The Decline Of The Federalist Party History Essay

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The year: 2012. A select group of politicians has revived the Federalist Party. They preach that a strong national government should run the country. The common people, the American lower class, should cease to vote and leave the administration of the country to the big businesses and the powerful upper class. Ditch the House of Representatives. Forget the Senate. Take the wealthy people of this nation - Bill Gates, Harold Hamm, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, and many others - in fact, just take everyone on the Forbes 400 list and force them into a legislative house. Let their administrative powers resemble that of the House of Lords. Unbalance it further with a House of Commons - with little power, with little influence. Revitalizations of the Alien and Sedition acts of yonder will effectively silence the inane and supposedly uneducated critics of the Federalists should anyone complain about these changes. Big Brother has his eyes set on the freedom of the United States. A similar scenario challenged the early Americans in the nineteenth century. The Americans of the 1800s began to feel uneasy about the path that the Federalists had taken them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United States, an agrarian nation of independent farmers, had little more than a smattering of wealthy individuals. Thus, the thought of the Federalists furthering their own exclusive, high-minded goals scared many of the farmers who formed the majority of American society. With radically independent ideas that often clashed with public opinion and general American opinion, the Federalists (in some cases) lost face with the public, resulting in a loss of appeal. The presumption of the pro-British Federalists, their unpopular treatment of foreign affairs, their loathed Alien and Sedition acts, and the fiasco of the Hartford Convention alienated voters and led the party to a hopeless end.

A Clarification

A specific definition of a Federalist proves hard to pinpoint. Depending on the decade, a person could potentially identify two distinct parties that share the Federalist nomenclature, but follow opposing political doctrines - one that favored the expansion of a central government, and one that espoused keeping the central government small. Both, however, did believe in a the concept of a central government and thus both found popular support among businessmen, merchants, and the wealthy. The original Federalist party encompassed the doctrines and beliefs of Jefferson and his soon-to-be group of supporters and later Jefferson reshaped this group into the Democratic-Republicans. However, after Alexander Hamilton took a hard-line stance and promoted the creation of a national debt and a strong national government, conflict began to ensue between his followers and people who agreed with Jefferson. Jefferson believed that a decentralized government benefited the country's farmers and independent landowners most significantly and advocated awarding priority to states' rights as well as individual rights. Thus the Democratic Republicans burst forth from the tattered remains of the former Federalist Party, while a new, more conservative Federalist Party emerged in opposition to the Jeffersonian Republican Party. This fateful divide led to the era of bipartisan politics in the United States.

Federalist Policies Scorned the Poor and Favored the Rich

The policy of the Federalists tended to favor the rich as well. Most members of the Federalist Party had once professed their loyalty to the British Empire. As a result, most owned land and played a part in English society as members of the elite gentry - most still considered themselves so. Thus, as most wealthy classes in history have done, they considered themselves "properly educated" and thus fit for managing the country, while the rest of the population - slaves, indentured servants, poor farmers - had never received a decent education and could not possibly run the country. Indeed, Federalists believed that those of the lower social and economic classes need not even approach politics. They envisioned a lesser population beholden to their rich, presumptuous leaders. To their defense, however, this view that the Federalists had did hold some ground - the successful existence of a flourishing republican government mandated the existence of an educated population. It was indeed true that most of the poor farmers and indentured servants were uneducated and as the Federalists would say, "unrefined." However, what the Federalists failed to comprehend was that while they comprised an elite minority of the "educated" and "refined," the greater majority still consisted of the supposedly uneducated masses. These "uncivilized" masses actually paid close attention to the affairs of the United States and thus proved savvier than the Federalists had thought. And of course, in a democratically grounded country, the majority's opinions take precedence over those of the minority. The view of the Federalists, while at first tolerated by the common people of America, later became too stifling for the masses (incidentally, good news for the Democratic Republicans). The Federalists, by choosing this erratic path of political decision, weakened their own platform and in a sense they prophesied their own demise.

