Modern history

The First Party System

In 1796 executive power was placed in the hands of politicians who represented opposing factions in the national government: John Adams (a Federalist) became president and Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic-Republican) vice president. The two disagreed fundamentally on a wide range of issues, and events soon heightened these divisions. Foreign crises once again fueled political antagonisms as fear of war with Britain or France intensified. In response to the increasingly passionate debates over foreign policy, Federalists in Congress passed two acts in 1798 relating to aliens (immigrants) and to sedition (activities that promote civil disorder). Instead of resolving tensions, however, these laws exacerbated opposition to Federalist rule. By 1800, as the nation’s fourth presidential election approached, partisan debates had crystallized into opposing factions, and the Democratic-Republicans threatened to oust the Federalists from power.

The Adams Presidency

The election of 1796 was the first to be contested by candidates identified with opposing factions. After private consultations among party leaders, Federalists supported John Adams for president and Thomas Pinckney for vice president. Though less well organized, Democratic- Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York to represent their interests. When the electoral college was established, political parties did not exist and, in fact, were seen as promoting conflict. Thus electors were asked to choose the best individuals to serve, regardless of their views. In 1796 they picked Adams for president and Jefferson for vice president, perhaps hoping to lessen partisan divisions by forcing men of different views to work together. Instead, the effects of an administration divided against itself were nearly disastrous, and opposing interests became even more thoroughly entrenched.

Adams and Jefferson had disagreed on almost every major policy issue during Washington’s administration. Not surprisingly, the new president rarely took advice from his vice president, who continued to lead the opposition. At the same time, Adams retained most of Washington’s appointees, who repeatedly sought advice from Hamilton, which further undercut Adams’s authority. Worse still, the new president had poor political instincts and faced numerous challenges.

At first, foreign disputes enhanced the authority of the Adams administration. The Federalists remained pro-British, and French seizures of U.S. ships threatened to provoke war. In 1798 Adams tried to negotiate compensation for the losses suffered by merchants. When an American delegation arrived in Paris, however, three French agents demanded a bribe to initiate talks.

The Democratic-Republicans in Congress believed that Adams was exaggerating the issue to undermine U.S.-French relations. Adams then made public secret correspondence from the French agents, whose names were listed only as X, Y, and Z. Americans, including Democratic-Republicans, expressed outrage at this French insult to U.S. integrity, which became known as the XYZ affair. Congress quickly approved an embargo act that prohibited trade with France and permitted privateering against French ships. In May 1798, Congress allocated funds to build up the navy and defend the American coastline against attack. For the next two years, the United States fought an undeclared war with France.

Despite widespread support for his handling of the XYZ affair, Adams feared dissent from opponents at home and abroad. Consequently, the Federalist majority in Congress passed a series of security acts in 1798. The Alien Act allowed the president to order the imprisonment or deportation of noncitizens and was directed primarily at Irish and Scottish dissenters who criticized the government’s pro-British policies. Congress also approved the Naturalization Act, which raised the residency requirement for citizenship from five to fourteen years. Finally, Federalists pushed through the Sedition Act, which outlawed “false, scandalous, or malicious statements against President or Congress” and penalized those who incited hatred of the government.

The First Amendment states that Congress “shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” However, as a Federalist newspaper explained, in the current situation, “All who are against us are at war.” No opposition to Federalist policies would be tolerated. Over the next several months, nearly two dozen Democratic-Republican editors and legislators were arrested for sedition, and some were fined and imprisoned.

Democratic-Republicans were, understandably, infuriated by the Alien and Sedition Acts. They considered the attack on immigrants an attempt to limit the votes of farmers, artisans, and frontiersmen, who formed the core of their supporters. The Sedition Act also challenged the party since it was Republican critics who faced arrest. Jefferson and Madison encouraged states to pass resolutions that would counter this violation of the Bill of Rights. Accepting resolutions drafted by Jefferson and Madison, legislators in Virginia and Kentucky declared the Alien and Sedition Acts “void and of no force.” Virginia went even further, claiming that states had a right to nullify any powers exercised by the federal government that were not explicitly granted to it.

Although the Alien and Sedition Acts curbed dissent in the short run, they reinforced popular concerns about the power wielded by the Federalists. Combined with the ongoing war with France, continuing disputes over taxes, and relentless partisan attacks and denunciations in the press, these acts set the stage for the presidential election of1800.

The Election of 1800 The election of 1800 marked the first transfer of political power in the United States from one party to another. The Democratic-Republican candidate for president, Thomas Jefferson, defeated the Federalist Party incumbent, John Adams. On March 4, 1801, the Columbian Centinel, a Federalist newspaper in Boston, viewed Jefferson's inauguration as the end of the peace, prosperity, and honor achieved under the Federalists. The Granger Collection, New York

The Election of 1800

By 1800 Adams had negotiated a peaceful settlement of U.S. conflicts with France, considering it one of the greatest achievements of his administration. However, other Federalists, including Hamilton, disagreed, continuing to seek open warfare and an all-out victory. Thus the Federalists faced the election of1800 deeply divided. Democratic- Republicans meanwhile, although more loosely organized than the Federalists, united behind Jefferson. They portrayed the Federalists as the “new British,” tyrants who abused their power and violated the rights guaranteed ordinary citizens.

For the first time, congressional caucuses selected candidates for each party. The Federalists agreed on Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. The Democratic-Republicans again chose Jefferson and Burr as their candidates. The campaign quickly escalated into a series of bitter accusations, with advocates for each side denouncing the other.

In the first highly contested presidential election, the different methods states used to record voters’ preferences gained more attention. Only five states determined members of the electoral college by popular vote. In the rest of the states, legislatures appointed electors. In some states, voters orally declared their preference for president; in other states, voters submitted paper ballots. In addition, because the idea of party tickets was new, the members of the electoral college were not prepared for the situation they faced in January 1801, when Jefferson and Burr received exactly the same number of votes. After considerable political maneuvering, Jefferson, the intended presidential candidate, emerged victorious.

Jefferson labeled his election a revolution achieved not “by the sword” but by “the suffrage of the people.” The election of 1800 was hardly a popular revolution, given the restrictions on suffrage (of some 5.3 million Americans, only about 550,000 could vote) and the limited participation of voters in selecting the electoral college. Still, partisan factions had been transformed into opposing parties, and the United States had managed a peaceful transition from one party in power to another, which was a development few other nations could claim in 1800.


• What were the main issues dividing the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans?

• What do the Alien and Sedition Acts tell us about attitudes toward political partisanship in late-eighteenth-century America?

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