This article is based on a paper written in written in high
school (Holderness School, Plymouth, NH) April 28, 1963. At
the time it was written, the lessons of the past seemed relevant
as the Republican Party seemed near annihilation. Today, in
2014, the Republican Party is once again in disarray, and it is
important to remember the two-party system is not embedded in the
U. S. Constitution. Old parties can die, and new ones can form.
In 1799, the Federalist Party was at the height of its power. It controlled both houses of Congress, had the unanimous support of the Supreme Court, and had never lost a presidential election. According to President Theodore Roosevelt in his book Gouverneur Morris, in that year: "Four-fifths of the talent, ability, and good sense of the country were to be found in the Federalist ranks; for the Federalists had held their own so far, by sheer force of courage and intellectual vigor over foes in reality more numerous." 1 In describing the condition of this party just six years later, Morton Borden says: "In a few short years, the Federalists had become the party of the past, an antiquated and dying political faith. Their numbers lessened, their opposition futile, without powerful leaders or a positive program, the national structure of the Federalist Party crumbled and only sectional factions remained. Truly, despite their conventions every four years to select a presidential candidate, there was no Federalist party -- only Federalists." 2
What brought about the ruin of this great party over such a short period of time? Many theories have been proposed, including:
Before 1799, the Federalist Party was firmly united. Not a single Federalist opposed the passage of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. 4By 1800 Adams and Hamilton were bitter enemies, and the party was divided into two rival groups. Such a schism does not usually develop within the space of just one short year. Their mutual animosity probably developed slowly over the years until some mollifying force was removed and it was allowed to break out into the open.
In December 1799, George Washington died.
According to Theodore Roosevelt: "Their great prop had been Washington. His colossal influence was to the end decisive in party contests, and he had, in fact, though hardly in name, almost entirely abandoned his early attempts at non-partisanship... His death diminished greatly the chances of Federalist success." 5 Apparently, the death of the greatest leader of the party left control in the hands of two lesser men who vied for supremacy.
A couple of years later, Adams went into retirement,
and in 1804 Hamilton was shot by Burr. Thus the Federalists lost their second echelon of leadership.
Meanwhile the third echelon was also disappearing.
In 1798, Samuel Sitgreaves, an influential Pennsylvania congressman, retired. At that time, Robert Morris, the financier of the American Revolution and a former senator from Pennsylvania, was languishing in debtors' prison. The Reverend Frederick A.C. Muhlenburg of Pennsylvania, who had been the first Speaker of the House, died in 1801. William Bingham of the same state, a former senator and a founder of the Bank of North America, expired three years later. The effect of these losses can at least in part be measured by the fact that after the election of 1800 the Federalists never received an electoral vote from Pennsylvania and never elected a governor there.
In South Carolina politics was generally dominated by the Pinckneys and the Rutledges. In 1800, Governor Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a former congressman, and his brother John, a signer of the Constitution and a former associate justice (1790-91) and chief justice (1795) of the Supreme Court, both died. After these deaths , the electoral votes of this formerly Federalist state were continually cast for Jeffersonian candidates.
In Virginia, Patrick Henry, the ardent Democrat who had recently been converted to Federalism, 6died in 1799, and former Supreme Court Justice John Blair died in 1800.
In New York, The difficulties created by the death of Hamilton were compounded by the retirement of Governor John Jay in 1801 and the death of ex-Senator Philip Schuyler in 1804.
North Carolina lost Supreme Court Justice James Iredell in 1799.
Samuel Livermore, a former senator, congressman, and chief justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court, died in 1803.
In Massachusetts, John Lowell, chief justice of the United States Circuit Court, founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a relative of the famous manufacturer, died in 1802. Also Samuel Sewall, an influential congressman, went into retirement in 1800.
No party could hope to survive intact so many deaths and
retirements of leaders over such a short period of time. The
Federalists were no exception. They lost their supremacy and their
unity. However, the party managed to linger on, in theory at least
if not a practice, until the last of their leaders died in 1864.
