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The Federalist Era was a time period in American history from roughly 1789-1801 when the Federalist Party was dominant in American politics. This period saw the adoption of the United States Constitution and the expansion of the federal government. In addition, the era saw the growth of a strong nationalistic government under the control of the Federalist Party. Among the most important events of this time period were the foreign entanglements between France and England, the assertion of a strong, centralized federal government, and creation of political parties.


Federalist Era begins

The United States Constitution was adopted and ratified in 1789 by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later ratified by conventions in each state. The supporters of ratification of the Constitution were called Federalists. The immediate problem faced by the Federalists was not simply one of acceptance of the Constitution but the more fundamental concern of legitimacy for the government of the new republic.[1] With this concept in mind, the newly revamped national government needed to act with the idea that every act was being carried out for the first time and would therefore have great significance and be viewed along the lines of the symbolic as well as practical implications. The first elections to the new United States Congress would return heavy Federalist majorities. This commanding lead over the Anti-Federalist opposition party would allow the Federalists to become the dominant party in the national government.[2]

Federalists v. Anti-Federalists

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792.

In general, the Federalists were those who supported the ratification of the Constitution and the creation of a stronger centralized government. The Federalist movement was motivated by the idea that the national government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak and that a new, stronger form of government must replace it. The founder of this party was Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury during his first term as President. Hamilton's network of supporters grew into what would become the Federalist Party. The members of this party wanted a fiscally sound and nationalistic government. Hamilton's proposal toward this goal of financial stability was to assume the state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, thus creating a national debt, and as a means of paying off this debt, the creation of the First Bank of the United States. The main goal of the assumption of state debts was to avoid unnecessary and potentially destructive competition between state and federal governments, while at the same time allowing the federal government the opportunity for revenue for the national treasury.[3] A major emphasis of most of Hamilton's policies and indeed the general outlook for the Federalist Party was that the federal government was to dominate over the state governments. The vital importance placed on a strong centralized government placed the Federalists at odds with the opposition movement collectively known as the Anti-Federalists.

The first Anti-Federalist movement was essentially those who were for the constitution but must have a Bill of Rights. This movement was composed largely of those who objected to the new powerful central government, the loss of prestige for the states, and those who saw the Constitution as a threat to personal liberties. The Anti-Federalists claimed the sovereignty of the states had been invaded on behalf of a consolidated government which now had tremendous executive powers. These powers, they further argued, had come about as a result of illegally circumventing the Articles of Confederation, of which the unanimous consent of the state governments was needed to amend.[4] During the ratification process the Anti-Federalists presented a significant opposition in all but three states. The major stumbling block for the Anti-Federalists, according to Elkins and McKitrick's The Age of Federalism was that the supporters of the Constitution had been more deeply committed, had cared more, and had outmaneuvered the less energetic opposition. Despite this loss the Anti-Federalists remained a significant part of American political life. A major figure in the opposition who would later challenge the Federalist Party was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's emphasis on states' rights put him in direct opposition to the concept of a dominant centralized federal government that had significant power over the state governments.

Rise of political parties

Federalists during the ratification period had been unified around the Constitution and support for its form of government. Following the acceptance of the Constitution, the initial Federalist movement faded briefly only to be taken up by a second movement centered upon the support for Alexander Hamilton's policies of a strong nationalist government, loose construction of the Constitution, and mercantile economic policies. The support around these policies eventually established the first official political party in the United States as the Federalist Party. The Party reached its political apex with the election of the strongly Federalist President John Adams. However the defeat of Adams in the election of 1800 and the death of Hamilton led to the decline of the Federalist Party from which it did not recover. While there were still Federalists after 1800, the party never again enjoyed the power and influence it had held earlier. One of the Federalists Era's greates accomplishments was that republican government survived and took root in the United States.

