American politics just before and after the turn of the 19th century was dominated by two major parties, the Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalist Party began in 1787, when Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers, a series of essays that argued that a strong central government and a federal constitution were essential to the orderly workings of the new United States of America.

Strong Central Government

Federalists -- whose numbers also included John Adams -- were able to influence George Washington during his two administrations to pass tax laws, raise an army and create a central bank, all of which are integral to federal power. In this they were opposed by the Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, who felt that the Federalists invested too much power in the hands of a central government and not enough with the states. The Republicans felt, too, that Federalist policies favored New England mercantile interests over those of other parts of the country.

The Bitter Election of 1800

Despite these disputes, Federalist policies held sway through the two Washington administrations and the presidency of John Adams, who was elected in 1796. The Federalists saw their decline begin in 1800, when, after a close, bitter election battle with the Republicans, Thomas Jefferson was elected president. One of the reasons for his election was the Federalists’ support of the Alien and Sedition Act, which allowed a person to be thrown into jail simply for criticizing the president, a law that ran counter to the way most Americans thought about free speech. The Federalists were also sympathetic to Great Britain at a time when the sympathies of most Americans lay with France, after that country’s revolution and wars of independence.

Fortunes Rising

After the popular Louisiana Purchase and Thomas Jefferson’s re-election victory in 1804 -- which saw even Massachusetts cast its vote for the Republicans -- the Federalists continued to lose power. Their fortunes rose briefly in 1808, when Jefferson’s Embargo Act, designed to hurt the British by keeping their goods out of America, in fact hurt both Federalist New England merchants and Republican farmers. But Republican James Madison -- who had broken with Federalism during Washington's first term over what he saw as its favoritism toward commerce at the expense of agrarianism -- was elected anyway. The Federalists began to go into their terminal decline. There were a number of reasons for this. One was their long association as the party that favored Great Britain, not a popular stance as the impressment of American sailors would soon lead to the war of 1812.

Decline

More profoundly, the Federalists had been left behind by the westerly, democratizing movement of the United States. The party had allowed itself to become too narrowly defined as a political group that favored an elite in New England. It’s no coincidence that, just as the popular vote became widespread in 1828, the populist Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, for president. The Federalist Party was now moribund, but the ideas it held dear -- strong central government, national bank, standing army -- are with us to this day. And the argument about federal authority versus states' rights, which informed the early battles between the Federalist and Republican parties, continues as well.