Party Formation in the Early Republic

Ideological Origins of Party Formation in the Early Republic

By Ethan A. Schmidt

Part I: To Party or Not to Party

In November of 1787, James Madison, writing in support of the federal constitution, began one of his essays with an examination of the proposed government's ability to check the rise of factions within the country. "Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice." [1] Madison went on to define factions as, " a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." [2] While the phrase "adverse to the rights of other citizens, " seems to be the key phrase in the definition, it becomes clear upon further analysis that what one side of a particular political issue considers adverse, the other considers favorable. In reality, Madison's definition of faction encompassed any group large or small, which sought to influence the politics of the young nation. In that most famous of Federalist essays, the enormity of his definition notwithstanding, Madison promulgated a theory that was revolutionary, yet at the same time, grounded in common sense. In fact, one could argue that his theory of numerous factions negating the ill effects of each other was nothing but the forerunner of the pluralist political theories advocated by scholars such as Robert Dahl in his landmark study Who Governs, in 1961. The concept is a very simple one. Since there are so many different groups in American society that seek to influence political decision making, and since no one group participates (much less prevails) in every political confrontation, American political participation is therefore increased by the presence of factions. Yet, less than ten years after Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, America's pre-eminent founding father, George Washington, delivered a rather terse farewell address, written largely for him by Alexander Hamilton, in which he bemoaned the rise of political parties, or factions (the terms were often used interchangeably by the founders), as detrimental to the health of the republic. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally . . . It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.[3] Even Thomas Jefferson, who by the middle of the 1790s was, along with Madison, the de facto leader of a political party diametrically opposed to Washington and Hamilton, only begrudgingly acknowledged the utility of opposing political factions. "In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords. . . . Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and relate to the people the proceedings of the other."[4] These pessimistic characterizations of parties by both Jefferson and Washington seem incongruous with the benefits of large-scale fractionalization advocated by Madison in 1787, and they are downright incompatible with the highly politicized actions of Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Hamilton and their followers during the first decade of the new republic. Why did their feelings change concerning parties? What happened between 1787 and 1800 to divide a group of men who heretofore had marched virtually step for step in their ideas of public policy? According to Gordon Wood, the early republic, until recently, has been, " the most neglected if not the most despised period of American history."[5] In addition, many of the few attempts to explain the development and nature of the first party system suffer from the tendency of modern historians (and political pundits) to project the ideologies of our modern parties onto those of the 1790s. Joseph Charles, one of the first to broach the origins of the first political parties in America recognized this pitfall. "The contest of later parties for the sanction of one or the other of the Founding Fathers has given us a false perspective, and has caused us to emphasize, not the problems which faced the leading figures of the 1790s . . . but rather the rationalizations and the propaganda by which they sought to justify themselves and win support." [6] This type of partisan presentism has clouded our ability to examine the Federalist and Jeffersonian-Republican parties. Only through a determined effort to examine the first party system through lenses other than those of the partisan ideological frameworks of today, can we gain true insight into the establishment of these parties. It is the purpose of this essay to attempt just that. However, the projection of our current political views onto past events was not the only criticism Charles leveled at earlier studies of the first party system. He also took issue with the notion that the party discord of the 1790s had its antecedents in earlier disagreements fueled by divergent economic and sectional interests and our propensity to, "assume that the resulting divisions existed, at least in the germ, before the issues arose."[7] Yet, a careful examination of the extent sources relevant to the politics of the late 1780s and on through the 1790s it seems that that is exactly the case. No one would make the claim that the major political movements of the twentieth century such as the progressive movement or the civil rights struggle of the 1960s developed overnight. How then can we accept Charles's claim that the political divisions of the 1790s simply appeared out of nowhere? Not only did the public figures of the early republic divide over sectional and economic issues, they also divided over their basic interpretations of the Constitution and views of the scope of the federal government. These divisions did not simply appear in Congress during the 1790s as Charles suggested, rather the political battles of the period were actually manifestations of basic differences present during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and whose origins likely date back even further than that. Madison's notes on the convention in Philadelphia are our only concrete insight into the debates of the delegates. An examination of them yields five areas of intense disagreement among the founders that directly correlate to the divisive issues of the first congresses. The first is the issue of slavery. During the latter portion of August 1787, the issue of slavery threatened to completely derail the whole undertaking. Consequently, the introduction of Quaker anti-slavery petitions in 1790 constituted the first of many rancorous debates over the issue in congress. The second issue is that of the public credit. While scholars often point to this issue as a major point of divergence in the 1790s, the issue also caused debate during the convention. The location of the permanent seat of government proved another divisive issue of the 1790s whose origins lie in the debates in Philadelphia. Finally, the issues of overall Federal power including taxation and military powers also served to divide the founders both in Philadelphia in 1787 and in Congress in the 1790s. In the interest of time, this essay will focus solely on the sectional divisions arising over slavery during the convention as well as the issue of the public credit.

