Federalists and Republican-Democrats Compared

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In the early years of the Republic, factionalism over Constitutional interpretation divided Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson resulting in the birth of parties.

When George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797 after two terms as U.S. president, he left a political last will known as his Farewell Address. Washington warned against party factionalism which he believed led to “frightful despotism.” By this time, however, two distinct factions had already formed. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, had a radically different interpretation of the Constitution than Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans or Republican-Democrats. Both early parties also diverged on their future vision for the new Republic.

Interpreting the New Constitution

Federalists followed an interpretation based on loose construction. In essence, they rejected the literalist approach held by the Republicans*, strict construction. The best illustration of this is seen in the dispute over the creation of the Bank of the United States. No clause in the Constitution authorized Congress to charter a national bank.

Over the protests of Jefferson and his fellow Republicans, Hamilton developed the Constitutional doctrine of implied powers. He based his reasoning on the final clause in Section 8 or Article I of the Constitution: Congress had the power to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing powers…”

These “foregoing powers” included authorization to coin money, raise taxes, and borrow money. Hamilton concluded that the national bank, based on the “necessary and proper” clause, was a logical extension of Congressional direct powers. In 1819, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall would reread Hamilton’s logical arguments in deciding the landmark case, McCulloch v. Maryland, as a basis for holding the national bank constitutional.

Differing Visions of the Future United States

Thomas Jefferson envisioned an agricultural society, dominated by a pastoral mission closely tied to the land. Jefferson even extended this vision to Native American cultures, believing that the Indian problem would be resolved if Native Americans turned to agriculture. Jefferson himself owned a large Virginia plantation with 600 slaves.

Hamilton saw the future of America in terms of manufacturing and industrialization. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton was more familiar with the British model, already in the throes of early industrialization which was promoting national prosperity through growing consumerism. Hamilton’s vision reflected the needs of the fledgling industries of the Northeast, infant enterprises that pointed to future prosperity and national growth.

The Role of the Central Government in Relation to the States

Federalists believed in a strong central government. They based their view on the conviction that the Constitution represented the supreme law of the land and represented the will and consent of the people. Republicans disputed this interpretation, placing greater emphasis on the individual states. According to their interpretation, the Constitution represented an agreement or contract between sovereign states and existed in a subordinate role to states’ rights.

As confrontation between the United States and France appeared imminent during the John Adams’ administration, Federalists in the Congress increased defense spending and enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, measures deplored by Republicans. Jefferson believed that the Federalists were bending the Constitution to suit their own political future at the expense of the common man.

Demise of the Federalists

The proverbial death knell of the Federalists occurred when in 1800 Jefferson became president and the Federalists lost control of Congress. By the end of the War of 1812, Federalists had ceased to exist as a party, although their Constitutional interpretations would be carried on by subsequent smaller parties and ultimately the Whig Party.

Sources:

  1. Samuel H. Beer, To Make A Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993)
  2. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
  3. United States Constitution

* Jefferson’s “Republicans” should not be confused with today’s Republican Party, which was formed in the early 1850s.