The party was still strong at this time, and the survivors had every reason to believe that it would return to power in the near future. By exerting power that was in their hands, they thought they could make that return come even sooner. They were supported in their hopes by the major sources of Federalist propaganda:
James A. Bayard, the sole representative from Delaware, handled the bargaining. He approached Democrats and fellow Federalists, trying to convince them to vote for Burr. The situation was such that all Bayard needed to secure the election was Burr's consent. However, Burr was not willing to betray his party. 9Bayard and his friends had to be content with a few concessions from Jefferson.
After that attempt failed, the Federalists rushed through a new judiciary act. This act created 16 new judgeships, all of which Adams managed to fill with Federalists before his term expired.
When the Seventh Congress convened that year, the Federalists no longer had a majority. In the House, there were only 35 Federalists matched against 71 Democrats. In the Senate, the Federalists had 15 seats, and the Democrats 17. There were Federalist representatives from 11 of the 16 states; and Delaware, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were solidly Federalist. 10 The party was still a national one, and the surviving leaders were still fairly numerous.
The Democrats did not waste much time before removing Federalists from appointive offices. Robert Wright, a Democrat from Maryland, went so far as to say on the Senate floor, "That honesty and capacity were not yet requisite qualifications for office -- That the great object that we ought now to keep in our constant view is to place Democrats in office." 11
Next the Democrats attacked the judiciary. Since according to the Constitution, judges held their offices with good behavior for life, the Judiciary Act of 1801 had to be repealed to remove the 16 new Federalist judges. The Democrats did this in 1802.
Ex-Senator Ray Green of Rhode Island, ex-Senator Jacob Read of South Carolina, and ex-Governor Richard Bassett of Delaware were among the victims of this maneuver. They had all resigned their posts to accept judgeships; and after having lost their judgeships, they were unable to regain their old positions.
The Federalists lost more ground in the mid-term elections of 1802. They emerged with only 9 seats in the Senate. These were held by Simeon Olcott and William Plumer from New Hampshire, John Quincy Adams and Timothy Pickering from Massachusetts, Uriah Tracy and James Hillhouse from Connecticut, William Hill Wells and Samuel White from Delaware, and Jonathan Dayton from New Jersey.
In October 1803, Dewitt Clinton, a Democrat from New York, brought up a resolution to amend the Constitution directing the electors to designate their votes for President and Vice President. 12 The Federalists did their best to stall this measure in hopes that the election of 1804 would be a tie. When it became evident that the Democrats were firmly united behind the proposal, Dayton and Tracy moved for a postponement to consider abolishing the office of Vice President. The motion for postponement lost by just one vote, and the resolution passed. 13
The next major issue was the Louisiana Purchase. The Federalists took a strict construction stand as regards the Constitution and debated futilely for many hours. Tracy, Hillhouse, Picketing, White, and Wells opposed every proposal relating to this purchase. 14 In the House, Roger Griswold and Samuel Dana led the opposition.
By until 1804, most of the Federalists thought that their eloquence in Congress would be worth votes at the polls. That was the reason behind their heated and united opposition. They were very mistaken.
The Federalists decided on Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South
Carolina, well-known because of his participation in the XYZ
Affair, as their presidential candidate, thinking that he would
secure some southern votes. Rufus King, an ex-senator from New
York, who had recently returned from England where he had served
as minister, was their vice presidential choice. By this time, the
party had lost all of the leaders enumerated in Chapter 1. They
received the electoral votes of Delaware and Connecticut, plus two
of Maryland's 11 votes, but that was all. William Plumer
explained their defeat in New Hampshire -- the one state where the
Federalist defeat was not directly related to the loss of leaders
-- as due to lethargy and defeatism among the voters. 15
The party broke up after this election and remained that way until it completely disappeared. Many Federalists went their own ways, each following what he believed to be Federalist principles. Plumer noted in his diary on November 17, 1804, the decision of this group of survivors: "I think myself, federalism can never rise again. -- The democrats in New England, aided by the whole force of the general government will, and must prevail. -- They will have a triumphant majority. This is my opinion, and if this is correct -- I think it is best for us, in Congress, to be silent -- Debate none -- move no amendments -- when we are required to vote, then vote for or against the measure as to us appears right. Always act on our own opinions." 16 The radicals and opportunists in the dying organization sought the salvation of their party in the secession of New England.
