Although it had been in existence for barely a decade, the federal judiciary first entangled itself in partisan conflict through events culminating in the presidential election of 1800. Opponents pointed to judicial inattention to limits on national power and to a collaboration with Congress and the presidency to repress the political opposition. The episode nudged the Court after the election into a posture of independence, stimulated articulation of an institutional role, and established the Supreme Court as a politically significant branch of government. The setting for these events was the maturing of the first party system in which the judiciary both influenced and was influenced by the partisan life of the nation.
Characterized by contests between Federalists and Republicans (initially called Antifederalists), the first party system took shape at the national level soon after government under the Constitution got under way in 1789.1 Party development proceeded from the top down rather than moving upward from the grass roots. In supporting or opposing policy proposals in Congress, members found themselves increasingly voting with the same group of colleagues on one side of an issue or the other.2 In turn, members sought reelection by defending their positions on legislation and so carried to the electorate the disputes that had divided Congress. Partisanship thus filtered down to the voters, leading them to associate one kind of policies with one group and different policies with another. The result was that congressional factions acquired local followings that duplicated congressional divisions.3 The same divisions were apparent in the 1796 contest