamilton, knowing the election was lost anyway, went public with a sharp attack on Adams that further divided and weakened the Federalists.

In the electoral college, Burr and Jefferson received the same vote, so it was up to the House of Representatives to break the tie. There the Federalists were strong enough to deadlock the election, with some talk of trying to elect Burr. Hamilton knew Burr was a scoundrel and threw his weight into the contest, allowing Jefferson to take office. "We are all republicans—we are all federalists," proclaimed Jefferson in his inaugural address. His patronage policy was to let the Federalists disappear through attrition. Those Federalists such as John Quincy Adams and Rufus King willing to work with him were rewarded with senior diplomatic posts, but there was no punishment of the opposition.

Jefferson had a very successful first term, typified by the Louisiana Purchase. The thoroughly disorganized Federalists hardly offered an opposition to his reelection. In New England and in some districts in the middle states the Federalists clung to power, but the tendency 1800-1812 was steady slippage almost everywhere, as the Republicans perfected their organization and the Federalists played catch-up. Some younger leaders tried to emulate the Republican tactics, but the overall distrust of democracy, and the upper class bias of the party leadership, never allowed much progress. In the South, the Federalists steadily lost ground everywhere.

Adams's Congress passed the famous Alien and Sedition Acts during the Quasi War with France, and prosecuted the first major naval war in United States history, the Tripolitan War against Barbary privateers. Unfortunately, Hamilton and Adams disliked one another, each finding much in the other's character and politics to loathe, and during Adams's Presidency the Federalists split between supporters of Hamilton ("High Federalists") and supporters of Adams ("Low Federalists"). Hamilton did not want Adams re-elected, and wrote a scathing criticism of his performance as President of the United States in an effort to throw Federalist support to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney; inadvertently this split the Federalists and helped give the victory to Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Democratic-Republicans.

Service as the loyal opposition

The Federalists continued to be a major political party in New England and the Northeast, but never regained control of the Presidency or the Congress. With the death of Hamilton in a famous duel with Aaron Burr and the retirement of Adams, the Federalists were left without a strong leader, and grew steadily weaker, despite such leaders as Timothy Pickering and Daniel Webster. Federalist policies favoured commerce and trade over agriculture, and thus became unpopular in the growing Midwest. They were increasingly seen as aristocratic and unsympathetic to democracy, and Federalists fiercely opposed the Louisiana Purchase on Constitutional principle.

After 1800 the major Federalist role came in the judiciary. Although the Republicans managed to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 and thus dismiss many Federalist judges, their effort to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1804 failed. Led by the last great Federalist, John Marshall as chief justice 1801-35, the Supreme Court carved out a unique and powerful role as the protector of the Constitution and the counterweight to democracy.

President Jefferson sought war with Britain in 1807, but could not get his party to agree. Instead the Embargo Act of 1807 prevented all American ships from sailing to a foreign port. The idea was that the British were so dependent on American supplies that they would come to terms. For 15 months the Embargo wrecked American business, causing a sharp depression in the Northeast. Evasion was common and Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Gallatin responded with tightened police controls more severe than anything the Federalists had ever proposed. Public opinion was highly negative, and a surge of support breathed fresh life into the Federalist party. The Republicans nominated Madison for the presidency in 1808. Federalists, meeting in the first-ever national convention, considered the option of nominating Vice President George Clinton as their own candidate, but balked at working with him and again chose Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, their 1804 candidate. Madison lost New England but swept the rest of the country and carried a Republican Congress. Madison dropped the Embargo, opened up trade again, and offered a carrot and stick approach. If either France or Britain agreed to stop their violations of American neutrality, the US would cut off trade with the other country. Tricked by Napoleon into believing France had acceded to his demands, Madison turned his wrath on Britain. London had rescinded the "Orders in Council" two days before US declared war in June 1812, but US would not call off the war without further concessions Britain refused to make.

Thus the nation was at war during the 1812 presidential election, and war was the burning issue. In their second national convention, the Federalists—now the peace party— nominated DeWitt Clinton, the dissident Republican mayor of New York City, and an articulate opponent of the war. Madison ran for reelection promising a relentless war against Britain and an honorable peace. Clinton, denouncing Madison's weak leadership and incompetent preparations for war, could count on New England and New York. To win he needed the middle states and there the campaign was fought out. Those states were competitive and had the best-developed local parties and most elaborate campaign techniques, including nominating conventions and formal party platforms. The Tammany Society in New York City went all out for Madison; the Federalists finally adopted the club idea in 1809. Their Washington Benevolent Societies were semi-secret membership organizations which played a critical role in every northern state in holding meetings and rallies and mobilizing Federalist votes. New Jersey went for Clinton, but Madison carried Pennsylvania and thus was narrowly reelected.

The disloyal opposition

The War of 1812 went poorly for the Americans for two years. Even though Great Britain was concentrating its military efforts on its war with Napoleon, the United States still failed to make any headway against British North American forces. When Napoleon was forced from the French throne in 1813, the British were free to concentrate more of its miliary strength against the United States; they burned Washington in 1814 and sent a force to capture New Orleans.

