America's First Political Parties

Beginning in about 1796, political life changed as two political parties came to dominate politics and many Americans aligned with one or the other. Many of the founding fathers the United States actually feared this possibility and the danger of factions. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. However, differences in values and how the United States government and economy should be run led to internal division and the eventual separation into the first two major parties. These two parties were the Federalists and Democratic Republicans. 

Federalists wanted a strong central government and they had a loose interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, meaning if it was not forbidden by the constitution it could be done. Alexander Hamilton was the leader of the Federalist Party. It was made up of merchants, bankers, manufacturers, wealthy farmers, and plantation owners. 

Many Federalists were well-educated and had most of their support in big cities in the Northeast. Federalists wanted tariffs and protection for businesses and an economy based on manufacturing, commerce, finance, and overseas trade.

The Democratic Republican Party was led by Thomas Jefferson and was created in direct opposition to the Federalist Party. Democratic-Republicans were supported by commoners and the middle and lower classes. It was made up of artisans, shopkeepers, frontier settlers, backcountry and poor farmers. Democratic-Republicans were not highly educated and many were illiterate. 

Democratic-Republicans had most of their support in the South and West.  They believed in states’ rights and a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and that the government should only do what is stated in it. They were founded on democratic principles and believed in self-government. They supported the common man and wanted an economy based on agriculture. 

The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans differed on almost every topic. Even though these two parties had major differences, they both favored American freedom and independence and contributed to the formation of the new nation.