The disagreements between the Federalists and Anti-Federalist that emerged during the drafting of the Constitution would continue to grow during the 1790’s, leading to the formation of our first two political parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Understanding these early divisions can help us understand modern-day political disagreements.

Political parties are different from political interest groups. The former seeks control of the government through winning elections; the latter seeks to influence government policy on a specific issue. For example, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is an interest group that will work with any political party as long as that will help them accomplish their issue-specific goal of preventing gun control laws from being passed.

Political Action Committees (PAC’s) are a modern-day development that blur the line between interest group and political party. A PAC might focus on several connected issues usually based around an overarching theme like free trade or a balanced budget or smaller government. PAC’s raise money then donate that money to the campaigns of politicians who are supportive of the PAC’s agenda.

Raising money is a requirement for any politician on a democratic system. The money raised is used to pay for advertising, signage, consultants, office space etc.

True now and true in the 1790’s – most American politicians have a background in the law. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian who visited America in the 1830’s and wrote a famous book about his visit felt that lawyers formed a “natural aristocracy” in the United States

A common misconception is that there are federal or state laws that govern how political parties handle their own nominations. This is not true – the decision on who a party will nominate to run for office is completely up to the party leadership. In recent years, that decision has been more democratic, with primaries and caucuses – but in the 19th Century, party leaders made those decisions on their own, in private – in literal “smoke-filled rooms”.

The party that has the most seats in the House will select one of their own to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Speaker has power in that they determine who sits on that committee and set the legislative agenda and schedule for the House. The minority party will also select a leader to be their public face and primary spokesperson. Picture here is Nancy Pelosi, who was Speaker when the Democrats controlled the House in 2010. She is now the Democratic Minority leader in the House and Paul Ryan was selected by the Republicans to be the Speaker.

The Congressional committee is where the real work of Congress happens. Committees hold hearings and debate legislation. The decision to discuss (or not discuss) a bill is left up to the chairperson of that committee. If a bill is “tabled” (not discussed), it is effectively dead. So the committee chairs have significant power in determining what bills can become a law.

In the 1780’s, those in favor of a strong national government and the Constitution became known as “Federalists”. By the 1790’s, this association of like-minded Americans was turning into a political party, primarily based in the North and in the large cities like Philadelphia and Boston and New York. Those who wanted the states to retain their powers began forming their own organization, based in the South and started calling themselves “Democratic Republicans”. In the 1790’s, Alexander Hamilton emerged as the leader of the Federalists while Thomas Jefferson took on a similar role with the Democratic Republicans.

Jefferson had experienced the tyranny of King George III. He wanted to avoid the possibility of a strong national government using its power against its citizens, violating their natural rights. He supported the Constitution only because of the promise of the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments that put restrictions on the government’s power and guarantee certain rights of the citizens.

Alexander Hamilton was watching the Industrial Revolution make Britain the richest country in the world. He thought the United States had the same potential for growth but only if we had a strong national government ready to do the things needed to increase our growth – things like building roads and canals or putting tariffs on competing imports. Hamilton felt this could only be done at the national level, not the state level. The next slides show the differences of opinion between Hamilton and Jefferson in more detail.


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  • Our first President, George Washington, established many of the customs and practices that have become traditional for all future Presidents.
  • The rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton led to the creation of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.
  • The challenges faced by our second President, John Adams, set the stage for one of the most bitter contests in American history - the Election of 1800.

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New Republic Timeline

1789: George Washington is the unanimous choice to become the first President of the United States.

1789: President Washington begins to meet regularly with the heads of the Executive Departments (State, Treasury and War), known as the "Cabinet".

1794: George Washington personally leads the army to supress the Whiskey Rebellion, proving that the Constitution and the federal government can survive challenges to their authority.

1796: President Washington retires after two terms and gives his Farewell Address in which he warns of the dangers of political parties and urges the United States to stay neutral in foreign affairs.

1796: In a contested election, Federalist John Adams defeats Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson to become our second President. Laws in effect at the time dictate that the defeated Jefferson now serve as Adam's Vice President.

1797: The French are attacking American ships at sea and demand bribes to stop. Adams refuses to pay and exposes the "XYZ Affair" to the world.

1798: Federalists in Congress pass the Sedition Act of 1798, making it illegal to criticize anyone in the federal government. Democratic-Republicans are infuriated and believe the Act violates freedom of speech.

1799: Madison and Jefferson publish the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves in which they lay out an idea of nulification, tat the states have the power to ignore any federal law they don't agree with.

1800: Thomas Jefferson wins a close and bitterly contested Presidential election in which no candidate receives a majority of the Electoral votes, so the election is decided in the House of Representatives.

1803: The United States pays $15 million to purchase the vast Louisiana territory from Napoleon, known as the Louisiana Purchase.

1803: The ability of the Supreme Court to strike down a law if it is unconstitutional (the principle of judicial review) is established by the case Marbury v. Madison.

1805: Jefferson refuses to pay tribute to the Barbary Coast and instead sends in our Navy and Marines to defeat and destroy the pirates.

1773: Protesting the Tea Acts, angry colonists destroy a shipment of tea in what becomes known as "The Boston Tea Party".

1774: Parliament passes the Intolerable Acts, suspending colonial governments and shutting down the port of Boston.

1775: British soldiers attempt to confiscate the weapons of the colonial militia. The colonists fight back, resulting in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. In Philadelphia, the 2nd Continental Congress meets to organize the revolution.

1777: Decisive American victory at the Battle of Saratoga convinces the French to aid the colonists.

1777-78: Continental Army spends the winter at Valley Forge where Baron Von Steuben arrives and trains the soldiers.

1781: The British Army is defeated at the Battle of Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War.

1783: The Treaty of Paris is signed and American independence is achieved.

1785: Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance, regulating the settling of the Ohio River lands.

1786-87: Angry over taxes and foreclosures, farmers in New England take up arms in Shay's Rebellion.

1787: The Constitutional Convention meets in Philadelphia to write a new governing document for the United States.

1789-90: North Carolina and Rhode Island are the last two states to ratify the Constitution, making it the law of the land.