Monday, March 27, 2006

Federalists and Republicans: The First Two Political Parties and the Divide of American Culture

“But every difference of opinion is not a difference of
principle. We have called by different names brethren
of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are
all Federalists.”
-Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address
But, despite this statement made in 1801 the two political parties that formed, in 1792, would change the way the American political system functions. The two groups originated due to many disputes that arose; these included arguments over how the Constitution should be interpreted, as well as the role that Americans would play in the new government. The ability of these parties to mobilize and persuade voters led their members to realize the important roles that these organizations, of ideological compression, would play in American politics. These disputes and the parties that they spawned led to a great divide in the young nation; and although there have been and continue to be many “third” parties, it was the divide created by the first two parties, and the hostilities that it spawned, that has grown more apparent as time has past. Causing us to become eyewitnesses to the ramifications of this fracture.
One of these early groups was known as the Federalists; they supported a strong Federal government with an emphasis on manufactured goods. The Federalists supported England; in addition they also supported a more industrialized economy, and because of this they enjoyed the backing of the northern states. They also believed that wealthy elected representatives should rule over the nation, by not allowing common citizens to have an extremely active role in the government. Alexander Hamilton, one of the most prominent members of the Federalists, once said, “The people are turbulent and changing. They seldom judge or determine right.” Hamilton, who was the Secretary of the Treasury during George Washington’s Presidency, also believed that the Constitution implied that it would be acceptable for Congress to authorize the establishment of a National Bank. It would then be the job of this bank to deal with the National debt that had been incurred during the Revolutionary War, in addition to developing and issuing a national currency.
As a response to the Federalists ideas, those who did not agree with Alexander Hamilton and his followers formed the Republican Party. The Republicans felt that it was the people that made the Republic strong. Thomas Jefferson summed up the Republican’s feelings about the issue, “I am not among those that fear the people; they, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom.” Republicans wanted to establish strong State governments with a focus on agriculture; it was for these reasons as well as being pro-French, that the South heavily favored the Republicans. Republican Party members felt that the Constitution should be strictly interpreted, and that it should not be assumed that there are any implied powers. They questioned the Constitutionality of founding a National Bank, and believed instead that it should be left up to the states’ banks to settle debt and issue currency.
Although George Washington was often linked with the Federalists, he was never a member of a political party; and he thought that the factions would be detrimental to the union. This belief led him try to mediate the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson,
“I have a great sincere esteem and regard for you
both, and ardently wish that some line could be
marked out which both [of] you could walk.”
-George Washington in a letter to Thomas Jefferson

But, despite Washington’s efforts the divide amongst these two men and their parties grew; and ultimately it was this divide that led Jefferson and Hamilton to resign from Washington’s cabinet.
Washington’s decision to retire in 1796 led to the first Presidential election in which people ran as members of political parties; this would change the future of political campaigns. By developing polarized platforms these two factions established the foundation of the current two party system. The structure of these factions can even be seen in contemporary political parties, and it was the networks established by these two early groups that gave rise to the patronage system of today. Early in their existence both parties relied on networks of local supporters. People who agreed with the Democratic-Republicans even formed Democratic-Republican Societies. It was the mission of these societies to promote Republicanism, Democracy, and to fight the expansion of Aristocratic feelings. Although these societies were relatively short lived (1793-1796), their organizational impact can be seen today in the form of the so-called “grassroots” groups that organize local residents in support of the national parties that they are associated with.
These two factions also pioneered another tool used by contemporary politicians, the use of the media as a way of distributing information. Up to the election of 1796 George Washington had run virtually unopposed and had very little need for propaganda, but the parties that ran in 1796 understood what a powerful tool it could be. They saw the way it was able to disseminate information, and mobilize groups to arms during the Revolution. Alexander Hamilton even began a publication, the New York Evening Post, to distribute his ideas; and he would periodically write articles that would appear in the newspaper. While at the same time the Republicans used James Callender to expose an affair that Hamilton was having with a Mrs. Reynolds, and that he was making payments to Reynolds’ husband so that he would not publicly expose the affair. As time has past the media has evolved, causing it to become a driving force behind public opinions. Whether it leans left or right, today’s 24/7 news media is broadcast in real time over the airwaves, Internet, and delivered straight to your cell phone anywhere in the world. This instantaneous information dissemination has had a huge impact on parties, and the way they deliver their opposing messages.
This mutual opposition was temporarily ended when a split within the Federalist Party led to Thomas Jefferson becoming the third President of the United States in the election of 1800, by defeating incumbent John Adams. This election signaled the end of the Federalist Party, and although the party was only shortly lived the function of a two party system would again emerge in the United States after the election of 1824. With the end of the Federalists the Republican Party was left unchallenged; and they were able to dominate American politics, despite the emergence of a new organization known as the Anti-Mason Party, till a dispute over their Presidential candidate in 1824 led the party to split. The split created four different factions each with their own candidate for President. The impact of this spilt is significant to today’s major parties. As both, of the current major political, parties are descendents of this division.
The Democrats and Republicans that we know today have adopted many of the ideas that were addressed by the Federalists and Republicans. By adopting and up dating various ideas from both of these parties the current major political organizations have polarized American politics, and reemphasized the divide within the American culture. The Democrats of today support a union in which the citizens have an active role, like Jefferson’s Republicans; however, they also believe that the Constitution has implied powers contained within it, like the Federalist Party. The current Republican Party, on the other hand, supports a government led by the elite citizens of America, like the Federalists; and in addition they also emphasize stronger State governments, like Jefferson’s Republicans.
Like the first two factions, today’s parties have become huge catch basins, desperately trying to absorb every issue that becomes of interest to any voter. By compressing and ideologically shifting these vast issues then presenting them through the filter of a Party it can look as though the people, of the nation, have grown apart. Political scholars disagree with this though ; and instead they believe that it is the American political parties that have become polarized, not the American people. The effect of this ideological division becomes apparent during events like the election of 2000, which led to the emergence of a rivalry of Red v. Blue.
“Polarization is not new to this country. It is hard
to imagine a society more divided than ours was
in 1800, when pro-British, pro-commerce New
Englanders supported John Adams for the
presidency while pro-French, pro-agriculture
Southerners backed Thomas Jefferson. One sign
of this hostility was the passage of the Alien and
Sedition Acts in 1798; another was that in 1800,
just as in 2000, an extremely close election was
settled by a struggle in one state (New York in
1800, Florida in 2000).”
-Professor James Q Wilson, How Divided Are We?, 2005
Political parties have, from their beginnings, separated people along ideological lines; and while many different factions have formed throughout our nation’s history, our political system itself gives birth to the establishment of two dominant organizations. We must resist their push to polarize in order to maintain an active Democracy, and maintain the ability to rationally debate issues in an open way that is not exclusionary. Americans alone can keep these factions in check, by not allowing them to divide the citizens of our nation. United we have changed the way the world’s people view the function of their governments, and together we can continue to build a stronger and safer America.


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