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The Jeffersonian Republican party, better known as the Democratic-Republican Party, is an ancestor of the modern Democratic Party. It evolved in the 1790s during the early days of George Washington's presidency. Washington had been unanimously chosen president in 1789 and had a broad base of support. Thomas Jefferson served as Washington's Secretary of State, while Alexander Hamilton served as secretary of the treasury. Jefferson and his followers favored states' rights and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. They believed that a powerful central government posed a threat to individual liberties. They viewed the United States more as a confederation of sovereign entities woven together by a common interest. Hamilton and his followers argued that a strong central government was essential to the unity of the new nation. They favored a broad interpretation of the Constitution, which they saw as a document that should evolve with the country as it grew.
Virtually all the leading political figures of the new country, starting with Washington, believed that political parties would polarize citizens and paralyze government. Hamilton and Jefferson agreed with this notion, but by 1793 the two groups that they represented had broken off into separate factions. Hamilton's group became the Federalists, while Jefferson's faction adopted the name "Democratic Republicans."
One early and divisive difference between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans was how they approached Britain and France. The Federalists believed that American foreign policy should favor British interests, while the Democratic-Republicans wanted to strengthen ties with the French. The Democratic-Republicans supported the government that had taken over France after the revolution of 1789.
On economic matters, the Jeffersonians differed strongly with the Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans believed in protecting the interests of the working classes—merchants, farmers, and laborers. They believed that an agrarian economy would best serve these citizens. They saw the establishment of a national Bank of the United States (which Hamilton strongly favored) as a means of usurping power that belonged to individual states, and they also believed that it would be tied too closely to the rich. The Federalists saw industry and manufacturing as the best means of domestic growth and economic self-sufficiency. They favored the existence of protective tariffs on imports (which had Congress had adopted in 1789) both as a means of protecting domestic production and as a source of revenue.
The ratification in 1795 of Jay's Treaty (named after John Jay) sparked anger at the Federalists from a wide array of citizens. The British were still in control of fur-trading posts in the Northwest Territories, and they were accused of encouraging Indians to rise up against the Americans. British ships were seizing American ships and impressing American sailors; they were also prohibiting American ships from engaging in trade with the West Indies. Jay, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was sent to England as an envoy and returned with a treaty that gave the British a deadline for leaving the fur posts. Almost none of the other issues was addressed. A particularly unpopular provision of the treaty called for the U.S. to settle pre-Revolution debts to the British, totaling $2.6 million.
Jeffersonians, and even many Federalists, felt that the treaty had been too generous to the British, although Hamilton saw it as a necessary action because Britain generated tariff revenues through its exports. In 1796, John Adams (a Federalist) was elected the nation's second president with 71 electoral votes, defeating Jefferson by three votes. Jefferson became vice president.
Meanwhile, relations with France were deteriorating rapidly. The notorious "XYZ Affair" in 1796 was typical of what Jeffersonians saw as the weakness of Federalism. The XYZ Affair involved an unsuccessful attempt by a French agent to exact bribes in exchange for France's cooperation in negotiating an international trade treaty. France, angered by the pro-British Jay's Treaty, began to interfere with American ships. An American delegation was sent to France, and the French demanded a loan to the French government as well as a $240,000 bribe.
Although American public opinion hardened against the French, President Adams tried to repair the situation diplomatically, which angered many Federalists who thought that declaring war on France was the best course of action. This split within the Federalist Party helped to ensure Jefferson's victory in the 1800 presidential election. Democratic-Republicans also won a majority of the seats in Congress.
Jefferson's party dominated American politics for the next two decades. One reason was that the Jeffersonians proved themselves to be willing to adapt to change. An example was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. As a Republican, Jefferson initially felt that the president did not have the power to make such a large purchase (828,000 square miles). He recognized, however, that the price of $15 million (about three cents per acre) was a significant bargain, and that the purchase would double the size of the U.S. and also eliminate the danger of having an imperialist French colony on its border. He went against his partisan instinct and made what he believed was the right decision for the country.
During the War of 1812, Jefferson's successor, James Madison, battled the British overseas and the Federalists at home. Many Federalists, especially in the New England states, felt that the war would irreparably damage their ability to trade by sea with Europe. This anti-war stance proved unpopular, however, since the war ended in what most Americans perceived as a victory over Great Britain. Thus the Federalists were soundly defeated in the 1816 presidential election. The new president, James Monroe, presided over a time of relative political calm during which many Federalists came to support the Republicans. This period was known as the "Era of Good Feeling," and although Monroe enjoyed wide support during his two terms in office, various factions were developing within his own party.
In the election of 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected president, narrowly defeating War of 1812 military hero Andrew Jackson. Although both were Democratic-Republicans, Adams's political philosophy was closer to that of the Federalists, and during his term in office the party split into two main factions. When Jackson ran for president in 1828, he ran as a Democrat—and won handily. Adams's wing of the party became known as the National Republicans, many of whom later formed the Whig Party.
Bell, Rudolph M., 1973. Party and Faction in American Politics: The House of Representatives 1789–1801. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Cunningham, Noble E., 1963. The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power: Party Operations, 1801–1809. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press.