The “First Party System” references the first alignment of political parties in the United States, specifically the time period of the Federalists vs the Democratic-Republicans (formerly the Anti-Federalists) through the election of 1824. Essentially, politicians were taking sides over the question, “What should the government be allowed to do?” So not that different from today, actually! The Federalists had some important early wins, but fell apart in the 1800s. By 1824, they had no national presence. The Democratic-Republicans had four candidates to choose from that year, which was an absolute shit-show! Andrew Jackson’s hurt feelings motivated him to create his own party (the Democrats!) for 1828, ushering in the aptly named “Second Party System.”
Since we’re moving into this second political phase in the Election Tuesdays series, I wanted to pause and recap some of the things I learned in the first two months of this project! Hopefully, you learned something, too!
The Founding Fathers Disagreed A Lot!
A lot of modern politicians reference the founding fathers’ intentions as a guide for how the government should be run. It really needs to be understood, though, that they disagreed just as much as we do today! For starters, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution itself was hugely controversial. Even though the Articles of Confederations were too weak, many people (like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) believed it was dangerous to give the federal government more power. Politicians like George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton believed the government needed that power to make America successful. These two factions hated each other just as much as Democrats and Republicans do today. Hamilton and Jefferson were known to argue in Washington’s cabinet. Hamilton’s election meddling even landed him in a fatal duel against Arron Burr (more on that later). Basically, to say that the founders had any unified intentions is a fallacy.
Washington Was Basically A Federalist
Despite their implosion in the 1800s, the Federalist party was the dominating force in the very early years of our Constitutional government. Of course, Alexander Hamilton is remembered as the brains behind it all, but he had George Washington to thank. Washington is known for being unaffiliated with any political party. He famously spoke against them at his farewell address. Looking back, it’s valuable for everyone that the first president was nonpartisan. But I think that’s a little disingenuous. Looking at his actual views, Washington was on the side of the Federalists. The first sign of this is that he strongly supported the Constitution, which drew the first dividing line between the founders. And again, the reason Hamilton’s plans were realized was solely because Washington believed in them. Everyone knows that Hamilton and Jefferson argued bitterly against each other in Washington’s cabinet. But it was Hamilton, time and time again, that Washington listened to. He also used his power to personally lead a militia to squash the Whiskey Rebellion. This was a huge step in federal power. Imagine the president coming to your town WITH THE ARMY to settle unrest. While Washington may not have officially joined the Federalist party, he stood with them ideologically.
The Revolution of 1800 Changed Everything
Three presidential elections in, and it didn’t seem like the Democratic-Republicans would be able to stop the Federalists’ growth of federal power. But then, the election of 1800 came. John Adams’ term had been a relative failure. He mishandled US relations with Europe, and when people criticized him, he passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Even those in his own party (namely Hamilton) disliked him. In 1800, Jefferson took this opportunity to call a rematch of the election four years prior. This time, Jefferson won. The Federalists finally had a loss. Even worse, Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr a few years later. After that, the Federalists were done for. With their greatest leaders defeated, they spent the next two decades either nominating weak candidates, split tickets, or no candidates at all. The Democratic-Republicans ran three two-term presidents in a row. They became so dominant, that they started absorbing some Federalists ideas, themselves. By 1824, ideological splits all happened within the Democratic-Republican party. Today, both modern parties can trace their lineage back to Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans.
Everyone Said They Didn’t Like Slavery, But Didn’t Do Anything About It
The Adams family (presidents #2 and #6) were the only presidents that vocally opposed slavery before the Civil War. It is well-known today that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. The thing is, they knew it was wrong and they knew the language of the Declaration of Independence was hypocritical. They let it slide though, because they believed the next generation would also see it as wrong, and the institution would die out. This was obviously easier for them than making the tough decision of ending slavery during their lifetime. But despite a few efforts, like Jefferson banning the international slave trade, things got worse. By the time Missouri applied for statehood in 1820, the situation was already a powder keg.
