Federalist party, in U.S. history, the political faction that favored a strong federal government.
Origins and Members
In the later years of the Articles of Confederation there was much agitation for a stronger federal union, which was crowned with success when the Constitutional Convention drew up the Constitution of the United States. The men who favored the strong union and who fought for the adoption of the Constitution by the various states were called Federalists, a term made famous in that meaning by the Federalist Papers (see Federalist, The) of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
After the Constitution was adopted and the new government was established under the presidency of George Washington, political division appeared within the cabinet, the opposing groups being headed by Alexander Hamilton and by Thomas Jefferson. The party that emerged to champion Hamilton's views was the Federalist party. Its opponents, at first called Anti-Federalists, drew together into a Jeffersonian party; first called the Republicans and later the Democratic Republicans, they eventually became known as the Democratic party. Party politics had not yet crystallized when John Adams was elected President, but the choice of Adams was, nevertheless, a modest Federalist victory.
The Federalists were conservatives; they favored a strong centralized government, encouragement of industries, attention to the needs of the great merchants and landowners, and establishment of a well-ordered society. In foreign affairs they were pro-British, while the Jeffersonians were pro-French. The members of the Federalist party were mostly wealthy merchants, big property owners in the North, and conservative small farmers and businessmen. Geographically, they were concentrated in New England, with a strong element in the Middle Atlantic states.
During Washington's second administration, and under that of John Adams, Federalist domestic policies were given a chance to prove themselves. The young nation's economy was established on a sound basis, while the governmental structure was expanded and an honest and efficient administrative system was developed. In foreign affairs, however, trouble with France led to virtual warfare in 1798. It led also to the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress ostensibly in response to hostile actions of the French Revolutionary government but actually designed to destroy the Jeffersonians. John Adams, who was a moderate and honest man, followed the course he considered wise, and by rejecting Hamilton's extreme desires, he caused something of a division in the Federalist ranks.
The Triumph of the Jeffersonian Opposition
The Jeffersonians were meanwhile winning popular support not only among Southern landowners but also among the mechanics, workers, and generally the less privileged everywhere. Jefferson showed skill in building his party, and the Jeffersonians were much better at publicity than were the Federalists.
The election of 1800 was a Federalist debacle. The Jeffersonians came to power and stayed there, establishing the so-called Virginia dynasty, with James Madison succeeding Jefferson and James Monroe succeeding Madison. The Federalist party remained powerful locally, but increasingly the leadership passed to the reactionaries rather than to the moderates. It tended to be a New England party.
This trend was accentuated in the troubled period before the War of 1812. Merchants and shipowners were opposed to the Embargo Act of 1807, which caused considerable economic loss to the seaboard cities, and their feelings were expressed through the Federalist party. The Federalists, however, failed to enlist De Witt Clinton and his followers in New York in their cause, and their challenge in the elections of 1808 was easily overridden by the Jeffersonians.
Dissolution of the Party
Opposition to war brought the Federalists the support of Clinton and many others, and the party made a good showing in the election of 1812, winning New England (except for radical Vermont), New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and part of Maryland. They failed, however, in Pennsylvania and lost the election. While the country was at war, the disgruntled merchants of New England, represented by the Essex Junto, contemplated secession and called the Hartford Convention. Thus, paradoxically the Federalists became the champions of states' rights.
The successful issue of the war ruined the party, which became firmly and solely the party of New England conservatives. The so-called era of good feelings followed, and politics became a matter of internal strife within the Democratic party. The Federalist party did not even offer a presidential candidate in 1820, and by the election of 1824 it was virtually dead.
See C. G. Bowers, Jefferson and Hamilton (1925); W. O. Lynch, Fifty Years of Party Warfare (1931); L. D. White, The Federalists (1948); S. G. Kurtz, The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795–1800 (1957, repr. 1961); J. C. Miller, The Federalist Era, 1789–1801 (1960, repr. 1963); S. Livermore, The Twilight of Federalism (1962); D. H. Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism (1965); L. K. Kerber, Federalists in Dissent (1970).