Guest Author - Susan Gaissert
Imagine no political parties. Imagine the President of the United States thinking there should be no political parties. It’s hard to picture, given the way things are in early 21st-century America.
When the United States of America was formed, however, there were no political parties, and President George Washington hoped that none would be formed. He saw them as a threat to unity. In spite of this, the inherent human urge to form opinions and seek out others who share those opinions soon took hold among the people. By the end of Washington’s eight years in office, his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, had started the Federalist Party. This was a group, mainly composed of businessmen and property owners, who believed in a strong central, or federal, government. The second United States President, John Adams, was a Federalist.
Thomas Jefferson was the organizer of the other political party that emerged in this new government. The part was called – surprise! – the Republican Party. This was in keeping with the meaning of the word “republic,” which refers to a state in which citizens, and not the central government, hold the absolute power. The Republicans, or Jeffersonians, supported the interests of farmers and believed that the individual states should be stronger than the federal government.
During his presidency, John Adams, in answer to threats of war with France, authorized the Sedition Act. This law made it a crime to speak or act against the government. Because of the Sedition Act, the editors of many Republican newspapers were arrested and forced to stop publishing. Thomas Jefferson and his friend James Madison took note of this, and they wrote resolutions against the Sedition Act. Those resolutions were approved by the state governments of Virginia and Kentucky.
Jefferson’s reasoning was that the federal government could only act with the agreement of the states, and if states disagreed with the Sedition Act, the Act was invalid. We see this concept of states’ rights being played out all over the country today, especially in the realm of social issues, such as the right of gays to marry.
Public opinion was with Jefferson, making it easier for him to solidify his party, which the Federalists called the Democratic-Republican Party. They added the word “democratic,” which pertains to a belief in social and political equality for all people, in hopes of creating the perception that Jefferson and his followers would ignite mob rule. The strategy didn’t work, and Jefferson became the next President. He pardoned all who had been convicted under the Sedition Act, and Congress voted to pay back the victims’ fines, with interest.
Jefferson’s two terms would be followed by two terms each for fellow Democratic-Republicans James Madison and James Monroe. By the time of Monroe’s presidency, the country was deemed to be in the midst of “The Era of Good Feelings,” with little political dissension.
That would change, however, and the Democratic-Republicans would become simply the Democrats, but that’s another story, for another article.