First U.S. Political Parties

Philosophical and practical differences led leaders of the United States to form the first political parties—the Federalists, who generally opposed the Constitution, and the Republicans, who mostly supported the Constitution—to advance their interests and ideals.

Summary of Event

The Founding Fathers did not anticipate the development of political parties in the United States, and the Constitution made no provision for them. James Madison, in writing Federalist, The (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay)
The Federalist number 10, discussed factions (parties) in detail and considered them to be a disease in the body politic. Madison feared the rise of factions, stating, “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government . . . enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” He clearly believed that parties were sources of turbulence, oppression, and corruption. Madison argued that one of the blessings of the Constitution would be its applicability to the control of factions. He believed that a federal and representative form of government operating in a country of vast size would make it impossible for permanent majorities to form. Ironically, within four years Madison became the congressional leader of one of the two political parties contending for power in the United States. [kw]First U.S. Political Parties (1790’s)
[kw]Parties, First U.S. Political (1790’s)
[kw]Political Parties, First U.S. (1790’s)
[kw]U.S. Political Parties, First (1790’s)
Political parties, U.S.
[g]United States;1790’s: First U.S. Political Parties[2870]
[c]Government and politics;1790’s: First U.S. Political Parties[2870]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1790’s: First U.S. Political Parties[2870]
Adams, John (1735-1826)
Gallatin, Albert
Hamilton, Alexander
Jefferson, Thomas
Jefferson, Thomas;U.S. political parties
[p]Madison, James
Washington, George
Washington, George;U.S. political parties

Parties arose in the United States in response to the economic and foreign policies of the Washington administration. By the end of the debate over [p]Jay’s Treaty (1794)[Jays Treaty] Jay’s Treaty (1794) in 1796, parties were operating. In tracing their origin, it is necessary to begin with the debate over ratification of the Constitution.

Although there are certain exceptions, those who supported ratification of the Constitution generally became Federalist Party Federalists, and those who opposed the Constitution became Republican Party Republicans. The most important exception was Madison himself, the “father of the Constitution” and also a founder of the Republican (now Democratic Party Democratic) Party. Henry, Patrick Patrick Henry, who opposed the Constitution, became a firm Federalist during the Washington administration. For the most part, Washington appointed men who had strongly advocated ratification, while congressional support for Washington’s programs derived from the same source.

The debates over Alexander Hamilton’s economic programs provided the first serious indication that a strong and vocal opposition existed in Congress. The nucleus for a party was to be found in this opposition, composed mainly of men from the South. Madison opposed the funding of the national debt, National debt;United States the assumption by the federal government of the states’ war debts, and the creation of a national bank for two reasons: The legislation favored the North more than it did the South, and, because the power to charter the bank was not one of the enumerated powers of Congress in the Constitution, it was unconstitutional. Madison and others were able to unite their sectional fears with strict construction of the Constitution into a general States’ rights[States rights] states’ rights philosophy that became the ideological arm of the Republican Party. At this stage of development, although factions existed in Congress supporting or opposing Hamilton’s program, parties in a national sense did not exist.

Progress in the organization of parties at the national level and the growth of support at the local level came basically from two sources: implementation and funding of Hamilton’s program, and divisions arising from the outbreak of the French Revolution and the ensuing revolutionary wars.

The ratification of the U.S. Constitution was controversial, splitting Federalists—those in favor of a strong central government and ratification of the Constitution—and Antifederalists—those who preferred a weaker central government and greater state powers. This division laid the groundwork for the first political parties in the United States: Federalists versus Jeffersonian, or Democratic, Republicans. Former Antifederalists provided the base for the Democratic Republicans’ constituency.

First, paying off the national debt placed an enormous burden on the nation, requiring a tax policy that caused complaints. In particular, the excise Taxation;United States tax on Whiskey Rebellion (1794) whiskey sparked a small uprising in western Pennsylvania. Troops were sent in to crush the rioting, men were arrested, and popular indignation drew many into opposition to Washington’s administration. The government was criticized as oppressing the poor to aid the rich.

Second, these domestic tensions were coupled with differences that appeared as the French Revolution emerged in Europe and soon plunged the Continent into war. Americans, while basically neutral, openly expressed preferences for either the French or the British. Many people in the United States immediately experienced a psychological association with the idealism of the French Revolution. Others, more conservative, looked to Great Britain as the last bulwark of stability and order against the turbulence of the democratic masses. Hamilton, for example, was outspoken in his preference for Great Britain and his abhorrence of the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, however, openly sympathized with the French.

The coincidence of his opposition to Hamilton’s economic policies, his attitudes toward the French Revolution, and his sectional residence was striking. New Englanders were generally pro-British and pro-Hamilton. Southerners were generally pro-French and anti-Hamilton. In the middle states, where sectional feeling was less strong, the division was often East-West rather than North-South. Men from western Pennsylvania, such as Albert Gallatin, fell into the anti-administration ranks, as did western New Yorkers, while the seaboard was pro-administration. The divisions were much less clear-cut, however, in the middle states than in the South or in New England.


Jay’s Treaty was the catalyst of party formation. All the elements were present. A momentous issue was necessary for the bonding. The reaction to the treaty was sharp and violent, and widespread opposition appeared at both national and local levels. The debate raged in the year prior to the presidential election, and Washington’s decision to step down provided the opportunity for individuals opposed to his administration to gather forces in an effort to replace those in power. Opposition to the great Washington was dangerous and almost impossible, but John Adams presented no such problems. In 1796, Thomas Jefferson, running as a Republican, contested with Adams for the nation’s first position. Parties were formed but, as the next four years would prove, their permanency was not guaranteed. A two-party system was not yet customary, and there were men in power who preferred the existence of a single party—the party to which they belonged.

Further Reading

  • Aldrich, John H. Why Politics? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. A history of politics and parties in the United States. Chapter 3 focuses on the founding of the first political parties.
  • Banning, Lance. Conceived in Liberty: The Struggle to Define the New Republic, 1789-1793. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Analyzes the dispute among Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson about the future direction of American government that led to the creation of the first political parties.
  • Ben-Atar, Doron, and Barbara B. Oberg, eds. Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Collection of essays about federalism. Part two examines federalism and the origins of American political culture.
  • Brenner, Lenni. The Lesser Evil. Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, 1988. Traces the history of the Democratic Party, the oldest continuous political institution in the world, from its beginnings under Jefferson and Madison during the first Washington administration. The study is not entirely favorable, but it does reveal the party’s enduring strengths.
  • Cunningham, Nobel. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988. The public career of Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Party, is explored and presented in a manner accessible to the general reader.
  • Ellis, Joseph. Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. John Adams, a leading figure of the Federalist Party, is one of the enigmatic figures of U.S. history. This work presents his career in a sympathetic light.
  • Hoadley, John F. Origins of American Political Parties, 1789-1803. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986. An evenhanded, comprehensive review of the turbulent period that saw the emergence of political parties (“factions,” as Madison termed them) and their enduring influence on public life in the United States.
  • Reichley, A. James. The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. New York: Free Press, 1992. A popular review of the party system in the United States with an informative section on its origins during the early years of the republic.

France Supports the American Revolution

Declaration of Independence

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Publication of The Federalist

Washington’s Inauguration

U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified

Whiskey Rebellion

Jay’s Treaty

Washington’s Farewell Address

Alien and Sedition Acts

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