Alexander Hamilton Was A Sneaky Bastard
This dude was always making sketchy deals. Some examples… 1) He agreed to let Jefferson move the nation’s new capital to the Virginia border to gain support for his aggressive financial policies as Secretary of Treasury. 2) He tried to flip Federalist votes in the 1796 election from John Adams to his preferred nominee, Thomas Pinckney, which actually ended up making Thomas Jefferson the vice president. 3) He tricked Adams into giving him control of the provisional army in the military build-up during the Quasi-War with France. Washington was officially named commander, but he was too old to care anymore, making Hamilton the acting decision-maker. 4) He spoke against Adams in the 1800 election, then backed Jefferson over Aaron Burr in the run-off, because he felt Jefferson was more principled, even though he hated both. 5). He AGAIN prevented Burr from winning an election by attacking him in the press during the New York governor’s race. This time, the decision was fatal, leading to their fateful duel.
Jefferson Is Probably The Most “American Values” Founder
Whether they truly follow these beliefs or not, Thomas Jefferson is really the founding father that modern-day conservatives should look up to. He supported strict Constitutional interpretation and essentially wanted the government to stay out of people’s way so they could focus on farming. If the government was to have power, it should belong to the states. One main difference, though, is that Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans also opposed growing the military, up until the War of 1812. All that being said, Jefferson didn’t actually follow these values perfectly as president. His biggest blind-spot was the Louisiana Purchase. That was surprisingly controversial because it wasn’t clear that the federal government could make that deal! But Jefferson made some assumptions and did it anyways.
The 12th Amendment Acknowledged The Inevitability Of Political Parties
Prior to the 12th Amendment, all presidential and vice presidential candidates ran on the same ballot. The winner became president, and the second place finisher became vice president. Ideally, the two best candidates out of the group would earn the most votes. But, reality isn’t so simple. Factions, or parties, began to form almost immediately. After Washington left office, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had already started picking party tickets. This led to confusion in 1796, when Jefferson got enough electors to become Adams’ VP despite being on opposite sides; and again in 1800, when Jefferson and Burr tied and went to a run-off election, with Jefferson later shunning Burr from his administration for campaigning against him. The 12th Amendment cleaned up the electoral process, but it also made it clear that America was giving up on the “best two men win” idea. Political parties were here to stay.
The French Revolution Affected The US Too
I never really thought about the French Revolution’s effect on the US. We had just come off our own Revolution, who had time for another? Well, Thomas Jefferson did! Jefferson was Minister to France during the government of the Articles of Confederation. There, he formed a lot of the values that he carried with him as Washington’s Secretary of State, and later, the president. Jefferson and the Republicans were actually criticized as being French-loving radicals by the Federalists. The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars also caused turmoil between France and Britain, which spilled over to international trading routes. Tensions on the seas caused the US’s Quasi-War with France, and later, the War of 1812.
The Debt Crisis Gave The Federal Government An Excuse To Assert Its Power
The first few decades of our new nation, there were three major rebellions caused by the mounting debt crisis after the Revolution. The first was Shays’ Rebellion, when poor veteran farmers protested aggressive tax collectors in Massachusetts. This highlighted the need for a new government that could effectively collect taxes. The answer? The Constitution! Next was the Whiskey Rebellion, a violent reaction to Hamilton’s Whiskey Tax in western Pennsylvania. Small, rural areas were disproportionately affected by the tax, but the rebellion was broken up when George Washington personally led a militia to the region. Washington made it known that the new government was to be taken seriously. Lastly, Fries’ Rebellion was fought against Adams’ Direct Tax on property. Again, the rebel group in Pennsylvania dispersed after the militia came to town. Luckily for John Fries, Adams decided not to apply the full force of the Sedition Acts and eventually pardoned him. While these rebellions may seem like history class terms to us now, they actually played pivotal roles in determining the legitimacy of the new nation. If the federal government hadn’t responded the way it had, the states would likely have not stayed so united.
People Were Pretty Delusional About Winning The War Of 1812
Unlike most of America’s wars, the War of 1812 didn’t start with a major attack or battle. Tensions slowly built up until the government felt like it had to act. Most people weren’t very enthusiastic about going into the war. The main causes were impressment of American sailors and the stoking of conflict with Native Americans by the British. But hey, there was a chance the US could take Canada, which would have been pretty cool. But Britain’s aggression just wasn’t necessary after Napoleon had been defeated in Europe. The war ended without any real winners or losers (though it was ultimately bad for the Native Americans). No one claimed any new territory. But for some reason, Americans loved that they were sort of 2-0 against Britain. This was mostly because of Andrew Jackson’s big win in New Orleans (which actually occurred after the war-ending treaty had been signed). The swell of patriotism that followed allowed James Monroe to sweep the next election and led to the Era of Good Feelings.