Democratic-Republican Party: Definition & History

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
In this lesson, we'll be looking at the Democratic-Republican Party, which grew out of the Anti-Federalists and was rooted in a belief in a more decentralized Federal government. After reading, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.


Seemingly before the ink was dry on the Constitution of 1787, American politicians began dividing and organizing themselves into separate groups to support or defend their political agendas. One of these early political parties was the Democratic-Republican Party, which lasted for roughly 30 years in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

In the early years of the American republic, there were two basic camps regarding political power. Ironically, the Constitution, which was to form a 'more perfect union,' was the source of the original political divide in the United States. Those who supported the Constitution took on the moniker of Federalists, portraying their support of a strong, united Federal government. Those who were opposed to the new constitution received the moniker of Anti-Federalists because they believed that the Constitution granted too much power to a central government.

Behind leaders such as Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, the Federalists soon began organizing themselves from an ideological group into a political party with connections that aided their political agenda. In response, Hamilton's primary political opponent, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, began organizing the Anti-Federalists into what would become known as the Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson believed in a more decentralized government and the existence of states' rights within the structure of federalism. Jefferson believed in a republic based primarily on farmers and the virtues of citizenship, and he feared that a strong government in Washington would result in corruption and abuses of power. Along with Jefferson, Congressman James Madison was crucial to this party's creation as well.

New Party

The Democratic-Republicans officially entered the national political scene in the election of 1796. While Federalist Vice President John Adams won that election, Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate, did well enough to win the office of Vice President. These were the days without party tickets, where the first place finisher became president and the second place finisher was the vice president. Jefferson and Madison proved adept at using newspapers to disseminate their message and attack leading Federalists in these years, preparing for the power that was to come their way at the start of the new century.

In 1800, Jefferson again made a bid for the presidency, and after a long, drawn out, and controversial election, he won, sparking an era of Democratic-Republican rule. This is sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800 because of its large political implications for the future of the country. For the next 24 years, Democratic-Republicans held the presidency and ruled national politics with little opposition, all but dooming the Federalist party to the dust bin of history.

Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe

During the Jefferson presidency, the Democratic-Republicans exerted their political ideology on a national scale. The party held the White House and both branches of Congress, completely controlling the operations of enacting Federal laws. Jefferson reduced the size of the Federal government, reformed Federalist judicial practices, and cut down the national debt dramatically.

Thomas Jefferson

In 1808, James Madison took over as president, continuing the Democratic-Republican rule. Madison took the nation to war with Great Britain in the War of 1812, standing up for American authority and independence in response to British abuses of American sailors and laws. Following the War of 1812, Madison began to shift away from basic Democratic-Republican principles toward a stronger Federal government. Having nearly lost the war due to a lack of a national standing army and financial system, Madison's post-war governing began a party and national shift toward stronger national policies and institutions.

James Madison

In 1816, James Monroe became the third Democratic-Republican president. In the post-War of 1812 atmosphere, Monroe was essentially unopposed. This time is known as the Era of Good Feelings because of the lack of political partisanship. Essentially, the Federalists had faded away and died during the War of 1812, and the Democratic-Republicans were the only national party left standing. This era extended into Monroe's second term, as he was reelected in 1820 after running nearly unopposed for the presidency.

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