The Democratic-Republican Party — The Jeffersonians and America’s Second Political Party

1792–1834

The Democratic-Republican Party was one of the first political parties in the United States. The party supported a weak central government in favor of strong states and a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. The party split in the mid-1820s and a faction exists today as the modern Democratic Party.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Democratic-Republican Party Summary

The Democratic-Republican was the second political party established in the United States, following the Federalist Party. Democratic-Republicans supported states’ rights, a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and opposition to a strong central government, aristocracy, and elitism. The party was founded in opposition to the Federalist Party and was led by Thomas Jefferson. The party’s foreign policy preferred an alliance with France and was cautious toward any dealings with Great Britain. Following the 1824 Presidential Election, the Democratic-Republican Party split into two factions, which eventually led to the formation of the Democratic Party and the Whig Party.

James Monroe, 5th President, Founding Father
James Monroe was President during the Era of Good Feelings that followed the War of 1812. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Democratic-Republican Party Facts

  1. The Democratic-Republican Party was founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1792 to oppose the Federalist Party.
  2. Members of the party often referred to the party as simply the “Republican Party.”
  3. Historians often refer to the Democratic-Republicans as the “Jeffersonian Republicans,” to help avoid confusion with the modern Republican Party.
  4. The party supported states’ rights, limited government, and individual rights.
  5. The party’s foreign policy positions included support for an alliance with France over a close relationship with Great Britain.
  6. The party’s opposition to the Federalists’ financial plans and the establishment of the National Bank led to a significant debate over the role of the federal government in economic affairs.
  7. The Democratic-Republicans opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts and responded by writing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
  8. Four members of the Democratic-Republican Party were elected President — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams.
  9. Adams had been a Federalist, like his father, John Adams. However, Adams changed parties when he saw the Federalist Party was losing popularity and joined the Democratic-Republicans around 1809.
  10. The Election of 1824 divided the party because four members of the party — Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay all ran for President. The election went to the House of Representatives, where Clay supported Adams over Jackson. The supporters of Jackson accused Clay and Adams of making a “Corrupt Bargain,” and split from the party.

Democratic-Republican Party Overview and History

The Democratic-Republican Party was one of the first two political parties in United States history. During the administration of President George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was the first Secretary of State. Jefferson and his political allies grew concerned with the policies of the government — especially the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton — and formed a political association that became known as the Democratic-Republican Party. Some of the most well-known Democratic-Republicans were: 

  • Thomas Jefferson — Founding Father and 3rd President of the United States.
  • James Madison — Founding Father, 4th President of the United States, a key architect of the U.S. Constitution, known as the “Father of the Constitution.”
  • James Monroe — Founding Father, 5th President of the United States, and last Founding Father President, known for the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that the Americas were off-limits for further European colonization.
  • John Quincy Adams — 6th President of the United States and son of Founding Father John Adams, served as Secretary of State under James Monroe.
  • Henry Clay — Prominent politician and statesman, Clay was a leader of the National Republican Party and later the Whig Party, and served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams.
  • Aaron Burr — Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, Burr is best known for his fatal duel with founding father Alexander Hamilton and for his controversial political career, including a plot to create a separate country in the American West.
  • George Clinton — 4th Vice President of the United States, Clinton served under both Jefferson and Madison and was a supporter of states’ rights and limited federal power.

Jefferson and others were skeptical about the intentions of a strong national government. After all, the United States had won independence from the tyranny of Great Britain, and many people, including Jefferson, had no desire to live under another oppressive government. The members of the Democratic-Republican Party preferred a “strict” interpretation of the United States Constitution, while the members of the Federalist Party preferred a “loose” interpretation.

A strict interpretation of the Constitution means that the federal government only has the powers explicitly granted to it in the document, and any powers not mentioned are reserved for the states or the people. Those who support a strict interpretation believe that the government should not exceed its constitutional authority and should not be able to make laws that are not explicitly authorized in the Constitution.

In contrast, a loose interpretation of the Constitution suggests that the federal government has implied powers that are not explicitly granted in the Constitution. Those who support a loose interpretation believe that the Constitution is a living document that can adapt to changing times and that the federal government has the power to make laws that are not explicitly authorized in the Constitution if they are necessary and proper for carrying out its enumerated powers. The Federalists based their argument for a loose interpretation on the “Elastic Clause.”

The Elastic Clause — also known as the “Necessary and Proper Clause” — is a clause in the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, that grants Congress the power to pass any laws that are necessary and proper for the execution of its other enumerated powers and responsibilities. The clause has been used to justify various actions of Congress, including the creation of the First Bank of the United States, the establishment of federal agencies, and the passage of civil rights legislation. Its interpretation and application have been the subject of debate.

The Democratic-Republicans favored keeping the nation’s economy based on agriculture and believed that the country should serve as the agricultural provider for the rest of the world. If the United States produced a surplus, it could sell the extra crops overseas and use the money to buy manufactured goods from industrialized nations in Europe. 

They also believed in a more egalitarian society — where all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. Jefferson was an advocate for all adult white men having the right to vote and serve in elected office as long as they owned a minimal amount of property. The party also wanted American families to own their own farms, believing that working-class people would put aside their own personal gain for the public good if they owned enough property to feed and house their families.

French Revolution started in 1789. However, France caused trouble for the United States during the Washington Administration. The Citizen Genêt Affair led to Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality, which angered Jeffersonian Republicans who supported France and the French Revolution.

