Federalists and Democratic Republicans

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What principal issues divided Federalists and Republicans in the election of 1800?

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Civil liberties were a major part of a division. John Adams created the Alien and Sedition Act in 1798, which made it illegal to speak out against the government and increased the period of time needed to become a citizen. Democratic-Republicans complained that this violated the First Amendment and that...

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Civil liberties were a major part of a division. John Adams created the Alien and Sedition Act in 1798, which made it illegal to speak out against the government and increased the period of time needed to become a citizen. Democratic-Republicans complained that this violated the First Amendment and that the new citizenship requirements hit their potential constituency unfairly. Federalists claimed that they were trying to avoid a revolution similar to the French Revolution, a revolution favored by many in the Democratic-Republican ranks. Newspaper editors who openly favored both the Democratic-Republicans or the Federalists helped to maintain these divisions by openly attacking the other side in editorials. People read the news to be entertained as much as they did to be informed.

The personalities of the two heads of the parties were also attacked. Jefferson was depicted as a pro-French atheist while Adams was depicted as a monarchist who would consolidate all of the nation's power in the Northeast. The Federalists feared that many in their party would be killed or at least ostracized if the Democratic-Republicans won the election—after all, this would be the first time in the nation's history that power had switched from one party to another, and few thought this could happen peacefully. Jefferson was most afraid of two key Federalist planks—a strong national army and a national bank, since he thought this gave the federal government too much power.

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The Federalists and the Republicans were divided on almost all domestic and foreign policies. In fact, they disagreed over the fundamental nature of the new nation. George Washington, the nation's first president (1789–1797) had sought to maintain a united government and avoid the creation of rival political factions. However, in spite of his wishes, disputatious factions had arisen. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 further inflamed the political divisions.

The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton, Washington's secretary of the treasury. Hamilton was a brilliant and ambitious figure. He wanted to create a nation with a diversified economy with urban centers. Hamilton strongly believed that the new nation needed an immensely powerful central government. He was pro-British, and he supported the Jay Treaty with Britain in 1794. Hamilton wanted to establish a national bank. Also, the Federalists were elitists.

The Republicans were led by Thomas Jefferson. He had also served in the Washington administration. But his rivalry with Hamilton grew, and he found it difficult to find common ground with him. Jefferson favored a rural and agrarian society. He worshiped small farmers, and he thought a decentralized government was best. Jefferson feared that a too-powerful national government might become tyrannical. The Republicans were pro-French.

The election of 1800 was a kind of referendum on these two competing views of America. It was a bitter and contentious election. Jefferson finally emerged as the winner. His triumph was significant because it marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in American history.

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The Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties emerged out of the Washington Administration, from the opposing visions that Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury each had for the country. Hamilton favored a stronger central government, which would be able to support financial growth. Jefferson, a supporter of States' Rights, was leery of a centralized Federal Government and distrusted the financial elites that tended to align with Hamilton. As the French Revolution unfolded, Hamilton wanted to support the British while Jefferson favored the French. In a sense, these were two mutually incompatible visions of government, and the conflict over these questions got very heated.

The second President, John Adams, was a Federalist. Facing a very divisive political situation (especially with the French Revolution, the war between France and Spain, and the United States' own uneasy position between those two nations), the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which was used as a tool to prosecute their Republican critics. Understandably, this became the source of much controversy.

As has already been said, the election of 1800 utilized a lot of very personal attacks. However, this ran both sides. Just as Jefferson was painted as an Atheist and a pro-Revolutionary radical, so too did the Republicans depict Adams as a kind of monarch in the making (as opposed to the freedom loving Jefferson). Each side tried to paint the other in the worst possible light.

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The major issue in this election was the unpopularity of a number of things that the Federalists had done while in office. One of these was the Alien and Sedition Acts.  These acts had become very unpopular because of the way in which the suppressed people's freedom of speech.  Another issue was all of the money that had been spent and the taxes that had been imposed to prepare for a war (against the French) that never came.

Knowing they were losing, the Federalists went after Jefferson on cultural grounds.  They accused him of being an atheist and a supporter of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.  They claimed that a win for Jefferson would lead to things like Bibles being burned and women raped.  If Jefferson won, one newspaper says here:

Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.

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