Timothy Dwight, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist minister (1783-95) and president of Yale University (1795-1817), wrote thus to a friend in 1793: "A war with Great Britain we, at least in New England, will not enter into. Sooner would ninety-nine out of a hundred separate from the Union, than plunge into such an abyss of misery." 18
Such ideas remained latent for nearly ten years. Then around the time of their failure in the national elections of 1804, many of the Federalist leaders in New England adopted them.
Shortly before he was offered the presidency of Harvard, Fisher Ames, an ex-congressman from Massachusetts, said, "Our country is too big for union." 19Roger Griswold of Connecticut wrote to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., (1760-1833): "The vices of this government are incurable... there can be no safety to the northern states without a separation from the Confederacy." 20These men were supported in their views by Pickering, Hillhouse, and Tracy.
According to William Plumer in a letter written to John Quincy Adams on December 20, 1828, in 1804 "... arrangements had been made to have the next autumn, in Boston, a select meeting of the leading Federalists in New England, to consider and recommend the measures necessary to form a system of government for the northern states, and that Alexander Hamilton, of New York, had consented to attend that meeting.... the death of General Hamilton had prevented that meeting." 21
Thus once again, death plagued the Federalists. However, the plans were not abandoned; they were merely postponed until a more opportune time.
While they were waiting for that time to come, these same men used their legislative positions to hurt the administration instead of working for the good of their states or their party. Plumer jotted down on February 10, 1806, "Today at our lodgings, Mr. Pickering of the Senate and Colonel Talmadge (of Connecticut) of the House said they were in favor of a measure, 'because they believed it would embarrass Mr. Jefferson, the President.' Mr. Tracy of the Senate and Mr. Betton (of New Hampshire) of the House, today said 'they voted in favor of a claim upon the Treasury of the U.S. not so much because they thought it was just, as that they wished to drain the Treasury.'" 22
The embargo appeared to these
secessionists as a good issue to use to add impetus to their
conspiracy. The spearhead of the movement at this time was the
Essex Junto, a group of Federalist politicians from Essex County,
Massachusetts, including Pickering, ex-Senator George Cabot,
ex-Congressman Harrison Gray Otis, and Judge Theophilus Parsons.
The Boston Gazette, under the influence of this Junto,
printed an article in 1808 stating "It is better to suffer the
amputation of a limb than to lose the whole body. We must prepare
for the operation." 23
In 1809, Sir James Craig, the Governor of Canada, sent an agent, John Henry, to New England to ascertain the attitude of the people toward the impending war with England. Henry wrote back on March 7: "I have already given a decided opinion that a declaration of war is not to be expected; but, contrary to all reasonable calculation, should Congress possess spirit and independence enough to place their popularity at stake by so strong a measure, the legislature of Massachusetts will give the tone to the neighboring states; will declare itself permanent, until a new election of members; invite a Congress to be composed of delegates from the federal states, and erect a separate government for their common defence and common interest." 24 Apparently, the propaganda was having effect.
As war became more imminent, Federalist efforts were intensified. John Lowell, Jr., of Massachusetts wrote a startling series of pamphlets that made no secret of secessionist intentions. In one of these, The New England Patriot (1810), Lowell called the Democrats Jacobins and compared them to the Jews. 25 He then proceeded to call Jefferson an atheist and to make it appear a mortal sin to vote for any of his followers. 26 He finished with the following: "Are the people of this portion of the union prepared to encounter the miseries, the privations, the long protracted calamities of a French alliance? If our national rulers, deaf ot the voice of our complaint, and unmindful of our most valuable rights and interests, persist in their ruinous course, till we are hurried to the very verge of destruction, shall we submit to be thus sacrificed? ... even the [patriotic] people of New England would come to a pause... in less than two years ... For ourselves, we believe that the people of New England would not yield their necks to the French yoke without a desperate struggle." 27
Gouverneur Morris of New York, an ex-senator, a signer of the Constitution, and a former minister to France, became a secessionist at about this time. This man, whom Plumer had called "the greatest orator I ever heard", 28stated publicly that "the Union, being the means of freedom, should be prized as such, but that the end should not be sacrificed to the means". He took it for granted that New England and New York would secede. It seemed to him that the only question was whether the boundary would be the Delaware, the Susquehanna or the Potomac. 29
Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, who had taken over Federalist leadership in the House in 1805, Timothy Bigelow of Massachusetts, and practically all the Federalist congressmen from Connecticut had espoused the secessionist cause by the time war broke out.
