Federalists and Democratic Republicans

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During the 1790s, why did the revolutionary leaders become divided over the course of the new nation?

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Much of the answer to this lies in the fact that Enlightenment ideals, which had been a stimulus to the American independence movement, were also a source of controversy and division in the newly formed country.

The Enlightenment had promoted not only the ideal of human equality, but a break with tradition as manifested in different areas of human thought and social organization. The main question as the new constitutional government was initiated in 1789 was, how far did Americans wish to go in their creation of a new society? Had a merely political, not ideological separation from Britain occurred? Or did the events of 1775–83, and then 1787–88 during the constitutional settlement, mean that a true overthrow of past dominant ideas had taken place?

The debate over these issues was intensified largely because of what was occurring in Europe. The French Revolution carried with it implications about the future not just of France, but of the world. Did it, as many believed, represent a fulfillment of the same ideals that animated the American Revolution, which France (though still an absolute monarchy at the time) had facilitated? Or was it a dangerous, radical step that was aimed at subverting traditional values and was thus a danger to the order of civilization?

These questions and the division in thought they represented were at the roots of the nascent US political parties in the 1790s. The Federalists, with their chief ideologue Hamilton, who was Washington's right-hand man, wished to maintain a strong central government and an economy grounded in a central banking system. They also intended to restore relations with Great Britain. This orientation became even more pronounced when the French Revolution turned increasingly violent and radical, not just forming a constitutional monarchy but eventually deposing and executing Louis XVI.

The Democratic Republicans under Jefferson's leadership wanted a weaker central government and an economy based chiefly on yeoman farming. They supported revolutionary France and regarded the monarchies of Europe, including that of Britain, as reactionary states that would eventually be replaced by republics, as France had become in 1792. In all, though this is an oversimplification, the Federalists were "conservative" and the Democratic Republicans were "liberal," though these terms were not used in that time as they are now.

There was also a religious dimension to the American ideological split. Jefferson was a deist: like the Jacobins in France, he rejected organized religion. Though this was probably true of only some of Jefferson's followers, it was a tendency that existed as a kind of subtext to their general beliefs. Jefferson's friend Thomas Paine wrote two books during the period that were expressive, respectively, of social and religious (or anti-religious) radicalism: Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1795). These works were highly inflammatory and caused conservative Americans to regard Paine and anyone who favored him (such as Jefferson) as a hateful symbol of the rejection of cherished tradition and religious belief—two things most Federalists did believe in. By most standards, the "culture war" of the 1790s was worse than the similar disputes between conservative and liberal ideologies in our own time, but it did set the course for the kind of political debate still with us today.

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Although united by the fight for their independence, the thirteen colonies remained only loosely connected by the Articles of Confederation. The colonies wanted to remain united but also maintain individual autonomy. The Articles created a Congress but failed to institute the necessary institutions of government.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington called for the establishment of a stronger central government capable of making laws, raising money through taxes, and strengthening the Continental Army.

The governor of New York, among other delegates, was opposed to a strong central government. The distribution of power among the states was another divisive issue. A framework for power between the large states and small states was expected to be a complex balancing act. The revolutionaries frequently quarreled over the idea of having a one-man executive, believing that it was setting the stage for a monarchy.

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The revolutionary leaders split over the direction of the new nation in the 1790s because of external events and because of differences in their views as to what an ideal country looked like.  In essence, they were breaking into political parties because they no longer had the goal of independence to keep them unified.

As the new country was getting started, the leaders had to decide what they wanted the country to look like.  They fell into two main categories on this issue.  One group, that we now call Federalists, wanted the country to become industrialized and economically powerful.  They felt that a strong national government was needed to help achieve this goal.  They did not mind if the industrialization led to a degree of social and economic stratification.  Finally, they were somewhat suspicious of democracy, feeling that the people as a whole did not know enough to rule themselves directly.  This group is most closely associated with Alexander Hamilton.  The second group, now known as the Democratic-Republicans, was led by Thomas Jefferson.  This group wanted a country that was made up of small farmers.  These farmers would all be independent and would all be equal to one another.  This would make for a perfect democracy because everyone (or at least every white man) would be equal to every other. 

These groups were further split by events overseas.  Specifically, they were split by the French Revolution and by the war between France and Britain that followed.  The Federalists were horrified by the French Revolution and felt that the more conservative British system of government was preferable to French-style democracy.  The Democratic-Republicans approved of the French Revolution and saw the British system as a form of tyranny.  The conflict between France and Britain forced these nascent parties to take sides, further splitting the revolutionary leaders.

Thus, we can see that the leaders of the Revolution later split with one another because they had divergent views as to what an ideal country would look like.

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