The socioeconomic class difference also contributed to the heavily negative reaction against the Federalists. As mentioned previously, a large number of Federalists owned land and wealth. Some even owned a few slaves. In contrast, many farmers lived at subsidence level, hardly able to support themselves. What Federalists planned for the country did not always agree with the conventional wisdom of the farmers. While wealthy Federalists discussed their high-minded ideas over tea and fine foods (some of which, incidentally, were produced by the very same farmers they scorned and looked down upon), farmers toiled in their fields and resented the Federalists more and more every day. As any class difference in history would precipitate, conflict began to boil over the differing interests of the farmers and middle class versus the high-minded Federalist ideals. This spelled trouble for many in the United States, as they remembered that earlier in the decade a revolution in France had shocked the world with its bloodiness.

Improper Handling of the XYZ Affair

The Federalists' mishandling of foreign affairs turned many against the party. Corruption and conflict plagued the administration of John Adams, a staunch Federalist who unwisely kept the staunch anti-Adams Cabinet. One such instance occurred in regard to the XYZ affair. The XYZ affair strained relations between the United States and France. Having talked to French Minister Talleyrand just a few months earlier, the Americans felt the need to speak with him yet again regarding the French retaliation to the British-friendly Jay Treaty, which involved the seizure of over 200 American ships in 1796 alone. The results of the Jay Treaty angered the French. Their minister accused Adams of "[killing] the spirit of patriotic loyalty," and explicitly refused to make a direct approach or any announcement involving relations with the United States. As a result, this time, Ambassador Pinckney was met by stealthy foes: Agent X, Y, and Z, allegedly sent from the French ministry. Their monetary demands included a steep 50,000 pounds of sterling silver, a $250,000 bribe to Talleyrand, and the guarantee of a hundred-million dollar loan to the French. They also demanded that John Adams publicly apologize for the allegedly rude comments he made about the French. Of course, the American ambassadors would not stand for such a degrading agreement, and they rejected the ridiculous accusations and terms. In response to these ridiculous terms, Pinckney immortalized the phrase, "not a sixpence!" to the French. To this Americans rejoiced, and thus Pinckney sowed the seeds of a new national unity. At the same time The Jeffersonian Republicans demanded that Adams maintain transparency regarding the documents and events of the affair - which ended up dividing the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists even further. Although people at the time supported the Federalists, soon their stifling policies during the following years would drive more toward Jefferson's party, the Democratic-Republicans.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

Passed in 1798 by John Adams during the Quasi-War with the French, the Alien and Sedition Acts (while initially successful in allowing the Federalists to control Congress and the other branches of the government) eventually created issues for the Federalists in coming years. The implications from the enforcement of the Acts alienated many potential supporters of the Federalists and also reduced the number of eligible Jeffersonian-Republican supporters. The Federalists signed four main acts into law, one of which still exists today as part of United States Code. One of the acts, the Naturalization Act, required that aliens live in the United States for more than 14 years. This act enraged many, especially the Democratic Republicans or the Jeffersonian Republicans because it nearly tripled the former requirement of 5 years. Jeffersonian Republicans cried foul play, since the very existence of this act meant that immigrants, who by nature resembled the Democratic-Republicans, would not be able to vote, thus reducing the power of the Democratic-Republicans while increasing the staying power of the strong Federalist government.

Another act, the Sedition Act, was created to render criminal the acts of publishing "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. This act created outrage among many in the nation, most notably the Jeffersonian Republicans, who argued that this act was targeted towards them. And in fact, as Kurtz points out in his dissertation, later research does indicate that the act was indeed designed and intended to target those Jeffersonian Republicans who criticized the Federalist government and silence them. It served that ulterior motive more than it served its announced intent, which was to keep safe the United States in time of international conflict. Because of this later realization, enraged political laymen in the United States cried foul against the Federalist Party. In the Election of 1800, the controversy surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts was a prime topic of discussion among Jefferson and Adams.

