The First Parties

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Republicans and Democrats

Most people believe we have two major political parties in the United States. In reality, the Republicans and Democrats are each a collection of 51 state parties (the fifty states and the District of Columbia) who join together every four years to contest a national election. Consequently, a Mississippi Democrat may have much more in common with a New York Republican than a New York Democrat. Both parties contain “wings” or factions ranging from liberal (or merely moderate in the case of the Republicans) to conservative; both have their left and right wings of the party.

In the beginning of our Republic, we had two truly national parties with significantly different views and beliefs. Today, our two major parties basically agree on the basic principles of our government, their disagreements being over degree. The first two parties at the very beginning of our untried democracy disagreed strongly over the very nature of our government and indeed over the nature of our democracy itself.

The first parties, formed during the very first presidency in spite of George Washington’s opposition to political parties, were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. These two parties differed in their view of mankind, and therefore of the best form of government.

The Federalists believed that man was inherently bad and learned through education and breeding to be good. Naturally, they believed that only the best people — wealthy, well educated and high born and raised — were good enough to rule. In short, Federalists did not trust the common man and did not feel he should be trusted with political power, such as voting or holding office.

Democratic-Republicans believed that man was born naturally good, and learned to be bad. They felt that even the lowliest man was basically good and, even without a formal education, capable of making decisions because he had common sense. All men, therefore, should have the vote and be able to run for office.

This basic disagreement about the natural goodness of man was the source of all the other issues on which they disagreed. Because they trusted the common man, Democratic-Republicans believed he should vote and hold office. The Federalists, because they did not trust the basic goodness of the common man did not feel he should vote and hold office. The Federalists believed in Democracy, but felt that democracy should be limited to competing elites, not everyone. Voters should choose only between well-born, well educated, and wealthy candidates. Federalists believed the right to vote should be limited to tax payers or land owners, which excluded most of the common men.

Another basic disagreement, growing out of the disagreement over the nature of mankind, was their disagreement over the nature of the country. Federalists believed that the new nation should have an economy based on industry and trade with other nations. The Democratic-Republicans believed that the new nation should have an economy based on agriculture, which with 98% of men earning their living in agriculture, was more favorable to the common man.

Another issue on which the two parties differed was the tariff. A tariff is a tax on imports, and was the main source of revenue for the government until the ratification of the 16th Amendment, authorizing an income tax, in 1913. Federalist favored a protective tariff, a high tariff that would make foreign goods cost more and therefore discourage Americans from buying imported products. This would protect home industries by making their products less expensive and therefore more expensive. This favored the Federalist support of an industry-based economy.

Democratic-Republicans favored a revenue tariff, a much lower tariff designed only to provide revenue for the government but not to affect market prices or purchasing choices. This favored the Democratic-Republican support of an industrial economy, where farmers would be able to purchase both domestic and foreign goods for less money.

The tariff issue became the main difference between the Federalist North (where industry flourished because of the mountains, minerals, waterfalls for power, and plenty of wood to build the factories) and the Democratic-Republican South (where agriculture was the main economic activity). Federalists favored a protective, or high, tariff. This protected their industries. Democratic-Republicans favored a revenue, or low, tariff. This favored farmers who often had to buy foreign goods since they had little industry of their own.

Since an industrial economy required a more centralized economy, Federalists favored a strong federal government, hence the name of their party. A centrally controlled economy favored industry and trade by creating more standardized regulations and policies. Democratic-Republicans favored a much more limited central government, fearing a strong central government would place too much power in the hands of the few, the elite, in the central government. Democratic-Republicans wanted the state governments to have more power, which would prevent a concentration of power in the hands of a few, and place it more in the hands of the common man at a more local level.

Both parties were convinced that their philosophy was the only one that would allow the country to survive and prosper. Each party was afraid that the other would ruin the nation and destroy the only democratic government in the world. This led each party to become more extreme in its views and actions.

In the next article, we will look at some of the practical differences between stands the parties took on the issues of the day, and how some of these issues led to the Civil War.