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The First Political Parties

The United States in the twenty-first century is predominately a two-party system. Although more than two political parties exist, many American voters tend to side with one of the big two: the Democrats or the Republicans.

In George Washington's Farewell Address he warned his fellow Americans about the dangers of political parties. He said, "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism." He claimed the partisanship would lead to inter-political conflict, divide the nation, and give rise to cases of tyranny.

Federalist poster about 1800. Washington (in heaven) tells partisans to keep the pillars of Federalism, Republicanism and Democracy
Federalist poster about 1800. Washington (in heaven) tells partisans to keep the pillars of Federalism, Republicanism and Democracy

Despite his warnings, political associations in the young United States began to bifurcate even before the Constitution was signed. In those first stages, the two factions were The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists - the discussions of the Federalists became most famous initially in The Federalist Papers.

In a letter to John Wise*, Thomas Jefferson said of the developing political environment:

"Two political sects have arisen within the U. S. The one believing that the executive is the branch of our government which the most needs support; the other that like the analogous branch in the English Government, it is already too strong for the republican parts of the Constitution; and therefore in equivocal cases they incline to the legislative powers: the former of these are called federalists, sometimes aristocrats or monocrats, and sometimes tories, after the corresponding sect in the English Government of exactly the same definition: the latter are styled republicans, whigs, jacobins, anarchists, disorganizers, etc. these terms are in familiar use with most persons."

Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party - the "jacobins" - alongside James Madison and Patrick Henry. John Adams was a member of the Federalist Party - the "monocrats" - along with Alexander Hamilton, who had been the main voice behind The Federalist Papers.

Truthfully, it was Jefferson who felt the greatest need to perpetuate an "opposition" party, because he believed that the Federalists represented aristocratic forces hostile to the true will of the people. He believed that without a Republican party, the Federalists would turn the nation into in oligarchy, and steal freedom from the people. His dedication to his beliefs are the reason why political parties play such an enormous role in American politics today.

What Each Early Party Believed

Hamilton Leader of the Federalist Party
Alexander Hamilton


  • Committed to a fiscally sound and nationalistic government
  • Favored a National Band, Tariffs, and Good Relations with Britain
  • Supported Implied Powers - those powers authorized by a legal document (from the Constitution) which, while not stated, seem to be implied by powers expressly stated.
  • More conservative views
  • Composed of the elite class
Jeffersonian Republican Party
Thomas Jefferson

(Jeffersonian) Republicans

  • Committed to the rights of states, the primacy of yeoman farmers, and the principles of republicanism (liberty and inalienable rights)
  • Opposed the Jay Treaty, wanted good relations with France, not Britain
  • Opposed the ideas of a National Bank or implied powers
  • Predominately "Anti-Administration"

The (Jeffersonian) Republican Party outlasted the Federalist Party, which had been seen by the people as too elitist. Jefferson's party came to be the foundation for both the modern Republican and Democratic parties, although these current forms are both are vastly different from the early sect.

* "Letter to John Wise" in Francis N. Thorpe, ed. "A Letter from Jefferson on the Political Parties, 1798," American Historical Review v.3#3 (April 1898) pp 488-89.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 3.0

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