Of course, since the Federalists were still the ones in power, there was not much to be done. In effect, one could argue that this was an early example of the abuse of the checks and balances system, because a Federalist president had appointed Federalist judges who served at the helm of a Federalist-dominated Congress. Jefferson, in fact, argued not only this, but went as far as to argue that these acts were unconstitutional and specifically violated the 1st and 10th amendments to the Constitution, the right to free speech and the delegation of certain powers to the administration of the states. In retrospect, it appears that he was indeed right - most Americans would agree today that if their right to criticize the actions of their leaders was rescinded, their right to freedom of speech would be violated.

The Election of 1800

This bitter clash between the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists not only shook the nation and revealed a near-fatal flaw of the Electoral College, it also served as de facto evidence for many that the Federalists were simply trying to heist a power play in the United States government. The controversy began when a Democratic Republican plan for securing a majority of votes for Jefferson went awry - while the Democratic Republicans had successfully convinced their electors to vote for Jefferson and Burr, they had forgotten to tell one to vote for only Jefferson, to keep from tying the votes - the screw-up left Jefferson and Burr deadlocked with the same number of electoral votes, a scenario that nobody, not even the Founding Fathers, had envisioned. As a result, the decision was thrown to the largely Federalist House of Representatives, unfortunate news for Jefferson. According to Ackerman, the Federalists were convinced that the country would fall into ruin, should Jefferson become president. Thus, faced with few other options, they conspired to vote for Burr instead. Their ability to do so was aided by their majority in the House. However, Alexander Hamilton, who then still held a lot of power and respect among his Federalist colleagues, thought differently. Although he loathed both Jefferson (from his days in Washington's Administration with him) and Burr greatly, he still remained quite pragmatic in his decision. Having seen that Burr simply viewed the presidency as a step in his rise to power, he decided that Jefferson would make the best president at the current circumstance. Thus, he wrote a series of documents and publications advocating to Federalists the election of Jefferson over Burr. After 36 rounds of elections, Democratic-Republican efforts finally swayed votes over, and Jefferson was elected. Burr never forgot Hamilton's opposition to him though, and eventually he cut Hamilton's life short in a duel of (dis?)honor.

The proceedings from this incident hurt the Federalists greatly, for people believed they had deliberately tried to obstruct the proper candidate from reaching the presidency. Indeed, Jefferson had 61 percent of the popular vote, but due to Federalist obstinacy, the electoral percentage remained deadlocked for an extremely long time. In addition, even after Jefferson became president-elect, there were still four months until he was to be inaugurated. The Federalists took this time and signed numerous pro-Federalist bills into law (hence the origination of the term, the "eleventh hour"). Some of these bills were not even as pro-Federalist as they were meant to trip up Jefferson's presidency. They appointed numerous judges, including hard-liner Federalist John Marshall, as well as other judges - a very clever move on their part, for judges are appointed for life. This did not bode well for the Federalists, for now they had to endure criticism from all sides regarding their shameless impediment of proper electoral process. In fact, when Jefferson assumed the presidency, his firing of the judges provoked a famous court case - Marbury vs. Madison - which established the process of judicial review in the United States and also firmly implanted in the minds of the people that the Federalists were looking out to save their own skins, much less the skins of others.