Part II: Divisions in the Constitutional Convention

According to Article VII of the Constitution, the document was prepared, "in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present." [8] While this statement is technically true, it is also somewhat misleading. At the Constitutional Convention, (as in the Continental Congress) each state, as opposed to each state representative, received one vote. Therefore, while the majority of the delegates in each state delegation did vote for the proposed constitution, therefore creating unanimous consent from the individual states, sixteen of the fifty-five delegates who attended the convention refused to sign the document. There are various reasons to explain why these sixteen delegates did not sign the Constitution. Some delegates were just not there to sign it, but others in attendance refused to do so. Standing out in the list of non-signers are Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Of those three, only Randolph and Gerry spoke to their refusal before the delegates. Randolph cited his belief that leaving the final determination on the constitution up to the people of the individual states would doom it to failure. Therefore, he could not put his name to it. Gerry's reasons were much the same. According to Madison's notes, Gerry, "hoped he should not violate that respect in declaring on this occasion his fears that a Civil war may result from the present crisis of the U.S." Gerry went on to explain his apprehension that the proponents of democracy, "the worst though of all political evils," and the proponents of extremely centralized government would clash violently in regard to their opinions on the Constitution thus causing more chaos.[9] While these are the only two contrary opinions regarding signing the proposed constitution, there are several other indicators that the final document was far from the unanimous choice of those who deliberating on it. Many of those who signed it despite their objections, did so for one or both of the following reasons: First, many signed and supported the document out of a real and urgent need to do something about the current deplorable state of the U.S. government at the time. According to Madison, Alexander Hamilton fell into this category. "No man's ideas were more remote from the plan than his were known to be; but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and Convulsion on one side, and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other." [10] The second reason was the result of a feeling on the part of many members to defer to the will of the majority. The statements of Governeur Morris best reflect this tendency. During the debate over who would sign and who wouldn't, Morris stated that, "the majority had determined in its favor and by that determination he should abide . . . the signing in the form proposed related only to the fact that the States [emphasis Madison's] present were unanimous."[11] It is interesting to note that, although the sources consulted here reveal no breakdown of how each delegate voted within his individual state caucus, Morris used the term majority instead of unanimous consent. It is not certain that his (or Madison's) use of the term indicates that individual members of state delegations voted in the negative. However, it does leave the door open for that interpretation. In addition to the dissenting views of members who attended the convention, the outright refusal of some leading men to attend, such as Patrick Henry, and the sizable opposition to ratification that developed point to a climate of division rather than consensus regarding the document. Whether or not substantial opposition to the proposed constitution existed at the convention, we can be certain that many disagreements erupted over particular issues debated during the summer of 1787. The subject of slavery was one such issue.


On August 21, 1787, Luther Martin of Maryland proposed an amendment Article 1, Section 7 allowing congress to levy a tax to discourage the importation of slaves. In doing so, Martin cited three reasons, among them the idea that slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the revolution, and that it would discourage the importation of slaves as an effort to gain more representation for the South under the 3/5 clause. However, for the purposes of this study, his third reason is most interesting. Martin felt that, "slaves weakened one part of the Union which the other parts were bound to protect: the privilege of importing them was therefore unreasonable."[12] One of the characteristics of the First Party System was its loosely sectional nature. On the other hand, most observers of division in the Constitutional Convention downplay or patently deny the presence of sectional conflict. Yet, Martin's proposal certainly seems to have a sectional feel to it. Whether or not the remark is an indicator of sectional tension, the debate it sparked was overwhelmingly sectional. John Rutledge of South Carolina immediately upped the stakes by delivering an ultimatum. "The true question at present is whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers."[13] Other southern delegates argued that a duty on the importation of slaves would prove detrimental to the southern part of the union and thus subjugate to the will of the northern states. Rufus King of Massachusetts responded in kind by turning that argument upside down. According to Madison's notes, King stated that, "great & equal opposition would be experienced from the other States . . . on the exemption of slaves from duty whilst every other import was subjected to it, as an inequality that could not fail to strike the commercial sagacity of the Northern & middle States." The debate continued in this fashion for two days until Edmund Randolph moved to commit the motion in an effort to find a compromise position. In doing so, Randolph, a Virginian, also stated that he could never vote for the amendment as proposed by Martin. In the ensuing vote on referring the measure to committee, every southern state voted with Randolph. [14]