The war was especially unpopular in New England: the declaration of war had been driven by Westerners and Southerners looking to grab more land from the Spanish in Florida and the British in Canada and to destroy the British-backed American Indians in the Northwest and Southwest Territories. Moreover, the New England economy was highly dependent on trade, and the British blockade threatened to destroy it entirely. In 1814, the British finally managed to enforce their blockade on the New England coast, so the Federalists of New England sent delegates to a convention in Hartford, Connecticut in December 1814.

During the proceedings of the Hartford Convention, some extremists discussed secession, either to become independent countries or to rejoin Great Britain, but the moderates took control of the convention, and generated a report that was relatively mild. The report listed a set of grievances against the Republican federal government and proposed a set of Constitutional amendments to address these grievances. It also indicated that if these proposals were ignored, then another convention should be called and given "such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis may require". Three Massachusetts "ambassadors" were sent to Washington to negotiate on the basis of this report.

Unfortunately for the Federalists, by the time the "ambassadors" got to Washington, the war was over and news of Andrew Jackson's stunning victory in the Battle of New Orleans had raised American morale immensely. The "ambassadors" slunk back to Massachusetts, but not before they had done fatal damage to the Federalist Party. The Federalists were thereafter associated with the disloyalty and parochialism of the Hartford Convention, and destroyed as a political force. They fielded their last presidential candidate in 1816, and their last vice presidential candidate in the following election. The last traces of Federalist activity came in Delaware in the mid 1820s.


A member of the official Federalist Party was essentially a conservative in the traditional sense, i.e., a supporter of the party of government (the Federalists originally controlled all three branches). More specifically, the term came to be associated with the policies of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury; these policies included the funding of the national debt, the assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, the incorporation of a national Bank of the United States, the support of manufactures and industrial development, the use of a light tariff and domestic incentives to encourage economic growth, strict neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, and the creation of a strong army and navy. Generally speaking, Hamiltonian policies were pursued in the Washington Administrations, and to a lesser extent, the Adams Administration.

The Federalists were generally not equal to the tasks of party organisation, and grew steadily weaker as the fortunes of the so-called Virginia Dynasty grew. For economic reasons, the Federalists tended to be pro-British – the United States engaged in more trade with Great Britain than with any other country – and vociferously opposed Jefferson's ill-advised Embargo Act of 1807 and the seemingly deliberate provocation of war with the United Kingdom by the Madison Administration. During "Mr. Madison's War", as they called it, the Federalists called the Hartford Convention whereat they proposed certain Constitutional amendments; the Hartford Convention proved to be fatal to the party, as it was ever after accused of disloyalty and secessionism.

Many Federalists (including Daniel Webster) later joined former Democratic-Republicans like Henry Clay to become first National Republicans and then Whigs (the precursors to the modern Republican Party). The name "Federalist" came increasingly to be used in political rhetoric as a term of abuse; one popular attack on Whigs was that they were really "Wigs", being nothing but aristocratic Federalists and Tories with powdered wigs and knee-breeches (cf. the Whigs' popular reference to Andrew Jackson as "King Andrew I"). Ironically, Jefferson's and Madison's Democratic-Republicans famously complained of having "out-Federalisted the Federalists" by purchasing the Louisiana Territory, chartering a larger national bank, and imposing much stiffer tariffs. On the other hand, some notable members of Jackson's own party, including future president James Buchanan, began their career as Federalists.


There are no current political parties in the United States that are directly descended from the Federalist Party. However, the modern day Republican Party often considers the Federalist Party and its most important figure, Alexander Hamilton as its ideological founder.


  • Richard Buel, Jr. (1972) Securing the Revolution: Ideology in American Politics, 1789–1815, Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801407052
  • William Chambers, ed. (1972) The First Party System: Federalists and Republicans, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0471143405
  • Ron Chernow (2004) Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Books. ISBN 1594200092
  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (1993) The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195068904
  • Dixon Ryan Fox (1919) The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, 1801–1840, Longmans, Green & Co., agents. ASIN B000863CHY
  • David McCullough (2002) John Adams, Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743223136
  • Forrest McDonald (1974) The Presidency of George Washington, University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700601104
  • John C. Miller (1960) The Federalist Era: 1789-1801, Harper. ISBN 1577660315
  • Broadus Mitchell (1962) Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788-1804, McMillan
  • Norman Risjord, ed. (1969) The Early American Party System, Harper & Row
  • James Rogers Sharp (1993) American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis, Yale University Press
  • Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel, eds. (1971) History of American Presidential Elections, vol. 1: 1789-1824, Chelsea House

Presidential candidates

Election year Result Nominees
President Vice President
1789 won George Washington* John Adams
1792 won
1796 won** John Adams Thomas Pinckney
1800 lost Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
1804 lost Charles Cotesworth Pinckney Rufus King
1808 lost
1812 lost DeWitt Clinton Jared Ingersoll
1816 lost Rufus King John Eager Howard
* It is disputed whether George Washington was a Federalist, or if he had no party.
** Adams became President, but Thomas Jefferson became the vice-president, not Pinckney.

See also: List of political parties in the United States

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