Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers The Introduction of a Two Party System within American Politics

After the Revolution, when the Founding Fathers agreed to join the colonies in a loose government system under the Articles of Confederation, they had no intention of forming political parties.

Yet by 1787, it was clear that the Articles of Confederation were no longer appropriate for the needs of the nation. Therefore, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to propose a new form of government. George Washington presided over the Convention, and many of the foremost Founding Fathers were in attendance, including: James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton.

Even at this phase, a political division was apparent. Many, who called themselves the Federalists, favored a strong centralized government, while others, who called themselves the Anti-Federalists, wanted most power localized at the state level. Precursors to the current two-party system, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists argued vehemently over this question. The Federalists wanted a more controlled government, one that reflected the needs of the republic as a whole. The Anti-Federalists wanted to preserve their long history of self government at the state level.

In terms of the Constitution, the Federalists eventually won out. However, several appeasements were made to the opposing side. For example, Southern states forced the Constitution to prohibit Congress from making laws that could abolish the slave trade. More importantly, the Bill of Rights, which ensured individual protections against government control, were added to answer the concerns of those wary of centralized power.

However, these ideological divisions continued to fester until they manifested in parties. Considered the first American political party, the Federalists grew in power after Washington was elected President in 1789. Formed by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party was committed to a nationalist government. They founded the first national bank and reestablished trading opportunities with Britain, despite the national outcry. Based in the New England area and in New York, the Federalists enjoyed power until the 1800 election, when Jefferson defeated Adams (who was associated with the party if not officially a member) for the Presidency. Incidentally, Adams is considered the only Federalist President, as Washington’s presidency predated the political parties.

Concerned about what he saw as a dangerous increase in federal power, Jefferson formed the opposing party, the Republicans, alongside James Madison and many of their fellow Virginians. It is important to note that contemporary scholars usually refer to the party as “Democratic-Republican,” in order to distinguish it from the modern Republican Party. However, Ellis and other historians offer no such distinction. The Democratic-Republican Party were opposed to Jay’s Treaty, and felt an alliance with England was a traitorous offence against the revolutionary cause. The Democratic-Republicans favored pro-French sentiment, and openly despised the monarchy. So intense were the divisions that Jefferson truly believed the Federalists were concocting secret deals with England in order to subvert the nation's independence. Most importantly, the Democratic-Republicans focused on shifting power to the states.

The parties were also split in terms of whom they professed to represent. The Democratic-Republicans felt they were the party of the common people and the farmers (the modern equivalent of the middle class). They believed that the Federalists were primarily concerned about representing the elite, a claim that Hamilton took few pains to contradict. After Jefferson won the 1800 election, the Democratic-Republicans held the office until 1824, after which it split into several factions.

The shift to party alliances is significant to Ellis because it represented a fundamental change. Before the election of 1800, the candidates measured themselves by their Revolutionary credentials. This explains why Washington was the natural choice for first President, and also how Adams beat Jefferson in 1796. However, after a term that was plagued with problems that were easily attributable by opponents to abuse of federal power, the Democratic-Republicans were poised to launch an attack not just on Adams, but on the party he seemed to represent. The 1800 victory, largely based on party propaganda, set the precedent of party politics that persists today. It also marked in many ways the end of an era defined by transcendent Revolutionary ideals.

The Constitution is bereft of instruction concerning any political parties. Many of the Founding Fathers ensured a system of checks and balances to prohibit the formation of autocratic or monarchical power. They hoped political parties would be unnecessary, but in retrospect, they were inevitable. The country had gone through two fundamental periods - 1776, which is defined by the Declaration of Independence, and 1789, which is defined by the Constitution. These eras were born from the same men and goals, but represent fundamental differences. The first is a cry for individual liberty bereft of centralized control, while the latter is an insistence on centralized control. These two approaches were certainly to manifest into more intense distinctions as problems arose to challenge the nascent country.

The current two party system within the United States directly derives from these ideological differences, and from the men who represented them in this early period.

The modern Democratic Party is modeled in part after the Jefferson’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, though it tends to favor a more centralized government. The modern Republican Party bears a striking resemblance to Hamilton’s Federalist Party in the way it represents elite interests, but it also aims to represent the people Jefferson wanted represented. Ideologies have shifted back and forth between the different two-party eras of American history, but the fundamental questions - about the size of federal government, about who most comprises "the people," about the role of money and finance in government - have always remained central to the debate.