Federalists and Whigs. by Daniel Bruno
Photo: Standing at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
After winning the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers were confronted with the difficulties of not only managing a new nation, but a new and unique form of government as well. As such, it is not surprising that the government about to be created would have some congruency to those of the Old World, and that Old-World ideas of Man and government would remain or only be modified to co-exist with the new ideas of the Revolution. The Federalist Party was a bastion of aristocratic European influence as regards the role and place of government in the lives of citizens.
The Monarchism issue divided the Federalist Party into Federalists and Republicans. Led by Hamilton, the Federalists’ objective was to mold the United States in accord with their vision of an established order securely protected against demagogues and democratic majorities. This vision took the form of a highly aristocratic, class conscious society. (1) Order and stability being a prime objective of the Federalists, central government having authority over thirteen state governments was crucial, lest internal division and dissent render the union impotent, making it easy prey for commercial and military designs of foreign powers. “A government which relies on thirteen independent sovereignties for the means of its existence, is a solecism in theory and a mere nullity in practice.” (2) So spoke James Madison. Thus the Federalists supported a strong central government inspite of its similarities to monarchial rule. They were also very nationalistic.
Despite the fact that Federalism sough to carry over the aristocratic bias of colonial society into the Republic, it did not represent the last stand of an old order. Rather it marked the first effort on the part of the business and professional class, together with prosperous landowners, to arrogate to themselves the direction of the nation’s affairs. (3) The Federalists held that the common man was altogether unfit to participate in politics, and that government by the few over the many was best. “It is said to be necessary, that all classes of citizens should have some of their own number in the representative body, in order that their feelings and interests may be the better understood and attended to. But we have seen that this will never happen under any arrangement that leaves the votes of the people free.” (4) Thus spoke Hamilton in the Federalist.
With the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent beheading of Louis the XVI, the Federalist Party became more reactionary along with the horrified monarchs of Europe. While the Jeffersonian-Republicans welcomed the event as a victory for liberty and democracy, the Federalists moved closer to Britain, and gasped at the thought of “Jacobin” Republicans coming to power in America, that all restraints on “mobocracy” would be cut loose, with fatal results for the republic. It is in this tense and fearful atmosphere that the Alien, Sedition and Naturalization Acts were passed by the Federalist controlled Congress. It was the Naturalization Act which worked the greatest hardship upon aliens.(5) The Federalists, whose aristocratic bias attracted few foreigners, demanded a long period of residence prior to naturalization, or better still, to admit only native born to the rights of citizenship.(6) The Sedition Acts provided for the authority of the federal government to punish seditious speech and writing. Harrison Gray Otis succinctly defined the attitude of his party (Federalist) when he declared in Congress that “to punish licentiousness and sedition is not a restraint or abridgement of the freedom of speech or of the press.”(7) Although not as harsh, this Act was similar to the British Treasonable Practices Act of 1795. Once again the Federalists had taken a European monarchial practice of the past and forged it to meet contemporary America’s needs.
Despite their abhorrence of democracy, the Federalists admitted it was an integral part of every well ordered government. But it was not to be the whole of government. Their ideal was a “mixed government” composed of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy poised in such delicate equilibrium that no single element could make itself dominant over the government. The branch allotted to the people was the House of Representatives- and this, said the Federalists, was all any people who wished to be truly free had a right to ask for. For if the democratic part of the government succeeded in making itself supreme, despotism would result.(8) It is evidenced that the Federalist Party, in attempting to strike a balance between the European monarchial system of the past and the more recent American ideas of democracy, was “a half-way house between the European past and the American future”; as the Federalist era gradually gave way to Jeffersonian democracy. Government of the people they could accept, but not government by the people.(9)
Before leaving office in 1801, president Adams appointed John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In so doing he enabled Federalist influence to continue long after the death of its party. In Marbury vs. Madison, for example, Marshall shrewdly established the precedent of judicial review, which has continued to this day and affects us still.
1. John C. Miller, The Federalist Era
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960) p. 117
2. Charles Sellers, ed., Alfred Young, The Debate Over the Constitution
(Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), p. 17
3. John C. Miller, The Federalist Era
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960) p. 109
4. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, The Federalist
(Random House), p.214
5. John C. Miller, The Federalist Era
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960) p.230
6. ibid., p. 232
7. ibid., p.232
8. ibid., p.114
9. ibid., p.114
AP U.S. History
November 27, 1985
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