Federalist Party

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Federalist Party

The Federalist Party was an American political party during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It originated in the loosely affiliated groups advocating the creation of a stronger national government after 1781 and culminated with the laws and policies established by Federalist lawmakers from 1789 to 1801. These laws and policies laid the foundation for a strong central government in the United States, thereby securing the transition from the provisional national government established during the Revolutionary War and continuing under the Articles of Confederation to the intricate system of checks and balances contemplated for the three branches of government in the U.S. Constitution.

The Federalist party's early leaders included Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and George Washington. These men provided much of the impetus and organization behind the movement to draft and ratify the federal Constitution. Their support came from the established elites of old wealth in the commercial cities and in the less rapidly developing rural regions.

Even before the Articles of Confederation were ratified by the original 13 states in 1781, prominent Americans were criticizing the document for having failed to create a strong federal government. In 1783, George Washington, as commander in chief of the army, sent a circular to state governors discussing the need to add tone to our federal government. Three years later Washington and his political allies were referring to those who opposed strengthening the power of the central government under the Articles of Confederation as antifederal.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, those favoring a stronger central government drafted a Constitution that greatly increased the powers of Congress and the executive. Debate over ratification of the Constitution sharpened the lines separating those who called themselves federalists and those who called themselves antifederalists. Much of this debate was formalized in The Federalist, later called The Federalist Papers.

Originally written as 85 tracts under the name Publius, the pro-Federalist essays were published in New York City newspapers between October 27, 1787, and May 28, 1788. Each essay was written to persuade the people of New York to elect delegates who would ratify the federal Constitution in the forthcoming state convention. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were the principal authors, while John Jay wrote five essays. The Federalist Papers are today considered America's most important political treatise and the most authoritative source for understanding the Original Intent of the Founding Fathers.

After the Constitution was ratified, the Federalist party dominated the national government until 1801. The Federalists believed that the Constitution should be loosely interpreted to build up federal power. They were generally pro-British, favored the interests of commerce and manufacturing over agriculture, and wanted the new government to be developed on a sound financial basis. Accordingly, Secretary of Treasury Hamilton proposed tax increases and the establishment of a national bank.

During their 12-year reign, the Federalist party settled the problems of the revolutionary debt, sought closer relations with Great Britain in Jay's Treaty of 1794, and tried to silence their domestic critics with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These repressive laws cost the Federalist party much of its support, including that of Madison, who with Thomas Jefferson organized the Democratic-Republican Party.

The Democratic-Republicans, also known as just the Republicans, opposed the policies and laws of the Federalist party at every turn. Republicans were generally pro-French and pro-agriculture. They believed that the Constitution should be strictly interpreted, favored strong, independent states at the expense of the federal government, and opposed the creation of a national bank.

The Federalist party lost control of the national government when Jefferson became president in 1801. The Federalists continued to diminish in popularity for the next 20 years. The party's last significant political victory came in the Impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court and staunch Federalist, who had been impeached by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives for what they called judicial misconduct. However, in his trial before the Senate, Chase and his attorney convinced enough Senators that the impeachment charges boiled down to little more than partisan politics and that convicting Chase would imperil the independence of the federal judiciary. Chase was thus acquitted on all eight Articles of Impeachment.

The Federalist party ceased to exist as a national organization after the election of 1816, in which Republican James Monroe defeated Federalist Rufus King. However, the party remained influential in a number of states until it disappeared completely during the 1820s. Most Federalists, such as Daniel Webster, joined the National Republican Party in the 1820s and later the Whig Party in the 1830s.

Further readings

Boyer, Paul S. 2001. Oxford Companion to United States History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hall, Kermit L. 1992. Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lenner, Andrew. 1996."A Tale of Two Constitutions: Nationalism in the Federalist Era." American Journal of Legal History 40 (January): 72-105.

Lynch, Joseph M. 2000 "The Federalists and The Federalist: A Forgotten History." Seton Hall Law Review 31 (winter): 18-29.


Republican Party; Whig Party.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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