Federalist vs. Republican

Joseph Ellis pointed out that there were in fact two “founding moments” in our nation’s history, one in 1776, and the other in 1787-1788. “The first founding declared American independence; the second, American nationhood.”[1] The political battles between the Federalists and the Republicans during the 1790s was a lively debate about which of these two founding moments was more true to American revolutionary ideals.

In the years immediately following the Treaty of Paris, many came to believe that the Articles of Confederation did not provide for a central authority robust enough to hold the fledgling nation together. Without a federal government with the strength to deal effectively with foreign powers in commercial, diplomatic, and military spheres, some feared that the newly-freed colonies would fall back into the orbit of a European monarchy, while others believed that sectional rivalries would divide the states into several regional confederacies.[2] James Madison was more concerned with “protecting the propertied class from the democratic excesses of the American Revolution,” and he set out to establish a stronger national compact with which to do so.[3] Treading carefully between radical proponents of increased national authority and strong state sovereignty, Madison crafted a “’republican remedy’ against radical change.”[4] He believed that the system of checks and balances built into the Constitution would be an effective bulwark against hasty and ill-conceived populist policies, “while ‘at the same time…the spirit and the form of popular government’ could be preserved.”[5] In other words, Madison convinced his fellow delegates that his plan would fool the people into believing that they had more say in their government than they actually had, while simultaneously ensuring that “those who held national office were likely to be men of ‘attractive merit and the most diffuse and established characters.’”[6]

The Federalists were able to gain and maintain control of the government in the 1790s because of two men: George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton consistently displayed an uncanny ability to outmaneuver his political opponents and sway public opinion, and he was able to parlay his personal connections with Washington into policy changes in the new federal government. Washington’s enormous prestige ensured that when he embraced Federalist policies—even when he did not officially embrace the nascent “party” itself—it became that much more difficult for the growing opposition to resist. Jefferson and Madison pushed back against these policies, and wished to see more power devolve to the states. The Republicans, as the opposition party came to be known, eventually triumphed with Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800. This victory was profound for all Americans, as it was the first time in the nation’s short history that power had peacefully transferred from one faction to its opposition.


[1] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 9.

[2] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 274.

[3] Ibid., 273.

[4] Ibid., 292.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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