Force of Public Opinion
The comic-opera quality of this debate should not obscure the participants’ serious concern about setting government policy. The members of the first Congress could not take the survival of republican form of government for granted. All of them, of course, wanted to secure the Revolution. The recently ratified Constitution transferred sovereignty from the states to the people, a bold and unprecedented decision that many Americans would generate chronic instability.
Translating constitutional abstractions into practical legislation would under the most favorable conditions would have been difficult. But these were especially trying times. On what seemed like the other side of the world Great Britain and France, rivals in a century of war, put nearly unbearable pressures on the leaders of the new republic and in the process, made a foreign policy a bitterly divisive issue.
Although no one welcomed them, political parties gradually took shape during this period. Neither the Jeffersonian nor the Federalists – as the two major groups were called – doubted that the United States would one day become a great commercial power.
They differed however, on how best to manage the transition from an agrarian household economy to an international system of trade and industry. The Federalists encouraged rapid integration of the United States into the world economy, but however enthusiastic they were about capitalism, they did not trust the people or local government to do the job effectively. The Federalists favored a modern economy, required strong national institutions that would be desired by a social elite who understood the financial challenge and who would work in the best interests of the people.