The Press of the Young Republic, 1783-1833

By Carol Sue Humphrey | Go to book overview
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3 The First Political
Party System, 1791-1800

The establishment of the new government under the Constitution in 1789 opened a new era in American history, and newspapers of the 1790s reflected the changes that occurred. Many people agreed that the United States would be a republic, but they disagreed over how to put republican ideals into practice. As American leaders moved from discussion of political theories to attempts to implement these theories, discord appeared. Arguments and disagreements over how to run the government increased throughout the 1790s, differences that influenced the growth of the press. The French Revolution also influenced the appearance of divisions. Americans had trouble deciding what to do about the changes in France because that revolt took a much bloodier turn than had the American Revolution. Once the Reign of Terror began in 1793, many people simply could not believe that the revolution in France had anything in common with the revolt that had produced the United States.

The contentions over these issues between government officials eventually coalesced into two political parties: the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, and the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Each side quickly sought out journalists to support its position because all of these men had learned the potential effect of newspapers during the Revolutionary conflict with Great Britain. Thus developed the first party press in American history. The 1790s were a time of great conflict and great distrust because the United States had not yet developed a concept of "loyal opposition." For most of them, political dissent and faction were dangerous and led to tyranny. People on both sides of any argument quickly accused their opposition of treason and sought to silence them. The newspapers became the major arena for such accusations. It would take a major confrontation over the First Amendment, in the guise of the Sedition Act, before Americans would generally accept the idea that a person

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