What Led to the Creation of the Nation's First Political Parties?
Political factions have been a longstanding tradition of the United States political system. In fact, a rivalry between two competing factions – the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists – formed even before the U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1789. The split would eventually lead to the creation of two distinct political parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists supported a strong, centralized federal government, while the Anti-Federalists -- who opposed the ratification of the Constitution -- believed a concentration of federal power could impede individual and states rights. The election of 1796 was the first election in which political candidates ran for office as members of political parties.
1 Ratification of the U.S. Constitution
Although the U.S. Constitution was approved by a majority of Constitutional Convention delegates in 1787, it would have to undergo public scrutiny and state ratification before becoming law. Those known as the Anti-Federalists -- led by New York Governor George Clinton, Patrick Henry and James Monroe -- believed the law granted an excess of power to the federal government at the expense of the states, and only represented the propertied classes. Opponents also seriously objected to the convention’s failure to adopt a bill of rights. The Federalists -- led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay -- ultimately conceded that a bill of rights was necessary and promised to adopt such a list upon the establishment of the new government. The process was slow, but the Federalists achieved their goal: the document was ratified by 11 states (it required the approval of three-quarters of the 13 states to become law). The U.S. Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789.
2 Election of 1796
The 1796 presidential election was the first in which voters expressed their political support through allegiance to a competitive political party. American voters flocked toward political candidates they believed best represented their interests, leading to the creation of the first opposition party: the Democratic-Republicans. Although President George Washington reportedly denounced political parties as a threat to the Republic, his vice president John Adams became the first Federalist presidential candidate in 1796. His opponent, Thomas Jefferson, ran as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party. Adams narrowly won the presidency, while Jefferson became his second-in-command and successor.
3 Federalist Party
Federalism began after Hamilton, Jay and Madison wrote a collection of 85 essays, now known as the ''Federalist Papers,'' in defense of the newly-penned Constitution. The faction, largely influenced by Hamilton, advocated a formidable central government and convinced the Washington administration to create tax laws and establish a national bank. The faction became an organized political party by 1795, and by 1796 elected its first – and only – presidential candidate. The Federalist administration’s crackdown on free speech under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and its foreign policy allegiance to Britain over France, led to a major decline in Federalist popularity. Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801 and won a landslide reelection in 1804, ending Federalist dominance in national politics.
4 Democratic-Republican Party
The Democratic-Republican Party, also known as the Republican Party, was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the early 1790s. The Party favored states’ rights, the rights of yeoman farmers and planters over bankers and industrialists, and equated the centralized power pushed by Federalists with a monarchical government. The Party dominated Congress and most state governments outside of New England until the 1820s. However, the party split during the 1824 presidential election, when one faction supported Andrew Jackson and another leaned toward John Quincy Adams. The Jacksonian Republicans eventually became the Democratic Party, while the Adams faction – then known as National Republicans – evolved into the Whig Party.