The Lives Of The Parties


That may have disappointed the framers without surprising them. They were not self-deluded Utopians. They had plenty of experience with factions in their colonial assemblies, and they did expect that in a big and growing country a diversity of religious, social, and economic interests would soon make unanimity impossible. What they lacked was a clear picture of how such interests would organize themselves on a regular basis and contend for power. What they hoped was that no sinele one would become strong enough to dominate the government and impose policies that would, in James Madison’s words, be “adverse to … the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” But just in case that should sometimes happen, they prudently divided and hobbled the government enough to limit the damage. The ink was hardly dry on the parchment before the clash of interest groups began to resound, and the stage was set for what might be called the first act in the drama of American parties, the era of laying foundations.

The gladiators quickly arranged themselves around the two dominant personalities in Washington’s cabinet. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton advocated a powerful central government that encouraged trade, banking, and manufactures and that openly favored its wealthiest citizens because their support would guarantee the nation’s permanence and stability. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson thought distinctly otherwise. Only a decentralized republic built around communities of independent landowners would protect freedom from the raids of the greedy, the power-hungry, and the demagogues who served them. Soon the two men and their followers were at one another’s throats, much to the distress of Washington, who saw what was coming and warned that “the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension” had caused “the most horrid enormities” in the past.

Those who were of Hamilton’s mind took the name of Federalists, used by the supporters of the Constitution during the battle over its ratification. They were nation builders and numbered some of the most distinguished creators of America: Hamilton himself, President John Adams, Chief Justice John Marshall. They tended to put little faith in the people at large, whereas Jefferson’s every instinct, slaveholding elitist though he was, prompted him toward a steady widening of the scope of freedom. The debate was, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s words, “as old as the world itself,” between those who “wanted to restrict popular power” and those whose desire was “to extend it indefinitely.” Jefferson and his cohort accused the Federalists, with their love of tradition and authority, of leaning toward monarchy. To separate themselves clearly from that heresy, they used the name of “Republican.” In time some became unabashedly willing to take the label of “Democratic-Republicans.”


The reader will immediately recognize that the names of both of today’s major parties are derived from that Jeffersonian coalition. Did Hamilton’s ideas die without progeny, then? Not by any means, but be patient. There is a winding path to travel yet.

The Federalists and the Republicans created a constitutional headache in 1796, when John Adams got the most electoral votes for President, and Jefferson, as the runnerup, automatically became his Vice President. The two camps were still basically factions that did not look entirely unfamiliar to those who knew English politics, then dominated by two parties—landowning, conservative “Tories” and business-oriented, modernizing “Whigs.” The labels, however, basically described small groups of parliamentary leaders whom a smart king could play off against one another in the kind of game Dickens later satirized in Bleak House , with its contests between “Lord Goodie and Sir Thomas Doodle” and assorted Foodies, Goodies, and Hoodles.

American politics quickly broke away from that pattern. Though the electorate here was still mainly restricted to property holders inclined to defer to the wisdom of gentlemen, it was nonetheless much larger than England’s, and far more widely dispersed. It took a great deal of organizing, committee forming, and letter writing to unite the scattered political clubs into a cohesive party. The wonder is how effectively it was done at the speed of post riders on miserable roads. Even so, the nature of American geography and society required that a good deal of leeway be left in local hands. So while British parties were tightly knit and run from the top down, American parties were aggregates of independently created local and state organizations, each with a voice of its own.

As a result, general statements about American parties must be nibbled at cautiously rather than swallowed whole. It might be safe to say that the Federalists stood in a broad way for social conservatism, a strong central government, and trickle-down economics, and the Republicans for the opposite. But Federalist and Republican candidates for a governorship in some state might slug it out over purely parochial issues, unhitched to overarching political doctrines. And even at the congressional level, party members jumped fences when some compelling interest in their district so dictated.