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What is the Federalist Party?

By Susan Elliott
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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The Federalist Party was a political party in the United States that lasted from 1787 until 1824, and was based on ideas of a strong central government to manage the affairs of the American people. It’s often known today as a party that was made up primarily of wealthy landowners and bankers who wanted the government to protect the emerging American industry, as well as to incentivize and encourage its growth. Many of the party’s core beliefs and doctrines are set out in a collection known as the Federalist Papers, which were written by some of the party’s most well-known thinkers but were published anonymously. John Adams, the second U.S. president, was a member of this party, and his term in office was when proponents were able to do the most in terms of passing legislation and enacting laws. Adams was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Federalist, and Jefferson’s presidency and the ensuing war of 1812 triggered the end of the party, at least officially.

Overarching Beliefs and Party Strategy

Though the Federalists had a number of big ideas, their core goals usually concerned preserving the sovereignty of the state as well as protecting individual freedoms from control by the government. The Federalist Party is typically considered the party of New England and most of its biggest proponents were centered there, but it had a large following in the middle states as well.

One of the ways the party spread its ideas and principles was through publications. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay are two of the most well known party members, and together with James Madison, these men penned the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 political essays that were published between 1787 and 1788 under the pseudonym Publius. The papers covered a number of topics, but most were focused on issues of Constitutional ratification and formalizing many of the early ideals of the nation’s founders.

Influential Federalist Acts

John Adams was the only elected president to have direct ties with the party. During his time as president, from 1797 to 1801, he was able to expand the role of government so that it operated more efficiently. During Adams' presidency, the Federalist-led congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Alien Act prohibited immigrants from voting until they had lived in the United States for 14 years. Previously, an immigrant had been allowed to vote after being in residence for only five years. Under the Alien Act, the president had the authority to imprison or deport people suspected of threatening the government. The Sedition Act declared printing false or malicious criticism of the federal government to be a crime.

Party Decline and Conflict

Conflicts within the party, especially differences of opinion between John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, caused splits and divided loyalty by 1799. The election of 1800, which lead to a number of changes to the way in which presidential elections were to be held in the future, saw the victory of Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Hamilton was killed in a duel in1804, which further weakened the Federalist cause.

The Federalists not only wanted to keep a strong central government, but also believed in developing and maintaining strong trade relationships with foreign countries, particularly England. These trade alliances introduced conflict between the Federalist and Non-Federalist states when the Embargo Act of 1807 was introduced. This act, signed by Jefferson during his second term, was designed to stop all trade between the U.S. and England and France, which at that time were at war with each other. The act was largely unsuccessful and unpopular, and all embargoes were lifted by 1809.

Dissolution

The Federalists enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity after the demise of the of the Embargo Act, but it didn’t last. James Madison, another Democratic-Republican, won the election of 1808. Tensions rose between the U.S. and England at about this same time, culminating in the War of 1812, which the Federalists opposed. Madison won reelection in 1812, carrying the southern and western states.

The War of 1812 is generally considered the final blow to the Federalist Party. At the 1816 presidential election, Rufus King ran as a Federalist candidate but did not receive enough support to make an impact. At the presidential election of 1820, there was no candidate offered from the Federalist Party, and by 1824 the Federalist era was finished, at least in terms of governing power. The party still holds a lot of interest among modern scholars, but is no longer a political force.

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Discussion Comments
By anon283840 — On Aug 06, 2012

Thanks so much for writing such an informative article! It really helped me with some AP US History homework. I couldn't find what I needed for it anywhere else (nowhere else I found had all the dates with the information).

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