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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

An Overview and Introduction

Learning Objective One: Discuss the formative period of the two party system.

The two-party system is such a familiar feature of American national government that it is difficult to realize that the men who formed the Constitution did not plan for it. See Federalist Paper Number 10


In fact, almost all the framers despised the idea of “factions”. In the Constitution they tried create a government that would discourage the formation of political parties.


The framers knew that conflict between organized groups was bound to occur as it had occurred during the drafting of the document itself. Planters would be pitted against merchants, slave holders against non-slave holders, the rich against the poor. Such divisions in society were bound to lead to factions, which would struggle to gain control and federal governments. These struggles would bring out people’s worst failings: ambition, selfishness, and deceit. In order to gain the advantage, political parties would stop at nothing. They might mobilize their supporters by appeals to fear and greed. People’s loyalties would not be to their country but to their party.


The framers of the Constitution tried to create a government that would be beyond the reach of factions and the different interests groups. They believed that the system of checks and balances would make it impossible for any group to gain control of the whole federal structure. For example, the president would not be the tool of a political party because he was elected by the Electoral College, not the people. Since federal judges were to be appointed for life, they would not depend on party support for their offices. The selection and structure of Congress was divided to make it more difficult for a party to control. The House of Representatives was and still is popularly elected and they must run for re-election every two years. Senators are elected for terms of six years and are thus more independent than members of the House. Senators were at first chosen by the State Legislature until the passage of the 17th amendment to the Constitution in 1913 which made them popularly elected.


However, the very fears the Founding Fathers had about political factions developed in the very beginning over the forming and ratification of the Constitution. These factions were called Federalists and Anti-federalists.


The first national parties developed out of contests in Congress in the early 1790's over Hamilton's financial program. Madison and Jefferson first organized their opposition to Hamilton's program only in Congress and did not anticipate creating a permanent, popular party.


This clip highlights perfectly the foundations of the first political parties:

But as their antagonism to Hamilton endured, and as the widely read newspapers of the day took sides between the two different interest groups and spread political message, primitive semblances of political parties began to emerge. Hence, American political parties date their birth from the bitter clashes between Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, over fiscal policy and foreign affairs. These factions followed sectional lines. Northern congressmen supported the Bank of the United States by a margin of 33 to 1, while Southern representatives opposed it 19 to 6.


By 1793-94 these sectional factions and distinct ideological identities had acquired names ... Federalists representing Hamilton's views, and Democratic-Republicans representing the views of both Jefferson and Madison .

By 1794 both the Federalists and Republicans had recruited supporters in each state and were preparing for the election of 1796. As president, Washington tried to stand above parties, but his pro-Hamiltonian beliefs exposed him to partisan attack. The bitterness of party strife contributed to Washington's decision not to seek a third term in 1796 and opened the way for the first political contest for the presidency