There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties.

- John Adams

Political Parties Undermine Virtue

The battle over ratification of the Constitution in 1788 immediately turned into a political fight between two loosely formed parties: The Federalists who wanted a strong central government and Anti-Federalists who feared that a strong federal government would lead to a loss of liberty that had just been won in the Revolution. (This party later changed into the “Republican party” by 1799 and is not related as the modern Republican Party) These philosophical differences grew through George Washington’s administration and undermined John Adams’ attempt to navigate a middle way as his predecessor did so well. But as Adams’s first (and only) term came to an end, he reflected on his tumultuous four years confirming a long-held belief that “strong dilutions” drove mankind. The apparent ease by which party leaders could manipulate public opinion proved that “imaginations are so strong and our reason so weak” that men seem “to believe any absurdity, to submit to any prostitution, rather than forego their wishes and desires.” Most damaging to the health of America’s fledgling republic, he wrote, were politicians who could manipulate citizens into abandoning common sense and get them to believe “that black is white, that vice is virtue, that folly is wisdom.” Upon leaving the presidency, he wrote:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.
                                                                                                                                                          —John Adams

To Adams and his fellow Founders, it seemed that party politics were undermining public virtue. They knew in “every political society, parties are unavoidable.” Echoing Aristotle, Hamilton had already written extensively how society “naturally divides itself into two political divisions—the few and the many—who have distinct interests.” His Federalist’s coauthor, James Madison, also highlighted inevitable political parties as a major source of “factions” within communities and explained how the Constitution’s “great object” would be “to combat the evil” of party dynamics.

But now the idea of “one party a check on the other” was failing, and the gamble to insulate American character from opportunistic factions was in jeopardy. Ironically, the Adams administration was victimized by the leading archenemy to political factions, Thomas Jefferson, who actually started one. He justified the somewhat hypocritical creation of the Republican Party by citing deference to history’s unyielding currents: “The same political parties which now agitate the United States have existed through all time. Whether the power of the people, or that of the aristocrats, should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions; as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot.” When he retired—years later—he reflected “there seems to be a propensity in free governments which will always find or make subjects on which human opinions and passions may be thrown into conflict.” He lamented that the Founders had not found a way to make party conflicts “either so light or so transient as not to threaten any permanent or dangerous consequences to the character or prosperity of the republic.”

Fellow Federalist, Alexander Hamilton had a slightly different perspective. It wasn’t so much political parties that were the problem; it was the public passions they provoked which undermined a rational citizenry:"Nothing is more fallacious than to expect to produce any valuable or permanent results in political projects by relying merely on the reason of men. Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion."

It was clear as America entered the election campaigns of 1799 that the country was struggling to define its popular character and how government should balance the needs of liberty given the limits of popular virtue. Said another way, the battle between Federalists and Republicans was a consequence of differing philosophies on how government should encourage rational behavior while checking dysfunctional passions. This quickly turned into a pivotal election that would ultimately define the country’s national character and complete the Revolution of 1776: "The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it."

In the election of 1800, Vice President Jefferson ran against incumbent John Adams. Jefferson and Aaron Burr (1756–1836) were the two Republican contenders, while Adams and Pinckney were the Federalist candidates. The campaign was a contentious rematch of the prior election, pitching Republicans who favored the French and were wary of federal authority, versus Federalists who were pro-British and desirous of stronger centralized institutions. Although biased in its characterization, a Republican newspaper described the differences between the two parties, listing a litany of Federalist abuses that exceeded the public’s tolerance for intrusive government, including coercive taxes and the Sedition Act.




After much politicking and mudslinging (including Jefferson being slandered as an “atheist” for his deist beliefs), the electoral voting was tied between the two Republican candidates, Jefferson and Burr—leaving the mostly Federalist House of Representatives to decide the election. Many Federalists wanted Burr over Jefferson but the results remained deadlocked until Hamilton, who preferred Jefferson’s character over the shallow and selfish Burr, lobbied against Burr and allowed Jefferson’s supporters to win the necessary votes. (Four years later Burr killed Hamilton in a duel over honor.) The fact that Hamilton put aside his personal animosities (“if there be a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson”) and got him elected because of his character, may have been the last great demonstration of the Founders’ original intent—virtue trumping party, family, or wealth. Hamilton knew the country’s soul was at stake and so he insisted “the public good . . . must be paramount to every private consideration.” He had no doubt that by any “virtuous and prudent calculation” Jefferson was a better man and spared no effort to convince his fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson. “For heaven’s sake,” he said about Burr, “let not the Federal party be responsible for the elevation of this man.”