James Madison

Republicans, or the Democratic-Republican Party, was founded in 1792 by Jefferson and James Madison. The party was created in order to oppose the policies of Hamilton and the Federalist Party. Foreign policy issues were central; the party opposed the Jay Treaty of 1794 with Great Britain (then at war with France) and supported good relations with France before 1801. In great contrast to the Federalists the Republican supported a strict construction interpretation of the Constitution, and denounced many of Hamilton's proposals (especially the national bank) as unconstitutional. The party promoted states' rights and the primacy of the yeoman farmer over bankers, industrialists, merchants, and other monied interests. The party supported states' rights as a measure against the tyrannical nature of a large centralized government that they feared the Federal government could have easily become.[5] It would be Jefferson and the Republican Party that would replace the Federalist Party domination of politics following the election of 1800 which would place Jefferson as the new President and end the Federalist reign as the strongest political party.

Foreign affairs

Jay's Treaty in 1794 was an essential marker and generally considered to be directly responsible for the full emergence of political parties in America, and clearly defining Federalist and Republican points of view on all political questions.[6] Chief among the conflict was that any form of understanding between the United States and Great Britain would pose a threat to the Franco-American relations. The treaty averted war and increased trade, a positive outcome for both sides. It gained the major American requirement: British withdrawal from the post in the Northwest Territory of America and wartime debts were sent for arbitration. Much of the opposition in the U.S. came from the Republicans, who feared that improved relations with the British would strengthen the Federalists.

XYZ Affair The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic incident that worsened French and American relations in 1797. Essentially the French demanded a bribe from the American delegation in order to continue negotiations. When word reached America that their diplomats had been so insulted, the American political atmosphere quickly turned against the French. Republican leaders had been critical of Adams' negotiations with the French and the Federalist definition of the situation in France. This would quickly change when the XYZ dispatches were published. Soon after the dispatches publication much of the Republican resistance to Adams' policies in Congress relented and Adams greatly benefitted from the surge of patriotic feeling. As tensions grew the Quasi-War of 1798 broke out between French and American warships and merchant ships. Adams eventually sent new negotiators to end the undeclared conflict in 1800. [7] This conflict served to significantly weaken the affection that America had previously held for France.

The fall of the Federalists

John Adams

The Alien and Sedition Acts were among the most controversial acts established by the Federalist Party. These acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalist Congress and signed into law by Adams. Defenders claimed the acts were designed to protect against alien citizens and to guard against seditious attacks from weakening the government. Opponents of the acts attacked on the grounds of being both unconstitutional and as way to stifle criticism of the administration. The Democratic-Republicans also asserted that the acts violated the rights of the states to act in accordance with the Tenth Amendment. None of the four acts did anything to promote national unity against the French or any other country and in fact did a great deal to erode away what unity there already was in the country. The acts in general and the popular opposition to them were all bad luck for John Adams.[8] A key factor in the uproar surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts was that the very concept of seditious libel was flatly incompatible with party politics. The Republicans, it appears had some understanding of this and realized that the ability to pass judgment on officeholders was essential to party survival. The Federalist Party seemed to have no inkling of this and in some sense seem to be lashing out at the concepts of party in general.[9] What was clear was that the Republicans were becoming more focused in their opposition and more popular with the general population.

The years 1798-1800 corroded the prestige and authority of the Federalist Party. At both the national and local level the Federalists faced stiff Republican opposition. By mobilizing common voters, local republican insurgents built the popular constituency that the national leaders attached themselves to.[10] Jefferson defeated Adams for the Presidency and the Republican Party made significant gains at all levels of the government with the election 1800. As the Federalist faded from the national spotlight a new political era would be ushered in with the Jefferson administration. The Federalist Party would continue to exist as a strong party in New England and the Northeast, but without any strong leaders it eventually weakened and faded out within the first decade of the nineteenth-century.


  1. ^ Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 32-33.
  2. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 33-34.
  3. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 118-120.
  4. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 32-33
  5. ^ Gordan S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 158-159.
  6. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 415-416.
  7. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 563-565.
  8. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 592-593
  9. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, 700-701.
  10. ^ Alan Taylor, William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Random House, 1996), 257-258.


  • Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Taylor, Alan. William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Random House, 1996.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2003.


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