The Origins of the United States Two-Party System

Ben Fellows

4 mins

28 Jan 2015

George Washington believed that political parties would be damaging to American society and needed to be avoided. Yet the politics of the 1790s (like the United States today) was dominated by the arguments of two distinct political groups: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

“If we mean to support the liberty and independence which has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish, we must drive far away the daemon of party spirit and local reproach” – George Washington

The political parties of the 1790s emerged because of disagreements over three main issues: the nature of government, the economy and foreign policy. By understanding these disagreements we can begin to understand the conditions that allowed for the origin of the two-party system in the United States.

Federalists & Democratic Republicans

Alexander_Hamilton_portrait_by_John_Trumbull_1806

Alexander Hamilton, founder of the US Central Bank and an ardent supporter of federalism.

Disagreements about how the United States should be governed emerged immediately after the revolution. However, these disagreements escalated considerably in the 1790s and can be best understood by examining the arguments between Alexander Hamilton (leader of the Federalists) and Thomas Jefferson (leader of the Anti-Federalists- also known as the Democratic Republicans).

Jefferson and Hamilton’s first major disagreement emerged over the nature of Government. Alexander Hamilton believed that for the United States to be successful it would have to be formed in a similar way to the British imperial model that had been so successful. It would need a strong central Government, treasury and financial sector, a national army and a strong political executive representing the interests of all the states.

Jefferson’s Preferences

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Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President and one of the dominant figures of early American politics.

Jefferson, a Southern Plantation owner from Virginia, saw himself as a Virginian first and an American second. He believed that a central treasury and national army would endow the central government with too much power that an economy driven by finance would lead to reckless gambling.

He also thought a strong President would be no better than “a Polish King”, a reference to the Polish tradition of aristocrats electing their monarch from among their number. Furthermore, Jefferson was deeply mistrustful of the British and saw Hamilton’s preference for a British style system as being dangerous to the hard won freedoms of the American Revolution. Jefferson’s preference was for political power to reside with individual states and their legislatures, not in a central government

Arguments on the Economy

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The building which housed the First Bank of the United States in Philiadelphia, completed 1795.

As well as the nature of government (a more abstract idea) Hamilton and Jefferson (and their allies) argued about more pressing economic matters. Hamilton was in charge of the Treasury under George Washington and had a very difficult job. Under the previous Articles of Confederacy, the Government could request money from states but had no formal tax raising powers. This meant that it was very difficult for the newly formed United States to pay its international loans or raise an army.

Under Hamilton’s financial plans, the central Government would have tax raising powers, form a national bank and would print paper money to be used across all the states. However Jefferson and his anti-federalist allies believed this was just another way of the federalists to centralize power, reduce states rights and work in the interests of the financial sector (primarily based in the north) at the expense of the agricultural sector (primarily in the South).

Disagreement on Foreign Policy

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix (1830), one of the most iconic representations of the French Revolution.

As well as the nature of Government and the economy, the federalist and anti-federalists divisions further emerged because of profound disagreements about foreign policy. Jefferson, who had spent much time in France, and saw the French revolution as an extension of the American Revolution, was dismayed by the ambivalence shown by Hamilton and George Washington to France. He believed, as did his Federalists allies, that this was further evidence of Hamilton’s desire to drive the United States back into the arms of Britain. Hamilton however saw the French Revolution as unstable and was convinced that only improved relationships with Britain would lead to economic prosperity in the United States.

The Defeat of the Federalists

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2nd President John Adams a long time friend and rival of Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans.

By 1800 the Federalist Party effectively disappeared when Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Federalist Party, the Democratic Republicans, beat his old friend John Adams and the Federalists to the Presidency. But this very difficult decade, marked by mistrust, the rise of factional newspapers and profound arguments about the future of the United States provide the origins of the two-party system in the United States today.

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