History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Sedition Act Trials — Historical Background and Documents

Federalists and Republicans

The nation’s first political parties developed gradually and to the surprise of almost everyone in public life in the 1790s. Within a few years of the inauguration of the federal government in 1789, officeholders faced persistent divisions over questions about the proper extent of the new government’s authority. The debates over the establishment of the Bank of the United States in 1791 revealed sharply different ideas about the balance of state and national power. The recurring diplomatic crises associated with European wars emphasized the divisive political implications of alliances with European powers.

By the time the nation debated the proposed Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1795–1796, two well-defined political coalitions articulated starkly different visions for the nation’s government. The emerging parties established rival newspapers to advocate policies and to mobilize public opinion. During the Adams administration, partisanship reached new extremes as Federalists and Republicans responded to the French war crisis and prepared for the presidential election of 1800.

These first political parties had no formal national organizations like later parties, and many people expected that parties would recede once the direction of the national government became more clearly defined. The intense partisan conflict, however, raised concerns about the ultimate success of the experiment in representative government.


The Federalists emerged in the 1790s as a coalition of individuals who supported a strong national government, diplomatic ties with Great Britain, and the political leadership of men of property and experience. The term “Federalist” originally applied to those who supported the ratification of the Federal Constitution. By the mid-1790s, “Federalist” defined a group aligned with the administration of President George Washington. (Although Washington supported most Federalist policies, he steadfastly avoided partisan activity.)

The early Federalists were closely associated with the policies of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s visionary fiscal programs were based on the British model of a strong central bank and government encouragement of wealthy investors who would promote commerce and manufactures. Hamilton and his Federalist supporters believed that only the federal government could inspire confidence among people of wealth and thereby create the strong national economy needed to secure a republican form of government over an extended geographical area. Federalists favored an alliance with Great Britain as the nation that was most likely to promote commerce and investment in the United States. Federalists also believed that the government of Great Britain stood as a strong model of constitutional order, as opposed to what they saw as the radicalism of the French Revolution.

Most Federalists believed that representative governments were easily undermined by an excess of democracy. The stability of the new national government thus depended on the establishment of a certain distance from the direct voice of the people. Once elected, officeholders should be free from popular pressures. Federalists also believed that government was safest in the hands of what they called “independent” individuals, which usually meant people of wealth and social standing. In the opinion of the Federalists, state governments in the 1780s presented a threat to republican government precisely because they were too beholden to an electorate that made frequent changes in officeholders and demanded that government serve narrow, local interests. In any number of policies, from the funding of the national debt to the organization of the federal courts, Federalists hoped to expand the authority of the national government at the expense of the states.

By the war crisis of 1798, the growth of an opposition party and fears about foreign intrigue combined to convince many Federalists that the survival of the federal government required restrictions on new types of political behavior and controls on the many immigrants who filled port cities and generally supported Republicans. The Alien and Sedition Acts represented the Federalists’ effort to curb the new kind of opposition and to enforce an older style of politics that rested on a deference toward officeholders.

Federalist support was strongest in New England, but some centers of support existed even in the South, such as in South Carolina. After the defeat of John Adams in 1800, the Federalists never again held the presidency, and their membership in Congress declined. By the close of the War of 1812, the party virtually ceased to exist.


The Republicans of the 1790s coalesced around the broad issues of limiting federal power, defending state authority, and expanding popular participation in politics. Republicans also opposed any sort of alliance with Great Britain, which they believed would always attempt to keep the United States in a kind of colonial dependence.

Republicans first appeared as a coalition of opponents of Alexander Hamilton’s policies, which they feared would concentrate too much power in the national government and would create a small elite of merchants and financiers. Republicans believed that state governments were much more likely to protect popular liberties than was the more distant and less-accountable federal government. They also feared that the rise of an urban aristocracy was a serious risk in an extended republic like the United States. An economy based on agriculture and independent artisans would be a more secure foundation for representative government.

In the recurring debates on European alliances, the Republicans were sympathetic to France because of ties dating from the American Revolution and the liberal, republican politics of French reformers. Even as many in the United States became disenchanted with the course of the French Revolution and French restrictions on American commerce, the Republicans adamantly opposed closer ties to Great Britain. Great Britain’s mercantile and commercial strength, they feared, would restrict the economic growth of the United States. Furthermore, Great Britain’s monarchy and hierarchical society were fundamentally at odds with the republican principles of the United States government.

Initially the Republicans were led by James Madison in the House of Representatives. Thomas Jefferson, as secretary of state in the Washington administration, became the most important rallying point for Republicans, and as vice president under John Adams, Jefferson became the recognized leader of the party.

Throughout the 1790s, new forms of popular political organizations and broad-based participation in political debates expanded the support for Republicans. Republicans were strongest in the South, especially in Virginia, where they enjoyed support among many wealthy slaveholders. In the cities of the Middle Atlantic, and even in New England, many immigrants and independent tradesmen supported the Republicans.

During the Sedition Act prosecutions, many Republicans argued for a new understanding of free speech that emphasized the necessity for an unfettered exchange of ideas under a government based on popular participation in elections. As the first opposition party under the new Constitution and as the direct target of the Sedition Act, many Republicans felt compelled to defend the need for some sort of political organization outside the formal institutions of government. The election in 1800 of Jefferson as President and a Republican majority in Congress helped to legitimize political parties and to ease fears about the transition of power under the Constitution. The election of 1800 also marked the beginning of a steady ascendancy of the Republicans. With the decline of partisan conflict after the War of 1812, the label of Republican became so widely used as to lose much of its meaning. (In 1819, a leading national political newspaper stopped denoting government officials by party.)

The Republicans of the early United States have no connection with the modern Republican Party, which traces its roots to the 1850s.


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