In the final analysis Adams lost because both opposition Republicans and extreme Federalists within his own party were against his candidacy: Republicans thought his foreign policy too pro-British, his Sedition Act dangerous to liberty, and his taxes coercive; the extreme Federalists considered Adams much too moderate and preferred the more radical Hamilton. In a real sense Adams fell victim to his sense of duty to do the right thing and go against his party’s excessive policies. While he may have been insecure about his diminutive form and unpopularity, he was steadfastly committed to the principle of disinterested government as advocated by Whig philosophers. When Jefferson came calling on Adams after the election results were announced, he found the outgoing president alone in his study. Adams, upon seeing the president-elect exclaimed, “You’ve turned me out!” Jefferson tried to console the despondent patriot: “This was no contest between you and me. Two systems of principles . . . divide our fellow citizens into two parties.” Adams, loyal to the Constitutional process which he had helped forge, left—a beaten man, “I will be as faithful a subject as any you will have.” While he did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration, a quarter century later their souls were bound in a way that defied conventional explanations and approached the metaphysical.

Jefferson hailed the Republican victory as the “Revolution of 1800,” explaining that it was “as real a revolution in the principle of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” Significantly, he pointed out, it was “not effected indeed by the sword . . . but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.” Jefferson, with his Whig view of history, highlighted that reason had effected a revolution of principles heretofore requiring bloodshed. This election was more than a debate over party policies, he argued—it was a contest between “two systems of principles” that sprang from contrasting views of human nature. Federalists, led by Hamilton, felt men were capable of virtuous behavior but never entirely able to overcome their desire for money and power. Jefferson and his Republicans were more optimistic, thinking virtuous behavior could be cultivated if the social environment was more conducive to enlightened and moral instruction. Thus for Federalists, their preferred government required strong institutions to harness public passions for the common good, while Republicans—believing government was inherently dangerous—thought it should limit itself to nurturing the kind of society that cultivated better citizens to do the right thing voluntarily. This formed the core of Jefferson’s belief in self-government:

That government governs best that governs least.

The Republican victory not only repudiated Federalist philosophy but also set the country in an entirely new direction. At its most basic level, a Lockean distrust of authority caused the backlash against excessive centralization, a revolutionary ethos that held government as “a necessary evil.” Thus Federalist programs during the 1790s made these warnings urgently relevant as Hamilton implemented his federal taxes, national debt, the United States Bank, expanded military, and all the trappings of an expansionist bureaucracy. To those who fought in the Revolution such policies seemed to resurrect the kind of society that many Americans thought had been left behind when liberated from King George. So, for example, the corruption of pre-Revolutionary America that had been blamed on the “greed and avarice” of English political and commercial institutions, was now reappearing, according to Jefferson, from American “merchants connected closely with England and the newly created paper fortunes.”

Jefferson described a new course for the nation in his inaugural address asking Americans to set aside party differences for the sake of reinvigorating the Republic: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he declared. Americans, he said, should recognize that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” and that party politicians, although “called by different names” were really “brethren of the same principle.” He asked citizens to remember that the Revolution of ’76 replaced British despotism with a republic—the first since Rome—meaning there was more in common among Americans than the country’s partisan leaders would admit. With this inclusive attitude, Jefferson’s new administration committed to tolerating differing opinions “whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.” So, despite having the presidential authority to replace Federalist officials with like-minded Republicans, Jefferson kept most of Adams’s appointees in their positions. Ironically, Jefferson was more tolerant of moderate Federalists than their own party, which soon self-destructed as High-Federalists continued their internecine politics. But moving forward the “most painful” part of being an executive magistrate, Jefferson said, was to fend off “solicitations to office.” He found that the “ordinary affairs of a nation offer little difficulty to a person of any experience” but the politics of patronage is a “dreadful burden which oppresses him.” He preferred the “joy to that state of things, when the only questions concerning a candidate shall be, is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?”

Jefferson concluded his inaugural address by describing America as “the world’s best hope,” calling upon the “Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe” to “lead our councils to what is best,” announcing it was time to set aside party bickering and return the country to its founding principles:

"The spirit of 1776 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves. But time and truth have dissipated the delusion, and opened their eyes."