In the presidential election of 1812, the Federalists of New England formed a coalition with the peace Democrats of New York and New Jersey in a final attempt to win control of the government legally. DeWitt Clinton, a Democrat from New York, and Jared Ingersoll, a Federalist from Pennsylvania, were their candidates. The electoral vote was much closer than that of the two previous elections (128 to 89) , but they failed once again.
As the war progressed, New England grew more and more discontent, until finally on October 17, 1814, the Massachusetts legislature sent out invitations to the other New England states to send delegates to a convention. Connecticut and Rhode Island accepted the invitation, along with Windham County, Vermont, and Cheshire and Grafton Counties, New Hampshire.
Lowell had said that two years of war was the maximum that New England could stand. Henry had predicted that in case of war, the Massachusetts legislature would call together a secessionist congress. This convention strongly resembled the planned meeting of Federalist leaders back in 1804. The meetings were held behind closed doors. The logical conclusion that many people came to was that New England was going to secede.
The first meeting was held on December 15, 1814, at Hartford, Connecticut. George Cabot of the Essex Junto was chosen as president, and Theodore Dwight, brother of the outspoken president of Yale University, as secretary. Among those from Massachusetts were Harrison Gray Otis, another Junto member; Timothy Bigelow, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives; Nathan Dane, the author of the Ordinance of 1787; Stephen Longfellow, the father of the poet; and William Prescott, the father of the historian. Senators James Hillhouse and Chauncey Goodrich were delegates from Connecticut. 30
The ultra-secret records of the meeting, which were not made public until 1833, provide little more information than the times that they convened and adjourned and who served on what committee. The report of the convention was almost unbelievably moderate when compared with the radical views of the delegates It consisted of a series of suggested amendments to the Constitution to insure New England certain rights, privileges and powers.
Perhaps a few moderates among the delegates convinced the others to abandon their plans. Maybe the secessionists decided that they had little to gain and everything to lose by following through. Or possibly the convention was meant to be a preliminary step to further prepare the people for the eventual split. The most probably reason for this moderation is to be found on gravestones in Connecticut and Massachusetts. For before the Hartford Convention convened, Tracy, Ames, Griswold, and Parsons -- key leaders in the movement -- all died.
As it turned out, the commission that was sent to Washington
under the leadership of Otis to present the proposed amendments
arrived just one day before the new arrived of the signing of the
Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812. 31Peace
and, therefore, such plans came to a halt. The New England
secessionists had only succeeded in discrediting their party as
disloyal and thus speeded the party's annihilation. Ironically, it
was a Federalist, James A. Bayard, who was instrumental in
securing the peace treaty.
In his early days as a politician, William Plumer called himself a Federalist. On November 17, 1804, he wrote concerning the Democrats: "To such a party, so long as I am what I am, and they remain what they are now, I never can or will unite." 32However, he had an independent spirit. He voted according to conviction instead of following a strict party line. The first time he differed with the members of his party was on November 3, 1803 over granting funds for the purchase of Louisiana. The incident upset him considerably. 33As time went on, these disagreements grew more frequent.
When Plumer failed to get re-elected to the Senate in 1806, he explained his defeat thus: "I am too much of a federalist to have Republican votes, and too much of a Republican deeply to interest federalists in my favor." 34 In January, 1807, he wrote: "My credit as a party-man with the federalists is gone. They know I will do nothing for them for the sake of making opposition to the administration or supporting their party." 35
In August of 1808 Plumer voted for the Democratic ticket and also sent a heartening message to Jefferson expressing approval of the embargo. 36Several years later, Plumer was elected governor of New Hampshire on a Democratic ticket. He served in that office 1812-13 and 1816-19. It was due mainly to his efforts that New Hampshire became a Democratic state.
It is interesting to note that when Plumer was selected as an elector in 1820, he was the only one who did not vote for Monroe. He did this not so that Washington would be the only unanimously elected President, but because he thought John Quincy Adams was a better man for the job. 37
This same Mr. Adams was also a defector from the Federalist Party, but for a different reason. He was cold, Puritanical, and unsociable. Even Plumer thought him "too formal -- his manners are too stiff and unyielding -- he is too tenacious of his opinions." 38Apparently, this senator from Massachusetts thought that James A. Bayard was lax in his morals and unnecessarily bombastic in his debate, 39 and Bayard was not particularly fond of Adams either.
