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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