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Building the State (1781-1797)

Division into Parties and George Washington's Farewell Address

Expansion and Conflict

Division into Parties and George Washington's Farewell Address, page 2

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The framers considered political parties to be self-serving factions that cultivated dissent and were ultimately detrimental to good government. Though the framers had not written provisions into the Constitution dealing with political parties, by the end of George Washington's second term, the issues of national government had divided the nation into two distinct and hostile factions: the Federalists and the Republicans.

The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, advocated strong central government. Concentrated in the northeast, they preferred a system under which the population would choose their government officials based on merit and reputation rather than politics, and in which elected officials would rule without the direct influence of the people. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others who found Federalist thought offensive, developed a markedly different view of good government under the Washington administration. With their stronghold in the South, Republicans claimed that liberty could only be protected if political power were rested firmly in the hands of the people and those government officials closest and most responsive to the people

Republicans attempted to arouse the political awareness of the common people, who generally viewed national politics with an attitude of apathy, in order to present a challenge to the Federalists, who wielded the majority of power in the national government. They did so through a media campaign, centered on the publication of America's first opposition newspaper, The National Gazette. Additionally, Republicans organized a number of societies and clubs throughout the nation, which spread criticism of Washington's political decisions. The birth of the Republican Party may be traced to 1793, when Thomas Jefferson resigned from Washington's cabinet in opposition to Federalist policy decisions, especially those undertaken by Alexander Hamilton. As Republican influence in the government grew, Washington allied himself clearly with the Federalists in 1794, at which point the nation fully recognized the existence of two distinct parties. That same year the Republicans won a slight majority in the House of Representatives, signaling the arrival of the party as a legitimate political movement.

The parties grew increasingly hostile toward one another during the final years of Washington's presidency. A battle raged in the press, each side attacking the other's political values, and spreading rumors. The Federalists alleged that Republicans wanted to destroy the government and hand the nation over to France, and that the Republican clubs and societies were revolutionary organizations created to carry out this mission. Meanwhile, Republicans charged Federalists with attempting to create a government of aristocracy at the common taxpayer's expense, and even started rumors that the Federalists planned to establish an American dynasty by marrying John Adams' daughter to Britain's King George III.

In the midst of building hostilities, Washington decided to resign from office after his second term. On September 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser published Washington's Farewell Address to the nation. The basic premise of the address was a condemnation of political parties. Washington warned that the development of parties would destroy the government, and worried that special interest groups and foreign nations would easily dominate the factions. On this note, he implored future generations to avoid embroilment in the affairs of other nations, and concentrate on the development of "efficient government" at home, free from foreign influence. Washington left office in March 1797, leaving the nation still very much divided.


As of the early 1790s, most Americans remained convinced that political parties were a detriment to good government. The framers had neither desired nor planned for the rise of political divisions. In fact, in Federalist No. 10 of the Federalist Papers, James Madison, one of the leaders of the Republican party, had argued that one of the strong points of the Constitution was that it would prevent the formation of political factions. It was commonly assumed that should factions rise to a position of political power, they would act to achieve selfish goals at the expense of the public good. However, this concept of political parties began to crumble as opposition arose to Hamilton's initiatives as Secretary of Treasury. Many political leaders began to view an opposition party as necessary to check the power of the ideological majority in the national government, and as a means to provide a more fully encompassing examination of the issues presented to the national government. Thus, gradually, political parties took their place as an integral part of American government.

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