2. How did George Washington feel about political parties?
3. Describe the election of 1796
4. How have the rules for the Electoral College changed since 1796?
6. In general, what are the policies of modern Democrats?
In 1796 President Washington, who was re-elected easily in 1792, announced that he would not seek a third term. The president urged Americans to maintain neutrality abroad and unity at home. Washington warned of the dangers posed by political groups and regional interests.
Washington’s warning went unheeded. By the mid 1790’s heated debates over whether to stay neutral or to side with Britain or France in the French Revolution deepened political divisions. Such debates also helped give rise to the first American political parties. Washington had underestimated the depth of regional and economic differences within the United States. In the mid 1790’s sectionalism or loyalty to a particular part of the country, further contributed to the emergence of two parties the Federalist Party was led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the Democratic-Republican Party. As Americans sided with one party or the other, the nation’s two-party system took shape.
Merchants, manufactures, lawyers, and church leaders from New England and the Atlantic seaboard tended to support he Federalist Party. John Adams called these Americans “the rich, the well-born, and the able.” Federalists expected the rich to provide national leadership, because, as one leading Federalist put it, “those who own the country ought to govern it.” Besides favoring a strong national government, Federalists wanted to promote the development of commerce, particularly with Britain.
The Democratic-Republican Party was later shortened to the Republican Party. It has no direct connection to today’s Republican Party. The party included planters, small farmers, and wage earners, artisans, workers, and trades people. It was particularly strong on the frontier and in the South where its supporters believed that farmers deserved a greater voice in government. The party also found support in the north, particularly in the middle states, or what became known as the Midwest. There the party was seen as a way to challenge established leadership and achieve political equality.
Both northern and southern republicans shared certain common beliefs. Their main goal was to protect states’ rights and individual liberties by limiting the power of the federal government. Republicans feared a strong national government and the financial and political powers that could create such a system.
Washington’s decision not to seek re-election in 1796 set in motion the first real competition for the presidency. In that election, federalists John Adams and Thomas Pinckney faced off against Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The antagonism between the parties was evident from the beginning. Many republicans agreed that Adams had a “partiality for monarchy.” Some federalists accused Jefferson of plotting a reign of terror like that in revolutionary France.
Alexander Hamilton tried to prevent Adams, a rival within his own party, from winning. He secretly persuaded a few southern Federalist electors to vote only for Pinckney. According to the Constitution, whoever received the most Electoral College votes became president. The runner-up became vice president. Hamilton’s strategy backfired when northern Federalists discovered the plan and responded by not voting for Pinckney, a southerner. When the votes were counted, Adams was president, and Jefferson –his Republican opponent – was vice president.
American politics have been dominated by a two-party system ever since Washington retired to Mount Vernon, but the parties have changed, separated, and evolved dramatically as the nation was forced to grapple with new challenges at home and abroad. By 1816 the Federalist Party had dissolved, but Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party remained and continues to exist today as the Democratic Party. Over the years different parties have set foot in the national spotlight—the Whigs, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party—but by the 1860s the party system had evolved into two major parties whose names we easily recognize—the Democrats and the Republicans.
Although we consider the Democrats and Republicans to be the two major parties of modern times, their early policies varied quite a bit from modern standards. A twenty-first century Republican is undoubtedly proud of the early party’s stand against slavery, but is likely to cringe at its support of taxes levied on imported goods rather than free trade. Individual opinions continue to vary within each party, but today most Republicans believe that government should tax people less, intervene in people’s lives as little as possible, and maintain a strong military. On the other hand Democrats support government programs that help those in need, as well as protection of civil rights, public education, and environmental issues.