Federalists and Democratic Republicans

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Both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had a specific vision for the future of this country by 1794. Whose vision of America’s future was closer to reality by the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877?

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Alexander Hamilton's vision of America was one based on industrialization, a strong central government, and a strong military. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson believed in agrarianism, or an agricultural economy, and a smaller central government with stronger state governments.

By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Hamilton's vision was, in some ways, closer to reality than Jefferson's. The federal government had strengthened in size and scope, and it had just led the Union's war effort and overseen the reabsorption of the Confederate states into the Union. To win the Civil War, the federal government had amassed a strong military, passed an income tax, and increased its powers. However, even after Reconstruction, the South clung to Jefferson's agrarian ideals and remained committed to agriculture and sharecropping rather than embracing the process of industrialization. Despite this, the country as a whole had moved towards a Hamiltonian vision of the economy and government.

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By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Hamilton's view of the United States had largely prevailed. The Civil War proved once and for all that federal power was above state power and that states did not have the right to secede or make laws contrary to the federal government. While the size of the army sharply dwindled by 1877, the federal army at the end of the Civil War was quite large. It was also maintained by a healthy tax base, with the United States levying an income tax for the first time.

Farming would continue to be important, but the United States was becoming more industrial in 1877 than it had been in the past. The same techniques used to feed and equip the Union army were used in the civilian sector, thus making the United States a commercial rival to economic powers in Europe. American cities teemed with new immigrants looking for work in these factories. Tariffs protected many American industries, and during Reconstruction and the period immediately after, the tariff would be the major economic issue of the day.

The American dream in 1877 was to own farmland, and many took advantage of the Homestead Act; however, the United States's political philosophy and economic outlook definitely resembled the vision that Hamilton had for the country in 1794.

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On the whole, one would have to say that Hamilton’s vision was the one that had prevailed by the end of Reconstruction. Hamilton envisaged an America with a strong, centralized federal government, whose economic prosperity was based upon commerce, trade, and industry. The years after the Civil War were a time of increased federal power as the victorious North strengthened its control over the defeated South, in order to prevent another uprising in the future. On the economic front, industrialization advanced rapidly during this period, with the ruling Republican Party establishing for the first time a reputation as the party of big business.

At the same time, however, one must also acknowledge that the Civil War and Reconstruction did not see off the Jeffersonian vision entirely. Far from it. After Republicans in Washington effectively abandoned Reconstruction—and with it the millions of African Americans who’d benefited from it—Jefferson’s vision, with its emphasis on states’ rights, gradually began to reassert itself. After Reconstruction, southern states effectively reintroduced slavery by the back door, in substance if not in form, by passing the notorious Jim Crow laws. Although federal power was now greater than it had ever been, successive administrations and Supreme Courts alike proved reluctant to interfere in the rights of southern states to pass blatantly discriminatory legislation. In that sense, one could say that it wasn’t until the federal government systematically began to dismantle the legal apparatus of segregation in the 1960s that the Jeffersonian vision of states’ rights finally died out.

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