The United States didn’t always have a two party system. It has been a long and arduous road to our current Democratic and Republican Parties. The first Party system came to fruition in the 1790s. At the time, the main players were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans.
In George Washington’s own farewell address, he stated, “Political parties may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course and time of things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwords the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” He was worried for the young nation and the direction it would take if they followed the road of political parties. He was wary of how political parties could split the people and ultimately weaken the country as a whole.
Despite his warning, his compatriots proceeded to divide themselves on party lines.
Two of the founding fathers that were most at odds were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They had worked closely together on The Federalist Papers and tirelessly fought side by side for the Constitution. Despite the camaraderie they shared in creating a strong new country, they became lifelong enemies when it came to differing viewpoints on how the country should move forward. Despite writing The Federalist Papers together they began to part ways on policy, and although they agreed to a compromise in 1790, they remained at odds because of their beliefs.
The Federalists were first led by Alexander Hamilton due to his fiscal policies. They favored a strong federal government to state government and attracted businesses and others who were partial to banks and manufacturing. The Federalists wanted to build a national bank to assume states’ debts to make the nation financially stable as a whole. They also wanted to create good relations with Britain to make money through trade. These were the main issues that divided the American people at the time.
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the Democratic Republicans. Unlike the Federalists, they were on the side of France during their revolution and wanted to aid the revolutionaries against Britain when Britain wanted to reinstate a monarchy in France. They were also against a strong federal government and national bank, and preferred the individual states hold the power and control their own financial futures. This would later change, but not until after the War of 1812.
The Federalist Party slowly petered out and President Madison took the Democratic Republicans on a different path by creating the Second Bank of the United States and setting up protective tariffs that strengthened the federal government. After the Federalist Party disbanded, the Democratic Republican Party split which led to the second political party system in the United States.
The division that Washington was so wary of has been perpetuated to this day. As Washington predicted,
the divisive nature of political parties weakened the government and the country as a whole. It is still a problem. The checks and balances have been manipulated to stonewall opposing party agendas. Politicians are touting the party line without regard for the betterment of the country as a whole. Bipartisanship is little to non-existent. There is too much collusion within each party to stop the opposing party. Instead of reaching across the aisle to support ideas that can lead this country into a bright future, they are putting up walls and tying up bills just to stop each other. They have forgotten that the real goal is the improvement of the country and not the advancement of their party.
Let us know in the comments what you think about the political party system beginnings and any history tidbits from the era! Stay tuned for the next installment in this series.