What Political Party Was Most Dominant in Early 1800s?

Thomas Jefferson led the party he founded to two decades of political dominance.
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Nearly twenty years after Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans beat John Adams’ Federalist party in the chaotic presidential election of 1800, Jefferson wrote a letter to a friend in which he said that “the revolution of 1800…was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as the revolution of ’76.” From Jefferson’s point of view, 1800 saw the beginning of the fall of Federalism and the rise of “the suffrage of the people.”

1 States Rights

Political parties had formed quickly in post-Revolution America, leading, in 1796, to the first truly factional American presidential election campaign. The dominant parties were the Federalists of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who believed in a strong federal government, standing army and central bank, and Jefferson’s Republicans (sometimes called Democratic-Republicans). The Republicans believed in an idealized agrarian society in which states and small farmers held sway. They felt that the Federalist stance placed too much power into the hands of a few, well-to-do New Englanders who might even steer the country back on a monarchical course.

2 Decades of Dominance

Jefferson called the rise of the Federalist party – which reached its apex under President John Adams in 1796-1800 -- a “reign of witches.” After their 1800 loss, the slow dissolve of the Federalist party began and the Republicans became the dominant party of the early 1800s. People were buoyed up by the two-term Jefferson presidency, during which the popular Louisiana Purchase coincided with the westerly movement of America in general. In the first decade of the 19th century, the Republican Party saw numerous gains. Thomas Jefferson was succeeded to the presidency by James Madison, who kept Republican ideals alive even as he fought a war against the British in 1812 – a year that saw the rapidly failing Federalists actually nominate a Republican (New York mayor Dewitt Clinton) as their candidate.

3 Good Feelings

The Republican party held such ascendancy in the country that the next eight years under President James Monroe – the last of the original Founders to hold the chief executive office – was known as “the Era of Good Feelings,” in a phrase coined by a Massachusetts newspaper. Monroe had little opposition in the election of 1816 and in 1820 ran essentially unopposed. Despite the financial panic of 1819, Monroe and the Republicans worked to improve the nation’s nascent road infrastructure and fashioned the historic Monroe Doctrine, which warned European countries to refrain from colonizing in the Western Hemisphere.

4 Transformation

This period of Republican party dominance ended as the Republicans lost some of the ideals that had earlier defined them – in part because the party, moving more to the center, had actually absorbed certain Federalist ideas like that of a national bank, protective tariffs and internal improvements undertaken by a central government. The election of 1824 saw a tumultuous landscape of candidates representing regional interests. John Quincy Adams' narrow victory over Andrew Jackson in a race that was ultimately decided in the House of Representatives, saw the Republican party splinter into two wings. The Democratic-Republicans of Andrew Jackson would ultimately morph into today's Democrats, and the National Republicans of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay would soon become the Whig party, which would do battle with the Democrats almost until the Civil War. In the mid-1850s, the Whigs would dissolve over the issue of slavery, with moderate Whigs forming the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.