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The label Federalist refers to two major groups in the history of the United States of America:
- Federalists were those statesmen and public figures supporting ratification of the proposed Constitution of the United States between 1787 and 1789.
- Federalists were also those statesmen and public figures supporting the administrations of President George Washington (1789 – 1797) and President John Adams (1797 – 1801), as well as the related political alliances after 1801.
The two groups are not synonymous, and several Federalists of the first variety were not Federalists of the second (the most notable example being James Madison). Opponents of these groups were called "Anti-Federalists" and "Democratic-Republicans", respectively.
Types of Federalists
The first type of Federalist was distinguished by advocacy of the ratification of the Constitution which would have created a stronger Federal Government (hence the name). It is not a true political party, in fact, but a faction, which met to fight for one cause, and then died down afterwards. The most forceful statement of Federalist principles was The Federalist, a series of 85 essays written in New York City to convince the people of the State of New York to vote for ratification. These articles, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, examined the defects of the Articles of Confederation and the benefits of the new, proposed Constitution, and analyzed the political theory and function behind the various articles of the Constitution. The Federalist remains one of the most important documents in American political science.
The second type of Federalist was essentially a conservative in the traditional sense, i.e., a supporter of the party of government (the Federalists originally controlled all three branches). More specifically, the term came to be associated with the policies of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury; these policies included the funding of the national debt, the assumption of State debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, the incorporation of a national Bank of the United States, the support of manufactures and industrial development, the use of a light tariff and domestic incentives to encourage economic growth, strict neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, and the creation of a strong army and navy. Generally speaking, Hamiltonian policies were pursued in the Washington Administrations, and to a lesser extent, the Adams Administration.
These Federalists were not a political party as that term is understood today; the Founding Fathers detested political parties as divisive "factions", and it is more appropriate to think of Federalists as holders of a political philosophy (cf. conservative, liberal) rather than an ideology. Federalist members of the US Congress voted according to their principles and conscience rather than along party lines or according to party dictates. Hamilton himself ghostwrote Washington's Farewell Address in 1797, wherein Washington famously warned against political parties.
Fall of the Party
Adams's Congress passed the famous Alien and Sedition Acts during the Quasi War with France, and prosecuted the first major naval war in United States history, the Tripolitan War against Barbary privateers. Unfortunately, Hamilton and Adams disliked one another, each finding much in the other's character and politics to loathe, and during Adams's Presidency the Federalists split between supporters of Hamilton ("High Federalists") and supporters of Adams ("Low Federalists"). Hamilton did not want Adams re-elected, and wrote a scathing criticism of his performance as President of the United States in an effort to throw Federalist support to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney; inadvertently this split the Federalists and helped give the victory to Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Democratic-Republicans.
The Federalists continued to be a major political party (again, not in the modern sense) in New England and the Northeast, but never regained control of the Presidency or the Congress (Adams had successfully packed the U.S. Supreme Court with Federalist appointees before leaving office). With the death of Hamilton in a famous duel with Aaron Burr and the retirement of Adams, the Federalists were left without a strong leader, and grew steadily weaker, despite such leaders as Timothy Pickering and Daniel Webster. Federalist policies favoured commerce and trade over agriculture, and thus became unpopular in the growing Midwest. They were increasingly seen as aristocratic and unsympathetic to democracy, and Federalists fiercely opposed the Louisiana Purchase on Constitutional principle.
The Federalists were generally not equal to the tasks of party organisation, and grew steadily weaker as the fortunes of the so-called Virginia Dynasty grew. For economic reasons, the Federalists tended to be pro-British – the United States engaged in more trade with Great Britain than with any other country – and vociferously opposed Jefferson's ill-advised Embargo Act of 1807 and the seemingly deliberate provocation of war with the United Kingdom by the Madison Administration. During "Mr. Madison's War", as they called it, the Federalists called the Hartford Convention whereat they proposed certain Constitutional amendments; the Hartford Convention proved to be fatal to the party, as it was ever after accused of disloyalty and secessionism.
Many Federalists (including Daniel Webster) later joined former Democratic-Republicans like Henry Clay to become first National Republicans and then Whigs (the precursors to the modern Republican Party). The name "Federalist" came increasingly to be used in political rhetoric as a term of abuse; one popular attack on Whigs was that they were really "Wigs", being nothing but aristocratic Federalists and Tories with powdered wigs and knee-breeches (cf. the Whigs' popular reference to Andrew Jackson as "King Andrew I"). Ironically, Jefferson's and Madison's Democratic-Republicans famously complained of having "out-Federalisted the Federalists" by purchasing the Louisiana Territory, chartering a larger national bank, and imposing much stiffer tariffs. On the other hand, some notable members of Jackson's own party, including future president James Buchanan, began their career as Federalists.
It is tempting to label the Federalists as Leftists or Rightists, but one should be careful in applying modern labels to them. They were the original innovators of loose constructionism (Hamilton argued that implicit powers such as the chartering of a corporation were valid provided that they were used to pursue explicitly authorised ends such as the collection of tax revenues), and have been characterised as supporting a strong central government, but were also in favour of strong national defenses and supported commerce and industry. Attempts to label the Federalists as Left wing or Right wing are often highly idiosyncratic, and emphasise some Federalist policies at the expense of others.
- * It is disputed whether George Washington was a Federalist, or if he had no party.
- ** Adams became President, but Thomas Jefferson became the vice-president, not Pinckney.
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