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Building the State (1781-1797)

Division into Parties and George Washington's Farewell Address

Expansion and Conflict

Study Questions


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.

The political parties in the US developed due to differing responses to the events of the early 1790s. Federalists shuddered at the thought of disorder, and thought events such as the Whiskey Rebellion, or, in France, the French Revolution, proved that if left with too much power the people would foster disorder and rebellion against the government. Republicans, on the other hand, rejoiced in the Whiskey Rebellion and French Revolution as assertions that the true source of political power was the population at large. Observing the actions of the Washington administration, especially of Alexander Hamilton, republicans became convinced that the assumption of broad power by the central government would only foster inequality and misery among the people of the separate states.

More than anything else, the division of the nation into political parties exemplified the growing rift between North and South. The conservative, industrial North was decidedly Federalist, while the more liberal and agricultural South was overwhelmingly Republican. Historians most often attribute this split to the differing economic modalities of the regions. Clearly, the industrial North was far more supportive of Hamilton's financial policy, which benefited merchants and shippers more than others. However, perhaps more important in the division into parties were the differing social concerns that grew out of industrial and agricultural economies. In the North, as in every industrial economy, those with economic power sought to protect that power from those who did not have as much, namely the masses in the workforce. Thus, to the powerful businessmen of the North, an ideology that closely linked the wealthy to the government and put political power in the hands of elites who were free from the influence of the masses sounded very attractive. In contrast, the workforce in the South was made up primarily of slaves, with no chance to rise in the economic ranks and vie for the power of the plantation owners. Moreover, southern plantation owners did not have an antagonistic relationship with small farmers. To the contrary, they trusted their abilities to be elected by the small farmers and to lead them in peace, should they be given the chance. Thus, for southerners, an ideology that placed the power of the government in the hands of the people did not seem dangerous; it seemed logical.

Washington's Farewell Address was a direct response to the fractioning of the American people. From a clearly Federalist point of view he extolled the virtues of neutrality. He pleaded for American political neutrality, that citizens not be forced to choose between political alternatives, but rather choose their leaders on the basis of merit and reputation. He further pleaded for international neutrality, exhorting Americans to avoid "political connection" with Europe, hoping such avoidance would remove the divisiveness of foreign policy from the American political dialogue and allow US leaders to concentrate on domestic goals. While he could not stop the rise of political parties, which had already become a fact of American political life, his plea for neutrality and vision of an isolated America would inform American foreign relations into the twentieth century.

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