Two Main Political Parties in America: Republican and Democratic
Through a series of short essays we hope to make them as lively as can be — but allowing so many of us the opportunity to learn what it is to be a Democrat or a Republican.
Congressman James Madison started the party among Representatives in Philadelphia (the national capital) as the Republican party; then he, Jefferson, and others reached out to include state and local leaders around the country, especially New York and the South. The precise date of founding is disputed, but 1791 is a reasonable estimate; some time by 1792 is certain. The new party set up newspapers that made withering critiques of Hamiltonianism, extolled the yeomen farmer, argued for strict construction of the Constitution, favored the French Revolution, strongly opposed Great Britain, and called for stronger state governments than the Federalist Party was proposing.
It is preferred that one have a reading of the “Federalist Party” for a number of reasons. One, it is the forerunner of the Democrat Party. Two, even though it was named the Federalist Party, the Republican Party leaders and subsequent groups were not into what the Federalist’s in saying they wanted stronger state governments when in all debate it was the Republican Party that started the Federalist Papers. Three, insofar as in order to get the Constitution ratified each state was compelled to write its own Constitution first, and the tenth amendment was born guaranteeing states rights.
The elections of 1792 were the first ones to be contested on anything resembling a partisan basis. In most states the congressional elections were recognized, as Jefferson strategist John Beckley put it, as a “struggle between the Treasury department and the republican interest.” In New York, the candidates for governor were John Jay, a Federalist, and incumbent George Clinton, who was allied with Jefferson and the Republicans. Four states’ electors voted for Clinton and one (Kentucky) for Jefferson for Vice President in opposition to incumbent John Adams as well as casting their votes for President Washington. (Before 1804 electors cast two votes together without differentiation as to which office was to be filled by which candidate.)
In the 1796 election, the party made its first bid for the presidency with Jefferson as its presidential candidate and Aaron Burr as its vice presidential candidate. Jefferson came in second in the electoral college (at the time, its balloting could not distinguish between president and vice president) and became vice president. He would become a consistent and strong opponent of the policies of the John Adams administration. Jefferson and Madison were deeply upset by the unconstitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; they secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which called on state legislatures to nullify unconstitutional laws. The other states, however, did not follow suit and several rejected the notion that states could nullify federal law.
The Republican critique of federalism became wrapped in the slogan of “Principles of 1798”, which became the hallmark of the party. The most important of these principles were states’ rights, opposition to a strong national government, distrust of the federal courts, and opposition to the navy and the national bank. The party saw itself as a champion of republicanism and denounced the Federalists as supporters of monarchy and aristocracy.
The party itself originally coalesced around Jefferson, who diligently maintained extensive correspondence with like-minded Republican leaders throughout the country. Washington frequently decried the growing sense of “party” emerging from the internal battles among Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams and others in his administration.
As warfare in Europe increased, the two factions increasingly made foreign policy the central political issue of the day. The Republicans wanted to maintain the 1777 alliance with France, which had overthrown the monarchy and aristocracy and become a republic. Even though Britain was by far America’s leading trading partner, Republicans feared that increased trade would undermine republicanism. The Republicans distrusted Hamilton’s national bank and rejected his premise that a national debt was good for the country; Republicans said they were both forms of corruption. They strongly distrusted the elitism of Hamilton’s circle, denouncing it as “aristocratic”; and they called for states’ rights lest the Federalists centralize ever more power in the national governments.