The Federalist Party — The Hamiltonians and America’s First Political Party

1791–1824

The Federalist Party was one of the first political parties in the United States. The party supported a strong central government and a loose interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. The party faded out in the mid-1820s.

Alexander Hamilton, Portrait

Alexander Hamilton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Federalist Party Summary

The Federalist Party was the first political party in the United States. It was quickly followed by the establishment of the Democratic-Republican Party. Federalists were advocates of a strong national government and a broad interpretation of powers granted to the Federal Government by the United States Constitution. The party was founded by Alexander Hamilton during the Presidency of George Washington and was made up of wealthy merchants, bankers, and landowners who benefited from centralized power. They opposed the Anti-Federalists — later the Democratic-Republicans — who preferred a limited national government and strict interpretation of the Constitution. Although the Federalists helped shape the course of the United States during the early years of the republic — known as the Federalist Era — their decline started with the death of Alexander Hamilton and the retirement of John Adams. The party’s opposition to the War of 1812, culminating in the Hartford Convention, played a large part in its demise.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart
John Adams was the only member of the Federalist Party elected President. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Federalist Party Facts

  1. The Federalist Party started in 1791 and ended in 1824.
  2. The party was led by Alexander Hamilton, who was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that advocated for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
  3. The Federalist Party supported a strong central government, a strong executive branch, and an industrial economy.
  4. Many of the party’s supporters were wealthy merchants, businessmen, and landowners in the North, particularly in New England.
  5. The Federalists were opposed by the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who advocated for states’ rights, an agricultural economy, and a limited central government.
  6. The Federalists supported the Jay Treaty, which improved trade relations with Great Britain, but their support of the treaty was controversial and led to protests and the burning of John Jay in effigy. The Democratic-Republicans opposed the Jay Treaty because they believed it tied the United States too close to Great Britain.
  7. John Adams won the Election of 1796, making him the first — and only — member of the Federalist Party to be elected President of the United States.
  8. The Federalists supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted freedom of speech and the press, and further eroded their popularity. Democratic-Republicans responded by publishing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, which established the concept of Nullification.
  9. The Federalist Party lost power and influence in the early 19th century due to internal divisions, opposition to the War of 1812, and a shift in public opinion towards the Democratic-Republicans. 
  10. The party ceased to exist as a national party after the 1816 election.

Federalist Party Overview and History

The Federalist Party emerged during the early years of the presidency of George Washington. From an ideological perspective, the members were those who supported the United States Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and then argue for its ratification. Party members tended to be property owners in the North, conservative small farmers and businessmen, wealthy merchants, clergymen, judges, lawyers, and professionals. Some of the most well-known Federalists were:

  • Alexander Hamilton — Founder of the party, Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington, and the architect of the nation’s fiscal program, including the First National Bank.
  • John Adams – Founding Father and Second President of the United States, serving from 1797 to 1801.
  • John Jay — Founding Father, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and diplomat who negotiated the Jay Treaty with Great Britain.
  • Rufus King — Founding Father, a signer of the Constitution, and a prominent Federalist who served as a Senator from New York and ran for president twice.
  • John Marshall — Fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who shaped American law through his influential decisions in key court cases like Marbury v. Madison.
  • Timothy Pickering — Served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War under John Adams
  • Charles Cotesworth Pinckney — Senator from South Carolina who was nominated for President twice.

The Federalists supported a strong centralized government, the indirect election of government officials, longer term limits for officeholders, and representative, rather than direct, democracy. They also believed in weaker state governments, as well as a loose interpretation of government powers under the Constitution through 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 congressional actions, 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 early years of the Federalist movement were characterized by support for the ratification of the Constitution. This led to a clash in 1788 between Federalist supporters and Anti-Federalists — who opposed the creation of a stronger national government. 

To gather support for the adoption of the Constitution, the Federalists published a series of 85 articles in New York City newspapers. Those articles, which were primarily written by Hamilton, Jay, and James Madison, were compiled in 1788 under the name The Federalist. Through these papers and other writings, the Federalists successfully argued their position in favor of the Constitution, which led to its ratification. However, Federalists were forced to compromise on a key issue — the inclusion of a Bill of Rights that explicitly stated the rights and freedoms of individuals.

During the tenure of President George Washington, political divisions developed among the members of his Cabinet over national fiscal policy. This led to the creation of the nation’s first political parties. Those who supported the fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton formed the Federalist Party in 1791, which grew to support a strong national government, an expansive interpretation of congressional powers under the Constitution through the Elastic Clause, and an industrial economy. The opposition, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, supported states’ rights and an agricultural economy and was known as the Democratic-Republicans — or Jeffersonian Republicans — and started in 1792.

Washington’s time in office was marked by troubles with France, notably the Citizen Genêt Affair, which led to the Proclamation of Neutrality. 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.

Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped Democratic-Republicans gain victory in the elections of 1800. Although the Federalist Party was strong in New England and the Northeast, it was left without a strong leader following the death of Alexander Hamilton — who was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr — and the retirement of John Adams.

Near the end of the War of 1812, New England Federalists held the Hartford Convention. The delegates discussed potential amendments to the Constitution, which created controversy. In the wake of the “Era of Good Feelings,” the convention placed the Federalist Party in a negative light, from which it would never recover.

The party ceased to exist by the mid-1820s.

Federalist Party Frequently Asked Questions

What did the Federalist Party believe?

The Federalist Party believed in a strong central government with strong fiscal roots. They were supporters of the new Constitution, which they believed should be interpreted broadly to strengthen the government, earn foreign respect, and solidify the new union of states. They were also advocates of a more mercantile economy, with a national bank to promote investment in industry and control inflation. The Federalists were generally made up of big property owners, conservative small farmers and businessmen, wealthy merchants, clergymen, judges, lawyers, and professionals who favored weaker state governments, the indirect election of government officials, longer term limits for officeholders, and representative, rather than direct, democracy.

Are Federalists Democrats or Republicans?

The Federalist Party existed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, long before the modern Democratic and Republican parties were formed. However, they were more closely aligned with modern-day conservatism and the Republican Party in terms of their political beliefs, such as favoring a strong central government, conservative social values, and a more mercantile economy.

What did the Anti-Federalist Party believe in?

The Anti-Federalist Party opposed the creation of a stronger national government and sought to leave the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of the Constitution, intact. They believed in stronger state governments and more direct democracy. They also objected to the Constitution’s lack of a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties.

What is the difference between the Republican and the Federalist Party?

The Republican Party emerged as an opposition party to the Federalist Party. They tended to emphasize states’ rights and agrarianism, as opposed to the Federalists’ support for a strong central government and a more mercantile economy. The Republicans also supported a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties, which the Federalists initially opposed but later supported to ensure the Constitution’s ratification. Additionally, the Republican Party was formed much later than the Federalist Party and has gone through many changes over the years.

Federalist Party AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Federalist Party, Federalist 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 Federalist Party was one of the first two American political parties. Members supported Alexander Hamilton’s economic policies, a strong central government, and loose interpretation of the Constitution, believing the government needed to take an active role in economic development and internal improvements. Federalists also sought closer ties to Great Britain and believed commerce and industry were vital to national growth. The party declined in the early 19th century due to its opposition to the War of 1812 and growing division in the United States due to Sectionalism.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans APUSH Video

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Federalist Party — The Hamiltonians and America’s First Political Party
  • Date 1791–1824
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 14, 2023

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