By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University
The formation of the Democratic-Republican party was a pivotal event in the history of the United States of America. It was formed through a series of political as well as personal events, and was intended to root out corruption from the American system.
Alexander Hamilton argued that the American Constitution, while comprehensive, was not designed to anticipate each and every detail. The most unforeseen detail—one that many scholars believe would have been outlawed had it been foreseen in 1787—was the formation of political parties.
The Differences Between Political Factions And Political Parties
American politics, until the 1790s, was dominated by the politics of faction, something that was also referred to by various other popular terms, such as ‘hunta’ or ‘caucus’.
The politics of parties was vastly different from that of factions. The biggest difference was the fact that faction politics was temporary, formed around one or two issues, and dissolving with the achievement of some short term political goals. In contrast, parties were built as long term solutions for public policy.
Further, while faction politics was generally localized, regional, or special interest-oriented, parties organized constituencies across the nation, and across class or ethnicities.
Faction parties were also generally small scale, paying little attention to the mechanics of support or political power. This was because factions were generally confident that the righteousness of their ideas was all they needed, or sometimes because they simply were less interested in generating mass support than in influencing the results of one or two decisions. Parties, however, developed large-scale structures for nominations, for mass mobilizations of voters, for propaganda, and for charismatic symbols.
Finally, faction politics was usually personal, revolving around the personality of one or two important leaders, while parties tried to offer relatively more democratic participation structures, allowing more people to enter the party, and often, surviving the loss or defeat of their leaders in political quest without it spelling an end for the party. This was not always true for a faction.
Learn more about politics in the American revolution.
Parties And the Idea of the Republic
These characteristics of the modern party system stuck deeply in the craw of the idea of a republic. The reasons for the 18th-century republican revolution against parties was not really difficult to understand, given that the nature of party politics was diametrically opposite to what republican writers thought of as the three touchstones of true republican politics: liberty, virtue, and commerce.
Because they were no longer bound together by the corrupting forces of hierarchy, kinship, and patronage, the way monarchies were, republics were fragile in nature. Without the glue of corruption to hold them together, they required a single virtuous mind and a single virtuous political order to hold them together.
Jefferson and Hamilton
A conversation between Jefferson and Hamilton reiterates this sentiment of Republicans: “If I could not go to heaven, but with a party,” Jefferson remarked, “I would not go at all.” “Nothing could be more ill-judged,” agreed Hamilton, in the first of The Federalist Papers, “than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties.”
Further, as James Madison argued in the tenth of The Federalist Papers, “The whole purpose of the Constitution had been to prevent the divisions of party interest from corrupting the new republic, this elaborate system of electing a two-house Congress, with each having power to restrain the other’s legislation.”
So, the entire system of Republicans was intended to weed out the unvirtuous and the self-interested from the political machine; those who were described as “Men of factious tempers or local prejudices or of sinister designs.”
In their place, the process was meant to put the wisest and the least partisan individuals in control of the nation’s destiny.
However, this ideology led to a serious split between Jefferson and Hamilton over policies and programs, to an extent that had been unfathomable at the time of writing the Constitution.
Learn more about the creation of the new Constitution.
The Split and the Creation of the Party
By 1791, the split between Hamilton and Jefferson had descended from the level of simply politics and programs to that of ideology, and by that time, the matters had begun to take the shape, not of faction politics, but of an entire national party organization.
No one of course, actually, deliberately set out to depart from the official republican pose of Whig non-partisanship. The parties, that eventually came to be organized around Jefferson and Hamilton, continued to deny that they were parties at all, claiming that they were simply giving voice to the republican consensus of the nation, organizing themselves to do what the other side was already doing; the innocent political bystanders, the republicans, had to create a counter-party in order to stamp out the corruption of the aggressors, their opposition.
It was as early as January of 1791 that Jefferson began sneering at Hamilton for creating a sect in the government, one that was clearly biased toward monarchy, stock jobbers, and king jobbers. According to him, the only solution left was to act in organizational self-defense, “The only corrective of what is corrupt in our present trend of government is the augmentation of the numbers of the lower house so as to get a more agricultural representation which may put that interest above that of the stock jobbers.”
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
James Madison’s role in the Creation of the Party
However, it was not Jefferson, but Madison who organized what came to be known as the Democratic-Republicans, or simply, the Republicans. Born in 1751, Madison was a long-time friend of Jefferson’s, and one of the principal architects of the federal Constitution, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
In fact, it was in that very convention that Madison had allied himself with Hamilton, during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. However, being a Virginian, slaveholder, and gentleman farmer like Jefferson, he strongly disagreed with the direction Hamilton had set in his reports.
From his seat in the House of Representatives, Madison began to orchestrate an organized opposition to Hamilton in both the House and the Senate.
Republicans in the 18th century saw parties as the very embodiment of ambition, selfishness, and corruption, and believed that they were examples of the past that needed to be put down if a republic was to prevail.
Common Questions about the Formation of the Democratic-Republican Party
Faction politics was an integral part of American political history. While political factions were temporary, small-scale, or localized, parties were built as long term solutions for public policy. Further, unlike factions, political parties did not revolve around just one or two important leaders.
Political parties went against the very ideals of a republic. Their nature was polar opposite to what were considered as the cornerstones of a republic: liberty, virtue, and commerce.
As early as in 1791, the rift between Jefferson and Hamilton had widened significantly, and Jefferson often publicly condemned Hamilton for organizing his legions into the form of a political party. He claimed that, as a means of organizational self-defense, the only option left was for him to organize as well. This is what eventually gave rise to the creation of the Republican party.