The Hartford Convention led to ridicule

During the War of 1812, the legislature of Massachusetts authorized the calling of the ill-fated Hartford Convention. This was at a time when the Jeffersonian Republicans had gained a larger following than the Federalists, and thus James Madison had assumed the presidency. Obviously, this gave more power to the Jeffersonian Republicans, not a pleasing fact to the Federalists. Opposition to the war in the North reached the point where displeased, furious Federalists talked about seceding from the Union. Jefferson's Embargo Act and Non-Intercourse Act had taken its toll on the seafaring New England merchants, and many of them refused to tolerate any more of this economic entrapment. In addition, the naturally Federalist refusal to supply state militias to the National War Department resulted in the recently elected Madison's refusal to pay the expenses of the New England states. Balking at this treatment, Federalists from many states began calling for a convention in retaliation. This convention would propose secession from the Union to form a new federation of states, one that respected the views of these northern, Federalist-controlled states. While historians have traditionally assumed this to be the main motive for the calling of the Hartford Convention, many argue that the convention was in fact part of an effort to expose the Jeffersonian Republicans as inane and foolish for their inaction and failures during the war. At the time of the Hartford Convention, the war had stagnated - few victories had been reported to date, and state morale proved to be particularly low at this point in time. Perhaps this is why the Federalists thought they saw a chance to regain popularity by attempting to besmirch the reputation and honor of the Jeffersonian-Republican party. However, the proposals the Federalists eventually wrapped up the Hartford Convention with sharply contrasted with acceptable opinion. Indeed, the Democratic-Republican Congress would never have passed any of the proposals that New England produced for ratification. Such proposals included the removal of the three fifths compromise clause, the prohibition of a long-term trade embargo, and the requiring of each president to come from a different state than the previous. These demands seemed so far out of reach that it made more sense for the Federalists to try not to achieve them, but to use the idea of such to instill fear in the hearts of Jeffersonian Republicans. And of course, there were many political laymen who believed that the Federalists were indeed simply trying to attack their rival party yet again. Their scheme might have worked, were it not for the misfortune of the messengers from the Hartford Convention to arrive in the Capitol at exactly the same time incredible news from New Orleans poured in. The news? That General Andrew Jackson had amassed an incredible victory at New Orleans. How could the Federalists, with their now-obsolete, almost foolish document declaring complete secession hope to be heard or cared about? Indeed, the Hartford Convention became synonymous with national disunity and anti-nationalism. Ironically, in an effort to besmirch the reputation of and embarrass the Jeffersonian Republicans, the Federalists ended up smearing their own faces. As people lost faith in the Federalist Party, their stronghold in Congress was gradually weakened.

The Pro-British Inclinations of the Federalists

Throughout their existence, the Federalists always tended to favor British policies. This tendency can be seen throughout the party's existence in a number of areas. At the writing of the Articles of Confederation, many Federalists advocated making George Washington a King, having a House of Lords, and essentially creating another English government in the United States. However, most people had come to the United States and had fought in the revolution precisely to avoid such a government. The idea that the Federalists' intent was for government to be strengthened to the point where they lost their liberties grew like fungus in the hearts of the American people, and proved to be yet another mistake that the Federalists made - another strike against them. When anti-British sentiment increased greatly during the War of 1812, the Federalists were in for a rough ride. Not only were their pro-British policies ridiculed, but their favor to the British made them incredibly unpopular during the war in the Southern states. While they still curried favor in the northern states for a short time, this favor was short-lived. In fact, it was at this time that the Northern Federalists decided to call a certain convention in the small town of Hartford, Connecticut. At this convention, they discussed the possibility of New England seceding from the Union and forming a separate treaty with Britain. After weeks of secret meetings, they finally produced a document that stated their intent. The plan was to deliver it to the capital, but unfortunately for the Federalists, news arrived on the same day of Jackson's victory in New Orleans, thus making the entire Hartford Convention look like a foolish joke. The Federalists were made the fool of the occasion, and their standing as a party suffered dearly. After the fiasco of the Hartford Convention the Federalists would never put another presidential candidate up again - their power had been eroded away.


Stung by the effects of the Hartford Convention and battered from Jefferson's anti-federalist Republican party, the Federalist Party steadily shrunk in size and stature until finally, in 1824, unwanted and unrespected, their party officially dissolved. The sometimes power-hungry, exclusive actions of the Federalist Party foreshadowed its demise. However, the repercussions of their actions led to a stable, bipartisan government in the United States for all future generations. The Federalist policies lasted a long time after the party's demise, especially in the judicial branch of the government. The appointees to the Supreme Court by Federalist president John Adams in the late 1790s (i.e. John Marshall) lived for a very long time and even outlived the Federalist party, continuing to hand out Federalist decisions on court cases for years to come. Even if no Federalist Party runs on the ticket today, even if no Federalist walks the United States preaching his ideas, his influence on American society and politics is clear.