Public Credit

Some of the most divisive issues of the 1790's sprang from the programs of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. According to one text, "The financial and social implications of Hamilton's 'Report on the Public Credit' made it instantly controversial."[15] In particular, the first portion of Hamilton's economic program contained two controversial measures that merit examination concerning party formation. The first is the idea of assumption. Simply put, assumption meant that the Federal government would assume the debts of the individual states incurred during the period of the revolution. Secondly, Hamilton's program called for funding without discrimination. The Federal government would not only assume state debts, but would issue new debt certificates from the Federal Treasury. In addition, this was to be done without discrimination. Therefore, whoever presented the bond to the Federal Government would be issued the new certificate, thus benefiting speculators who had bought up most of the outstanding war debts at enormous bargains after the war. The debate over the propriety of these measures became increasingly bitter and is largely considered as one of the major factors in the formation of the Jeffersonian-Republicans in opposition to Hamilton's Federalists. This issue likewise surfaced during the Constitutional Convention. In fact, it first surfaced on the same day as Luther Martin's slavery duty proposal. That morning, William Livingston of New Jersey presented the work of a committee charged with devising a way to deal with the states' war debts: The Legislature of the U.S. shall have power to fulfill the engagements which have been entered into by Congress, and to discharge as well the debts of the U.S. as the debts incurred by the several States during the late war, for the common defence and general welfare.[16] It is interesting to note that one of the strongest advocates of the assumption bill during the 1790's, the Federalist Elbridge Gerry, originally opposed this scheme during the convention. The reasons he gave for his opposition during the debate in 1787 provide some interesting clues. According to Madison, Gerry objected to obligating the government to assume state debts on the grounds that is might destroy, "the security now enjoyed by the public creditors of the United States. He enlarged on the merit of this class of citizens, and the solemn faith which had been pledged under the existing Confederation."[17] In other words, Gerry feared that simple assumption might damage the financial health of the bankers and merchant classes who were already engaged in debt speculation. When Hamilton added the promise of non-discrimination to the idea in 1790, Gerry became one of its most energetic allies. Therefore, Gerry's early opposition to assumption is wholly consistent with the Federalist views of his congressional career. On the opposite side of the issue, future Republicans couched their opposition to Livingston's plan in much the same terms they used to attack Hamilton's three years later. On August 25, 1787, George Mason of Virginia voiced strong opposition to the assumption proposal: Col. Mason objected to the term "shall" fulfill the engagements and discharge the debts &c as too strong. . . . The use of the term shall will beget speculations and increase the pestilent practice of stock-jobbing. There was a great distinction between original creditors & those who purchased fraudulently of the ignorant and distressed.[18] Gerry responded in fine future-Federalist fashion by defending stock jobbers by praising them for maintaining the value of the paper and thus preserving any sort of market for the notes at all. Finally, after several similar exchanges, Edmund Randolph moved to maintain the policy toward state debts of the Confederation government. These are only two of the issues that caused division during both the Constitutional Convention, and the early congresses. However, they are very much illustrative of the fact that many of the opinions that led to the formation of the Federalist-Republican party system were indeed present before the 1790s. While some of the individuals (and states) who espoused these differing opinions during the Constitutional Convention might not have expressed them in congress, as in the case of a Maryland delegate advocating an anti-slavery provision, the opinions are nonetheless present. In addition, at least on the issue of assumption, there is a direct connection. Elbridge Gerry, a future Federalist opposed the original assumption plan out of his concern for Northeastern bankers and merchants. This same concern led him to support the idea, once Hamilton added the idea of non-discrimination to it. While George Mason died in 1792 before the parties had completely coalesced, it is probable to assume that his position on assumption would not have changed, which certainly would have endeared him to the Republican viewpoint. While the major issue confrontations of the 1790s certainly provided the atmosphere for the parties to form, there is significant evidence to suggest that the ideological frameworks around which they formed existed prior to the period.


[1] James Madison, The Federalist No. 10, in The Federalist, ed. George Carey and James McClellan ( Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1990), 43.
[2] Ibid.
[3] George Washington, Farewell Address in The American Reader, ed. Diane Ravitch (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 38-39.
[4] Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor of Caroline, June 1798, quoted in Mary P. Ryan, "Party Formation in the United States Congress, 1789 to 1796: A Quantitative Analysis," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Volume 28, Issue 4 (Oct., 1971), 523.
[5] Gordon S. Wood, The Significance of the Early Republic, in Major Problems in the Early Republic 1787-1848, ed. Sean Wilentz (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), 2.
[6] Joseph Charles, "Hamilton and Washington: The Origins of the American Party System," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Volume 12, Issue 2 (April. 1955), 217-218.
[7] Ibid.
[8] U.S. Constitution, art. VII.
[9] James Madison, The Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, eds. Gaillard Hunt and James Brown Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 1920.), 580-82.
[10] Madison, The Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, 581.
[11] Ibid, 580.
[12] Ibid, 442.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 446-447.
[15] James Henretta, David Brody, and Lynn Dumenil, America: A Concise History, vol. 1, To 1877 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999), 192-193.
[16] Madison, The Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, 435-36.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid, 465-466.