The two main political parties in early America, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, fought many ideological and political battles from 1790 to 1810. Conflicts between these two parties grew out of their opposing ideologies – the Democratic-Republicans supported states’ rights and a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, whereas the Federalists favored a strong central government and a broader interpretation of the Constitution.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, provided a point of contention between the more Pro-French Democratic-Republican Party and the British-favoring Federalist Party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the leader of the Democratic-Republican opposition party in the 1790s and he supported the republican ideals of the French Revolution. Members of the Federalist Party, led by President John Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, were critical of the French Revolution and wanted to preserve strong commercial ties with the British. Although the Federalists had warned that Jefferson’s rise to the presidency would bring the political radicalism of the French Revolution to the United States, Jefferson devoted himself to giving due consideration to and winning over political moderates.
Alien and Sedition Acts
Federalist President John Adams, concerned about the existence of French enemies in the country, passed a series of laws in 1798 to protect the United States from foreign spies. Some of the laws, however, were aimed to weaken political opposition to the Federalists in power. The Sedition Act, for instance, made it illegal to speak out against the Federalists. The Democratic Republican minority in Congress argued that this act violated the First Amendment protections of free speech.
Bank of the United States
The Democratic Republicans strongly opposed the Federalists’ plan to begin the Bank of the United States because they thought the institution would serve the interests of the very wealthy and would take power that belonged to the individual states. Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton supported a national bank as a way to promote growth in the manufacturing sector which would lead to the self-sufficiency of the United States. The First Bank of the United States was chartered for a 20-year term in 1791.
Election of 1800
The presidential election of 1800 was a bitterly fought contest between the incumbent Federalist President John Adams and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Historian Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history at Yale University, described the partisanship in the election as a battle between northerners and southerners. “Many assumed that they were engaged in a fight to the death that would destroy the Union,” Freeman said. Adams did not even attend Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, choosing instead to head north on a pubic horse-drawn coach to Massachusetts.
- Department of State Office of the Historian: The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799
- Constitutional Rights Foundation: The Alien and Sedition Acts: Defining American Freedom
- Law Library: American Law and Legal Information: Democratic-Republican Party
- Lehrman Institute: The Election of 1800-1801
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