Jefferson’s Party: Finding Allies and Courting the Media


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

Despite his avowed hatred of political parties and factions, Jefferson was forced to reconsider this opinion in light of the need to resist Hamilton’s innovations in debt, banking, and manufacturing. Jefferson thus began the formation of the first American political party by assembling allies, and finding support in the media.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC.
Jefferson was opposed to the idea of political parties, but was forced to create one to oppose Hamilton effectively. (Image: LO Kin-hei/ Shutterstock)

Assembling Allies

In his fight to oppose Hamilton, the first thing Jefferson did was to begin assembling allies, and in some cases, smoothing over previous differences between people he thought he could count upon. George Mason had fought Madison tooth and nail at the Constitutional Convention, but Jefferson wanted both of them beside him. And so, he acted as broker of a rapprochement between the two.

Second, Jefferson began appealing to carefully selected individuals to run for Congress. Learning of Colonel Henry Innes’s “disapprobation of the debt assumption,” Jefferson urged Innes to try for a seat in the next Congress. In the summer of 1791, Jefferson and Madison began a month-long tour of New York and the Hudson Valley, ostensibly to fish and gather zoological specimens, but partly to establish contacts with Governor George Clinton, New York’s arch-anti-Federalist.

Learn more about Madison’s idea of the American Republic.

Playing the Media Card

Third, Jefferson surreptitiously began playing for a beachhead among the newspapers. Three days after Washington signed the enabling bill for the Bank of the United States, Jefferson hired Philip Morin Freneau as a translator at the Department of State.

Freneau had made his career as a journalist with the virulently anti-Hamilton New-York Daily Advertiser. Jefferson and Madison wanted him as their journalistic mouthpiece. The translator’s job would give Freneau cover and an income. And in October of 1791, Freneau began publishing the National Gazette to defeat the “doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the influence of the people” from Congress.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Bache
Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper had a strong republican bent. (Image: Unknown/ Public domain)

Meanwhile, Jefferson also sought to woo Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and the publisher of the General Advertiser, which Bache soon renamed the Aurora and General Advertiser, “the principles of which” according to Jefferson “were always republican.”

Madison’s Arguments

Three weeks after Freneau’s National Gazette began publishing, Madison appeared in its columns with a series of articles, which claimed, in good Jeffersonian fashion, that agriculturalists were “the best basis of public liberty and the strongest bulwark of public safety.”

If this fostered the creation of political parties, so what? Parties, Madison decided, were “unavoidable” in a republic. In some sense, they might even represent a kind of self-protective agency, since American politics was already being driven into factions by Hamilton.

As Madison said, one faction “having debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves” has become the party of “monarchy and aristocracy” and can conceive “that government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments, and the terror of military force.”

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Hamilton’s Troubles

When Congress took up Hamilton’s report on manufactures in February 1792, Hamilton began off-balance. His long- time business partner, William Duer, had set up charters for three new private banks in New York City, all to be capitalized at over $1 million apiece.

This speculation collapsed in March 1792, sending prices of shares in the banks plummeting. Duer spent the next seven years in debtors’ prison. Hamilton was more seriously compromised by a blackmail scandal involving an affair with a flirtatious 23-year-old, Maria Reynolds. Her husband, James Reynolds, tried to screw money out of Hamilton, and offered to hostile Congressmen to “make disclosures injurious to the character of some head of a department.”

Filled with a mix of rancor and confidence, the Jeffersonians rose in the House of Representatives on March 8, 1792, to blame the New York City bank failures on Hamilton and to demand Hamilton’s resignation from the Treasury. He was saved by a vote of 31–27, with Fisher Ames leading his defense. Later in March, the Jeffersonians demanded an investigation into military procurements. Again, Hamilton was exonerated.

Learn more about the commercial liberal republicanism of Alexander Hamilton.

The Letter to Washington

Finally, in September, Jefferson launched his ultimate missile at  Hamilton: a letter to George Washington listing Hamilton’s crimes against the Republic. Jefferson had always planned, as Secretary of State, to “intermeddle not at all with the legislature.”

But Hamilton had “duped” him in the Reports on Public Credit and the National Bank and made him “a tool for forwarding his schemes.” Hamilton’s “system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.”

Especially, the Report on the Subject of Manufactures is a scheme “to draw all the powers of government into the hands of the general legislature, to establish means for corrupting a sufficient corps in that legislature to divide the honest votes and preponderate, by their own, the scale which suited, and to have that corps under the command of the Secretary of the Treasury for the purpose of subverting step by step the principles of the Constitution, which he has so often declared to be a thing of nothing which must be changed.”

Washington’s Trump Card

Washington turned the tables on Jefferson by threatening not to stand for a second presidential term that fall if the bickering went on. Even Jefferson acknowledged that Washington was “the only man in the United States who possessed the confidence of the whole,” and in the fall of 1792, the state electors once again handed Washington a unanimous ballot, as President.

But the challenge of parties—and especially Jefferson’s party—was not going to go away, either. Jefferson was convinced that the congressional elections in 1792 “have produced a decided majority in favor of the republican interest.” Since the 1790 census had created four new seats in the House and Jefferson’s party won three of them, he was technically right.

Common Questions about Jefferson’s Party

Q: How did Jefferson gather allies in his fight against Hamilton?

The first thing Jefferson did was to begin assembling allies, and in some cases, smoothing over previous differences between people he thought he could count upon. In addition, he began prompting potential supporters to run for Congress.

Q: How did Jefferson launch a media campaign against Hamilton?

Jefferson hired Philip Morin Freneau, a virulently anti-Hamilton as a translator at the Department of State. Freneau began publishing the National Gazette to defeat the “doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the influence of the people” from Congress.

Q: What was Jefferson’s final step in his attack on Hamilton?

Jefferson’s final step in his attack on Hamilton was in the form of a letter he wrote to Washington. In this letter, Jefferson listed Hamilton’s crimes against the Republic. However, the attack was in vain, as Washington threatened to resign if the bickering did not stop.

Keep Reading
James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton: Defense of the Virginia Plan
Alexander Hamilton’s Valid Defense against the Anti-Constitutionalists
Thomas Jefferson: The Political Life