Contrary to the vast majority of my fellow scholars of American history, I have never found the account of the creation of political parties in the Founding Era and Early Republic to be credible. Admittedly, my position is one of an extremely small minority, so I do not mean to suggest that historians are ready to discard their time-honored and experienced-honed beliefs. My own skepticism began in high school history—admittedly, dreadfully dull and boring—in which the teachers as well as the textbooks would present George Washington and John Adams as “Federalists” and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as “Democrats” or “Democratic-Republicans.”
My questions, even at age sixteen, were legion. First, if Jefferson and Madison belonged to the same party, why did their political policies often conflict in numerous ways? Even Jefferson as president—consider, for example, his 1807 embargo on ALL trade with England and France, or his purchase of Louisiana Territory—seemed to contradict so much of what he had argued prior to his presidency and at the very beginning of his presidency. Aside from the humility legitimately expressed in awe of the American West, where in the first inaugural does Jefferson claim the right to claim western lands not specified in the 1783 treaty with Great Britain? Again, how can the man who argued for trade with all but entangling alliances with none force upon America his instrument of peaceable coercion, the Embargo of 1807? Or, take Madison. In the early 1790s, he vehemently opposed Alexander Hamilton and the creation of First Bank of the United States. By 1815 and 1816, he helped create the Second Bank of the United States, something that would make the second bank Goldman Sachs next to Hamilton’s mom and pop savings and loan. If there was any logical consistency and political idealism holding together the Jefferson and Madison “Democratic Republican” party of 1792 with the one of 1816, I fail to see it.
Second, as much as historians like to simplify the past by giving men and things easy labels, I couldn’t help but notice—even as early as high school history—that men such as Washington did not—at least during his presidency—refer to himself as a Federalist. Certainly, during the 1787-1788 debates on the ratification of the Constitution, he did, but “Federalist” even in 1787 was not a political party, but an organized movement struggling to get the American people to accept the Constitution. The “Anti-Federalists” have almost nothing in common with one another except for their fear of an oppressive U.S. Constitution. Their radically varied reasons for opposing the Constitution doomed them from the beginning. As president, Washington not only failed to label his position as a political one, but also actively discouraged the creation of political parties. It must be noted, when he did discourage the creation of parties, he did not discourage the breakup of current political parties. Because none existed. His worries were for the future, not the present. Jump forward several decades, and James Monroe and John Quincy Adams still argue against the creation of political parties—not the breakup of those that exist, but to prevent those that might come into existence.