After Washington announced he would not seek a third term in office, John Adams won the Election of 1796, making him the first Federalist to hold the office of President. However, Adams inherited the trouble with France, which led to the XYZ Affair, a diplomatic scandal between the two nations. It started when French officials tried to bribe American diplomats. When the plot was exposed, anti-French sentiment rose in America, and the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” became popular. Congress re-established the United States Navy and American ships battled with French ships on the high seas in an undeclared naval war known as the Quasi-War. Although peace was finally restored with France, the XYZ Affair had serious long-term effects on the United States. The press was extremely critical of President John Adams and Congress for how the affair was handled.

The Federalist-controlled Congress responded by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and one of the acts made it a crime to criticize the government in the press. Two Southern states — Virginia and Kentucky — passed resolutions that said the laws were unconstitutional and that the states had a right to “nullify” the acts. The resolutions were written by Jefferson and Madison and established the concept of Nullification — a direct cause of the American Civil War.

Adams was an unpopular President, and Jefferson won the Election of 1800, making him the first member of the Democratic-Republican Party elected President. His election ushered in the Jeffersonian Era of American history. James Madison followed Jefferson as President and continued the Jeffersonian Era. Madison went to war with Great Britain in 1812. The post-war climate is known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Following his two terms in office, Monroe was succeeded by James Madison, who continued the dominance of the Jeffersonian-Republicans with two terms in office.

Following the Election of 1824, the Democratic-Republican Party split. The National Republicans, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, became the Whig Party in the 1830s. The Democratic-Republicans organized by Martin Van Buren and led by Andrew Jackson dropped the word “Republican” and called themselves simply Democrats, which started the formation of the modern Democratic Party.

Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
Andrew Jackson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Election of 1824 and the Corrupt Bargain

As the second term of President James Monroe came to an end, five members of the Democratic-Republican Party sought to succeed him:

Calhoun dropped out of the race early and when officials tabulated the results of the November 1824 election, Jackson emerged as the clear winner, garnering 40.1% of the popular vote compared to Adams’s 30.9%, Clay’s 13%, and Crawford’s 11.2%. 

In the Electoral College balloting, Jackson again came out on top receiving 99 votes compared with 84 for Adams, 41 for Crawford, and 37 for Clay. Despite Jackson’s obvious popularity, his apparent victory was temporary because he failed to receive a majority of electoral votes cast. Without a decisive winner in the Electoral College, the law required the House of Representatives to choose the new president.

Terms of the Twelfth Amendment specified that the House must elect a president only “from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as president;” thus Henry Clay was eliminated. 

As deliberations started, Clay, who wielded considerable influence because he was Speaker of the House, swung his support to Adams. On February 9, 1825, the House elected Adams as President of the United States. Soon thereafter, Adams appointed Clay as his successor as secretary of state. Clay wanted the position because Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had all used the office as a springboard to the presidency. Jackson’s supporters objected, but officials never investigated what critics labeled the “Corrupt Bargain.”

Jackson returned to the Senate but did not complete his two-year term. On October 14, 1825, he resigned his seat and went back to Tennessee, where he began developing strategies to defeat Adams in the 1828 election.

As the presidential election of 1828 approached, the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe split into two factions, Jacksonian Democrats and the group who supported Adams — later known as National Republicans.

Democratic-Republican Party Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the main leaders of the Democratic-Republican Party, and what were their beliefs and values?

The main leaders of the Democratic-Republican Party were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. These leaders believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which emphasized states’ rights and limited government power. They also believed in a more egalitarian society, with a focus on individual rights and democracy. Additionally, the Democratic-Republican Party was strongly influenced by the principles of republicanism, which emphasized the importance of liberty, unalienable rights, and opposition to aristocracy and inherited political power.

What were the philosophical differences between the Democratic-Republican Party and the Federalist Party?

The key differences between the Democratic-Republican Party and the Federalist Party centered on the role of the federal government and the balance of power between the federal and state governments. The Democratic-Republicans believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which limited the powers of the federal government and emphasized the rights of individual states. The Federalist Party, on the other hand, believed in a more expansive view of federal power and favored a stronger central government. Additionally, the two parties had different foreign policy positions, with the Democratic-Republicans supporting an alliance with France and the Federalists supporting closer ties with Great Britain.

What were the key foreign policy positions of the Democratic-Republican Party, and how did they differ from those of the Federalist Party?

The key foreign policy positions of the Democratic-Republican Party included support for an alliance with France, a suspicion of Great Britain, and a commitment to neutrality in foreign affairs. The party believed that America should not become entangled in the affairs of European powers and should focus on its own development as a nation. The Federalist Party, on the other hand, favored closer ties with Great Britain and believed in a more active role for the federal government in international affairs.

Why did the Democratic-Republican Party split into two factions, and what were the main differences between these factions?

The Democratic-Republican Party split into two factions following the 1824 presidential election, which resulted in four Democratic-Republican candidates running for president. The two main factions were the National Republicans, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. The main differences between these factions centered on the role of the federal government and the balance of power between the federal and state governments. The National Republicans favored a stronger federal government and a more expansive view of federal power, while the Democratic-Republicans continued to emphasize states’ rights and limited government power.

Democratic-Republican Party AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Democratic-Republican Party, Jeffersonian Era, and the United States Consitution for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Federalist Party APUSH Definition

The Democratic-Republican Party is defined as a political party founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposition to the Federalist Party. The party emphasized states’ rights, limited government, individual rights, and democracy, and supported a strict interpretation of the Constitution. The party’s foreign policy positions were characterized by support for an alliance with France and a suspicion of Great Britain. The Democratic-Republican Party played an important role in shaping American politics during its time and helped to establish the foundations of American democracy and individual rights.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists APUSH Video

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Democratic-Republican Party — The Jeffersonians and America’s Second Political Party
  • Date 1792–1834
  • Author
  • Keywords Democratic-Republican Party, Thomas Jefferson, Election of 1824, Corrupt Bargain
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 29, 2024

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