The Federalist Party of the United States of America was America’s first political party to rise and also the first to fall. From its ranks came many of America’s first leaders like the first vice-president and second president, John Adams, the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay. America’s first president, George Washington, was also a big supporter of many Federalist policies, but officially he was non-partisan.
A main tenant of Federalism was their support of a strong national government. They also advocated for good relations with Great Britain, protective tariffs, a national bank, and opposition to the French Revolution. Their policies calling for a strong central government faced backlash from those who believed in the Republican ideology of limited government. This led to the forming of an opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson whose aim was to protect Americans from the encroachment of a powerful government.
The Federalists were a powerful party during Washington and Adam’s presidency, but by the time Jefferson was elected president in 1800 the Federalist Party began to disintegrate, formally being dissolved in 1824. The downward spiral of the Federalist party, who by 1816 had virtually no power in government, led to an eight year period in American history from 1816-1824 deemed the “Era of Good Feelings” due to the fact that their was only one real party in America, the Democratic-Republicans. (Ironically, this era was marked by an increase in political disagreements as the Democratic-Republican Party was in the process of fracturing over the issue of states’ rights. Eventually this disagreement would lead to a large portion of the Democratic-Republicans to leave and form their own party, the Democrats, based on the preservation of states’ rights.)
With such a strong start, though, what exactly caused the Federalist Party to collapse? Historians tend to settle on two main reasons why the party ultimately failed.
Firstly, the Federalists were opposed to the Democratic spirit present in American citizens who had just gained their freedom from Great Britain. The Federalists were not supportive of a monarchy or rule by a few, as was the case in Britain, but they did tend to push many anti-Democratic principles. The Federalists believed in a concept known as “tyranny of the majority.” Federalist leaders like Alexander Hamilton believed that if a mass of people were given the right to vote they might elect a demagogue or a reality t.v. star with no political experience (ok, he did not say the last part but you have to admit he probably would have if he was alive today).
Concepts like the Electoral College and the indirect election of senators through congress were all Federalist ideas dedicated to the concept of keeping government out of the hands of the people. Hamilton himself said, “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.” Of course, the vast majority of Americans were not happy with these Federalists positions, which seemed to run in contrast with the freedom that Americans had just risked their lives for in the American Revolution.
Secondly, the Federalists support of Great Britain during the War of 1812 made them appear unpatriotic and even treasonous in the eyes of voting Americans. The Federalists were largely a party based in New England. The New England states’ economies were commercial and a large portion of their economies relied on constant and stable trade with Great Britain. The War of 1812, though, disrupted this trade and many Federalist states felt cheated, believing their commercial interests were being sacrificed by the southern and newly formed western states.
So, in 1814, a conference of the New England states was held in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss the War of 1812 and its ruinous affects on the economies of New England. Discussion was mainly centered on possible changes to the Constitution to ensure that the business interests of these states would be protected in the future. A smaller, more radical section of the convention even called for a secession of the New England states from the union.
By January 4, 1815 the delegates at the Hartford Convention finalized their demands and sent emissaries to Washington. Before the representatives reached Washington, though, a ship returned from Europe bringing news that a peace agreement with Great Britain had been reached, effectively ending the War of 1812. America had held its own against a major world power two times in a row thrusting American patriotism to an all time high. However, while the Democratic-Republicans had supported America in its fight against Britain, here stood the Federalist Party who had held a convention where some representatives had gone so far as to advocate for secession. The Federalist Party and its leaders appeared treasonous. The Hartford Convention was the final nail in the Federalist’s coffin.
So, what can the party leaders of our day learn from the mistakes of the Federalists? The Federalists with their undemocratic ideology were opposed to the current direction America was moving in: a gradual and continual increase in democracy. Simply put, parties, to remain relevant, need to go with the flow. For Republicans, that means giving up things like the fight against gay marriage. In the past 20 years the American public has gone from 27% support for gay marriage to 61% support for gay marriage. And, this number will likely continue to go up. For Democrats that means continuing to support Israel in the Middle East, a position some Democrats have started abandoning. The American public has consistently retained a positive view on Israel over Palestine (over 60% the past 5 years). Political parties were not created to hunker down on unpopular viewpoints and refuse to change. Political parties were created as an institution for the purpose of combining a large amount of like-minded people together to form a winning coalition. If a party is not willing to change and adapt, then it is not willing to win. It is really as simple as that.
A second lesson gained from the downfall of the Federalists is the importance of patriotism in party electability. People are inherently nationalistic, and Americans are no exception. If your party believes in things that the vast majority of the public deems “un-American” your electoral success will suffer. A big part of Ronald Reagan’s successful restoration of the Republican Party after they had suffered the scandal of Watergate was his appeal to American patriotism. By being staunchly anti-Soviet and painting the left as being to soft in their opposition to Russia, Reagan was able to thrust a party into power that had only a decade prior lost the trust of many Americans.
As Republicans increasingly become more patriotic, though, Democrats are becoming less and less so. 68% Republicans and only 45% of Democrats identify as “extremely proud” to be American. My argument is not whether or not people should be extremely proud to be American, but that, in the context of electability, it is not a good sign that more than half of Democrats do not consider themselves extremely proud to be American. Furthermore, as international dangers like terrorism mount, American voters will begin to tolerate less and less of a party, which appears to not be unequivocally “pro-American.”
In conclusion, electoral success in this country is never guaranteed and if the Republicans and Democrats want to continue to win elections, it is vital that they are not opposed to the general will of the American people and retain at least some semblance of a patriotic, pro-American message. If they do not, there is plenty of room for them in the political graveyard where they can join the Federalists and other dead political parties.