America’s early history is marked with drastic changes in political situations and public opinions, leading to the inception and termination of various political parties. These parties came and went, but at any single moment in time, America’s government was controlled by one party, with a second vying for power. One such party was born out of the controversy over the adoption of the proposed Federal Constitution – the Federalist Party. It dominated congress and, therefore, America for approximately twenty-five years until it disintegrated and its members scattered throughout various other factions.
Fourteen years after the Federalists’ dissolution the Whig party rose as another prominent political group. The Whig party, although historically considered absolutely independent of any other previous American parties, was a partial continuation of the Federalist Party.
The Federalist Party’s initial prevalence in American politics was first noted during the adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1787 to 1788. It yearned for a nation in which the states had far less authority than the federal government.
However, the party’s opponents (the future leaders of the Democratic-Republicans) wished for a greater power to be granted to America’s states. These clashing opinions were soothed by the Bill of Rights, a compromise that checks and limits the federal government’s power.
Nevertheless, a well-defined Federalist Party did not exist before 1794. After George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a plan that would force the national government to assume state debts, fund the national debt, and charter a national bank. Followers of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed this idea, stating that it gave too great a power to the national bank and government. Furthermore, the Hamiltonians’ refusal to form an alliance with France fused the Democratic and Republican parties, the majority groups of the anti-Federalists.
In 1794, John Jay returned from England with a treaty that did not meet the requirements of the Democratic-Republicans, but was largely influenced by Alexander Hamilton. The treaty provided for British evacuation of all Northwestern posts, unrestricted navigation of the Mississippi river, and free trade between the North American territories of both the US and England. However, it fell short of its main purpose – indemnity for those American slaves that were taken by British armies was not allowed and American sailors were not guaranteed protection from impressment. The debate over this treaty finally created a distinct Federalist Party.
As followers of Hamilton’s political and economic ideas, the Federalists championed commercial and diplomatic harmony with Britain, domestic stability and order, and a strong national government under powerful executive and judicial branches. Such ideals were brought forth through a loose/liberal view of the Constitution that was established by the Federalist Party and generally maintained throughout American history. Furthermore, a United States bank, postal system, and protective tariff that supported national manufacture and agriculture were created soon after Washington’s inauguration.
Federalist dominance remained after John Adams was elected President in 1796. During his presidency, several acts that severely restricted Americans’ and aliens’ rights were passed. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were comprised of four acts that were direct attacks on the Democratic-Republican Party and the Bill of Rights. The acts postponed citizenship until the completion of fourteen years of residence (Naturalization Act), gave the president the power to imprison or deport aliens suspected of activities posing a threat to the national government (Alien and Alien Enemies Acts), and, most controversially, gave the judicial branch the right to try and imprison individuals that criticized government, nullifying the first amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The Federalists’ belief in a strong central government and a national bank caused various groups and classes to ally themselves with the party. Aristocratic and wealthy families felt obligated to support the Federalists not only because they believed it to be economically profitable for both them and America, but Alexander Hamilton was also a wealthy, aristocratic figure and therefore possessed social ties with many wealthy families. Individuals that felt the weakness of the Confederation sided with the Federalists, along with nationalists that felt American unity was necessary (of which were few at the time). Most northerners supported the Federalists, yet Southerners wished for more powerful state legislatures. Creditors and merchants found it profitable to support the Federalists as well, as the creation of the National Bank would be to their advantage (single national currency).
The Federalist Party first began to lose dominance when Hamilton broke from Adams in 1799. This break was caused by Adams’ agreement to open negotiations with France and the reorganization of his cabinet. The election of 1800 marked the beginning of Democratic-Republican reign and the end of Federalist dominance. The Federalists ran as the main opposition party against the Democratic-Republicans until 1820, at which point they no longer had a national candidate and, therefore, ceased to exist.
Eight years later, after the election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States, adherents of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay joined forces to create the National Republican party. This party gradually increased in size and was renamed the Whig Party in 1834, at which point it consisted of businessmen and friends of the Bank of the United States, states’ rights advocates in the South, proponents of internal improvements in the West, the Anti-Masonic Party and adherents of John C. Calhoun. The main goal of this party was to oppose the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson.
Although the opinions of the two most prominent leaders of the Party, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, were not in unison (Webster was more of a nationalist), the Whigs advocated a nationalistic economy policy (Clay’s “American System”) that urged a program of tariff protection, federally sponsored communication projects (internal improvements), continuation of the national bank, and a conservative land sales policy. Much of this policy could be traced back to Alexander Hamilton’s economic policy of 1791. The Whig party won support from merchants, manufacturers and creditors that supported national currency and interstate travel, as well as internal trade.
However, the Whig ideals were somewhat hindered by the Jacksonians, who opposed their views and stemmed from Jefferson’s ideals on state power and narrow views of the Constitution. Therefore, the Whig Party did not win an election until 1840, in which Gen. William Henry Harrison ran as candidate for president and John Tyler as vice-president. Before the party had a chance to pass key tariffs and bills that would create a modified “American System,” Harrison died (one month after assuming office) and John Tyler replaced him and vetoed most Whig bills and tariffs. The “American System” was not realized.
When the Whigs won another election in 1848, America was deeply involved in problems concerning slavery, expansion and sectionalism. Two years after the Compromise of 1850, which was largely due to the efforts of the Whig party, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay died, causing the Whig disaster of 1852 from which they could never recover. The party’s call for moderation and Union was now louder than their attempts to create a new national economic policy. In 1856, the Whig party came to an end due to sectional differences and the country’s conflicts over slavery and expansion.
Whig doctrine was governed by a very large and diverse group of people that believed in various political ideals. The Whig’s opposition to “King” Andrew Jackson represented their belief that the President should not have excessive power: that Congress should initiate policy. Their view of the Constitution varied, yet leaned more towards a loose/liberal, rather than narrow, view.
The Whig Party failed for the same basic reason that the Federalist Party dissolved – they believed in a national economic policy. America, on the other hand, was not unified. Individuals from various states had no feeling of nationalism, and therefore a national economic policy would not support their needs. The Democrats, however, believed in states’ rights and therefore easily received votes from a loosely unified nation that was thick with sectional differences and animosities.
From 1791 to 1856 American social and political situations changed drastically in relation to both internal and external affairs. Therefore, political parties changed in ideals and popularity. However, the basic ideology of the evolving parties remained constant, leading to similar adherent interest groups and programs/policies. From the Federalists, to the National Republicans, to the Whigs – the basic principle of these parties was a powerful national economic policy.