George Washington had been a unifying figure in American public life. When he left the scene, it was therefore inevitable that politics in the United States would become a good deal more fractious and partisan. That is precisely what happened in the 1790s. The Americans had won their war against...
George Washington had been a unifying figure in American public life. When he left the scene, it was therefore inevitable that politics in the United States would become a good deal more fractious and partisan. That is precisely what happened in the 1790s. The Americans had won their war against the British, and now it was time to win the peace. However, the unity of the Revolutionary War gave way to bitterness and rancor as radically competing visions emerged of what the United States should look like and how it should develop as a nation. As a result, the American party system emerged.
Generally speaking, there were two such visions, roughly corresponding to what became known as Federalism and Anti-Federalism. Federalists believed in strong, centralized institutions of government. The United States needed to take its place in the international family of nations; it needed to speak with one voice concerning foreign policy; it needed to be able to pay the enormous debts it had incurred during its war with the British. All of this necessitated a greater concentration of power at the center.
For Anti-Federalists, however, such a vision was troubling, to say the least, representing as it did a betrayal of the values of republican liberty on which the United States had been founded. A loose confederation of states had been able to unite to fight the British; there was no need for an increase in federal power. America's strength as a nation lay in its radical decentralization of power and in the ultimate sovereignty of the states. Americans had just fought a long and bitter war to preserve their inalienable rights and to protect their liberty from a tyrannical power. The last thing the Anti-Federalists wanted to see was the reestablishment of such tyranny on American soil in a different guise.
Some degree of compromise was thrashed out between the two sides, manifesting itself in the Bill of Rights. Yet, the enmity and mutual distrust of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists formed the basis for the conduct of American politics throughout the 1790s and long into the next century.