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Federalist Party: Definition, Leaders & Members

Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

Define the Federalist Party, learn about the party's key leaders including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall, understand who joined the party and how the party eventually declined.

Definition

The Federalist Party, along with the Republican Party, was part of the first two-party system in United States history. The Federalist Party formed during the 1790s as the country's leaders disagreed over key provisions of the Constitution and major foreign policy issues. The party advocated a strong national government at the expense of the states, favored an economy based upon strong banking, commercial, and manufacturing development, and tended to support Britain over France in its foreign policy.

Historical Background

As George Washington prepared to leave office after the end of his second term as president, he wanted to leave the nation with his parting words of advice. In 1796 he published the famous 'Farewell Address' where he urged the nation to stay clear from 'combinations or associations,' that tend, 'to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people.' Despite Washington's warnings against forming distinct political parties, his administration witnessed the rise of two competing political entities, the Federalist Party and the Republican Party.

Leaders

The Federalist Party was organized mainly by Alexander Hamilton, who served as Washington's aide during the Revolution and then as the first Secretary of the Treasury in Washington's cabinet.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was given the important responsibility to secure the new nation's financial future. Following the Revolution, the nation was burdened by debt and had no established credit with other nations. In 1790, Hamilton published a series of reports that outlined the steps necessary to relieve the nation's debt and promote economic development. Some of the key provisions of this plan included the establishment of a national bank, the creation of a tariff (tax on imported goods), and the assumption of the state debt to add more strength to the national government. Washington supported Hamilton's plans and they were put into action. However, other key government leaders like Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State) and James Madison (Speaker of the House) felt that Hamilton's plans favored the wealthy classes at the expense of the common people, weakened the states, and put the country on a path that would model the British economic system.

These disagreements led to the formation of defined political parties. In order to secure his plans and vision for the country's development, Hamilton went to great lengths to organize the Federalist Party in opposition to Jefferson and Madison's Republicans. Hamilton used his influence in the Treasury Department to make connections with those who shared his vision, especially on economic matters, within the states. Soon the Federalists had established party bases throughout the country with their greatest strength in New England.

New England helped elect their own John Adams as the first Federalist President of the United States. Adams served as Washington's first vice president and attempted to continue the policies of the first president.

Portrait of John Adams
John Adams

While Adams would deny that he had any connections to an organized political party, Federalist members of Congress voted to make him their candidate for president in 1796 and 1800. Adams relied on their support for his candidacy which helped him defeat Jefferson in 1796. Adams continued to support Hamilton's financial programs and supported a closer relationship with Britain over France, which was key to Federalist foreign policy. However, Adams broke from Hamilton in his insistence on remaining neutral in the war between Britain and France. Hamilton urged Adams to openly support Britain which would further cement the commercial ties between the two nations and weaken the power of the Republicans who tended to support France. Adams agreed with Washington's earlier policy of neutrality and felt that the young country was not ready for war. This neutral stance weakened Adams' support among Federalists. Even though he still received their nomination as the party's presidential candidate in 1800, this weakened relationship between Adams and Hamilton led to Adams defeat and Jefferson's victory.

Before leaving office, Adams appointed John Marshall as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall was a strong supporter of the Federalist party and served on the court from 1801 to 1835.

Portrait of John Marshall
John Marshall

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