The Rise of Political Parties

Nothing in the United States Constitution calls for American government to create political parties. Political parties emerged through the rancorous debate over the shaping of the United States Constitution and the subsequent issues that followed based on interpretation of the Constitution. 

In the Summer of 1787 during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, two factions emerged. Federalists wanted to see a strong national government in which state governments were subordinate to the national government; members of this faction in 1787 included Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Opposing the Federalists were the Anti-Federalists, who wanted a new government in which state governments superseded the national government. In many ways this debate echoes down to modern times. Leaders of the Anti-Federalists included Virginians Patrick Henry, who said regarding the Constitutional Convention, “I smell a rat in Philadelphia,” and George Mason who had authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights. 

The term "party" was not frequently used. The term used at the time was “factions,” which James Madison addressed in his Federalist #51. Interestingly, no one at the time wanted to be identified as a member of a faction. Factions were considered divisive and not in line with the idea of political leaders or rulers being men of virtue. During the early Republican period, Americans considered a virtuous leader who put aside self-interest in the cause of the common good as paramount to national success. George Washington best exemplified the virtuous leader in this period, and he was beloved in the original thirteen states, giving him great great prestige and influence. 

After the Constitutional Convention ended in September 1787, delegates returned to their states, and each state needed to hold a Ratification Convention to ratify or endorse the new Constitution. Once nine of the thirteen states ratified the Constitution, it would become the law of the land. Ratification was not guaranteed, and both sides geared up for a fight. Anti-Federalists argued they could not support the Constitution without a Bill of Rights to protect the people against government oppression. Federalists countered by saying the first order of the new government would be to write a Bill of Rights. Anti-Federalists, many of whom were lawyers, argued that one does not sign a document until all the parts are complete. 

Certain states had to ratify the Constitution, particularly the influential states: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. To bolster their argument for a strong national government and to sway voters in the critical state of New York, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing under the pseudonym, Publius, drafted 85 essays to appear in New York newspapers explaining how the Constitution worked. Collectively these essays are called The Federalist Papers. These writings helped to convince New York and other states that were holding equally contentious ratification conventions to ratify the Constitution. When New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21, 1788 to ratify, the Constitution became binding. 

The election of the first president occurred in 1789, and George Washington was unanimously chosen. During Washington’s administration, political parties formed and organized over differing views of how the Constitution was to be interpreted and the legacy of the American Revolution. The two leaders of the first political parties were Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. Hamilton and his followers—mostly merchants, bankers and men who shared a mercantile view of America—were called Federalists. Those who followed Jefferson—mostly farmers, people from the South and those settling lands to the west—were known as Democratic-Republicans. At the time, Jefferson and his followers were referred to as Republicans, but in the 1830s, the party started calling itself simply the Democrats. (The new Republican party formed in 1854.)  

Since being considered a member of a political party was initially seen negatively, people referred to one another as either "Friends of Mr. Hamilton" or "Friends of Mr. Jefferson." For Hamilton, the Constitution could be stretched, based on Article I, Section 8, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and supported a loose constructionist interpretation of the Constitution. Jefferson viewed the Constitution in more narrow terms, arguing that the government could only do what it was specifically tasked to do under the tenants of the Constitution and making Jefferson a strict constructionist of the plan of government. Jefferson famously wrote, “That government which governs the least, governs the best.” 

Hamilton’s desire to create a National Bank to give the government financial stability and legs became the issue that prompted the formation of the political parties.. Hamilton argued that the Constitution gave the government the right to create a National Bank. Jefferson thought otherwise.  Caught in the middle of the acrimony was the President, who viewed the younger Hamilton and Jefferson as sons he never had. 

Hamilton’s views swayed over Washington who supported the bank and other Hamiltonian initiatives, holding a more national view of the United States. In this atmosphere, Jefferson grew increasingly frustrated and began a covert newspaper campaign to besmirch Hamilton. Jefferson, aided by James Madison, who had shifted his view point from nationalist to supporting states’ rights, hired poet Philip Freneau to edit a newspaper, The National Gazette and attack Hamilton and his followers in the publication.

The Hamiltonians responded by hiring editor John Fenno to create The Gazette of the United States to attack the Jeffersonians. The attacks in both papers were biting, sarcastic, and vicious. President Washington lamented, “A spirit of party has descended upon the nation.”  

In the area of foreign policy, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians also split. Hamilton encouraged support for Great Britain during its numerous European wars with France. Jefferson, an ardent supporter of France, was nearly apoplectic since he believed America owed its independence to France and should uphold their alliance from during the Revolutionary War. In 1793, Hamilton convinced Washington to issue a Proclamation of Neutrality and avoid entanglement with the warring European powers. In frustration and anger, Jefferson submitted his resignation as Secretary of State. He felt that Hamilton had control of Washington, and that the president had become an ardent nationalist. Once outside of the administration, Jefferson continued to fuel the fire of partisan politics and even got personal. In a letter to the Italian statesman and  supporter of Republican government Philip Mazzei, Jefferson wrote, “Men who were Sampson’s in the field and Solomon’s in the Council have had their heads shorn by the harlot of England.” The letter was leaked to Washington who was not only angry, but hurt. Communications between Washington and Jefferson ceased. 

In 1796, Washington decided not to seek a third term. Before leaving office, George Washington delivered his “Farewell Address” which appeared in The Daily American Advertiser. Washington warned Americans about placing the interests of political parties ahead of national interest and the common good. 

Over the next decades, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party continued to dispute over domestic and foreign policies. The Federalist Party's power declined, and the Whig Party rose to prominence in the early 19th Century. Political parties changed, morphed, disbanded, and re-platformed over time, continuing to debate interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, the future of the country, and the meaning of liberty and civil rights. More than 200 years later, similar debates continue across the nation and in the capitol, Washington DC.