Federalist Party

Only loosely meeting the definition of an organized political party during its lifetime, the Federalist Party was the product of a movement largely in favor of expanding the role of the federal government in the early American republic. Coming out of George Washington’s administration, the nascent party was dominated by members of his cabinet, especially Alexander Hamilton, in opposition to the developing Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. The particular issue that sparked the division was Hamilton’s fiscal policy, especially his favoring of a National Bank. The ongoing wars in Europe caused by the French Revolution further increased friction, as the Federalists generally favored supporting Britain while the Jeffersonians generally favored France. Although these political factions were clearly visible by 1796 and influenced the election of John Adams, the parties coalesced during his administration, resulting in the highly contested 1800 election that placed Thomas Jefferson in the presidency. The Federalists never again claimed the office, although they remained an opposition party through the Jefferson and Madison administrations, before largely disappearing during James Monroe’s presidency, leading to the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” Part of the reason for the Federalists’ ultimate failure was division within the party between Hamilton’s “high Federalists” and the less organized “low Federalists,” loosely organized around Adams. The party’s final collapse came during the War of 1812. Because the Federalists vocally opposed the war, Jeffersonians were able to characterize them as traitors and Anglophiles, a trend which the Federalists exacerbated by holding the Hartford Convention, in which they voiced their opposition to the war and some members advocated New England’s secession from the Union. Former Federalists eventually either joined the National Republican Party that formed out of the Jeffersonians or later returned to politics as Whigs.

Mark Tushnet, “Federalism,” The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. by Paul S. Boyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 258; Norman Risjord, “Federalist Party,” The Oxford Companion to United States History, 259; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).