Whatever the reasons, their mutual enmity was kindled and smoldered for three years until it burst out in the open in January of 1808. During the previous months, Bayard had continually opposed measures suggested by Adams. This time, William Giles, a Democrat from Virginia, stepped into the reach and lured Adams away from the Federalist Party. 40When election time came that year, the Federalist in Massachusetts abandoned Adams as a traitor to their cause and elected James Lloyd, Jr., in his place.
Samuel Dexter of Massachusetts was the next defector. He had served as congressman (1793-95), senator (1799-1800), Secretary of War (1800-1), and Secretary of the Treasury (1801). William Plumer, Jr., referred to him as "the greatest lawyer of the United States." 41In 1812, he switched parties and ran for election on the Democratic ticket.
Daniel Webster entered Congress in 1813 as a Federalist from New Hampshire. However while in Washington his views changed. In 1816, he moved to Massachusetts and ceased calling himself a Federalist. 42
The loss of these young men was a terrible blow to the party.
Another problem was the growing moderation and acquiescence of the few southern leaders left in the party.
Bayard of Delaware led the Federalist Party to victory in that state time and again. However, his federalism was at times so moderate that it was indistinguishable from Democratic policy. He was in favor of war with Great Britain as early as 1806, 43 and he saw to it that Delaware was unrepresented at the Federalist nominating convention of 1808 because it was connected with secessionists. 44
Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, who had been the Federalist vice presidential candidate in 1800, contrary to all Federalist principles served as a major-general in the War of 1812.
Rufus King of New York wrote in the spring of 1816, six months before the election in which he was the last Federalist presidential candidate: "I presume that the failure will, as I think it should, discourage the Federalists from maintaining a fruitless struggle. It has probably become the true interest and policy of the Country that the Democracy should pursue its natural course. Federalists of our age must be content with the past." 45
Thus by 1816, the Federalist Party was in its grave in the South and on its deathbed in the North. But somehow it managed to linger on.
Meanwhile the number of Federalists on the Supreme Court was diminishing. When Jefferson took office as President in 1801, the Supreme Court had six justices, all Federalists. All of them took part in the case of Marbury versus Madison in 1803. Then death struck in this Federalist stronghold too. Alfred Moore of North Carolina died the next year. William Paterson of New Jersey, a signer of the Constitution, an ex-senator, and an ex-governor, breathed his last in 1806. In 1810 William Cushing of Massachusetts expired. Samuel Chase, the outspoken signer of the Declaration of Independence, died in 1811. Thus only John Marshall and Bushrod Washington, a nephew of the late President, remained in a Court of seven (the number was increased in 1808).
However, James Madison appointed Joseph Story, a young Federalist congressman, to the Court in 1811, using ability, instead of party, as the criterion for his choice. Thus the Federalist influence was allowed to continue on the Supreme Court until Story died in 1845.
The decisions of this Court had little effect on the death of the Federalist party. Thanks to the Federalist justices, many Federalist principles were preserved as the law of the land. But parties are made up of people, not laws or principles. As far as political competition was concerned, the leaders that the Federalist Party put on the Supreme Court were out of circulation, no longer available to run for political office -- politically dead.
Defeatist Rufus King was the only Federalist outside of these states who held an important elective office during this time. He was senator from New York (1813-1825) and minister of England (1825-26).
These die-hards gained a good deal of control over education in the Northeast over this time. Ashbel Green was president of Princeton (1812-22), and Josiah Quincy was in charge of Harvard (1829-45). Noah Webster was one of the founders of Amherst. James Hillhouse was treasurer of Yale until he died in 1832. Ex-Congressman John Davenport taught at Yale, and ex-Senator Samuel Latham taught a Columbia.
Some other Federalists abandoned politics to become famous in other fields. Noah Webster worked from 1807 until 1828 on his famous dictionary and spent the rest of his life compiling such books as a History of the U.S. and his Spelling Book. Theodore Dwight, the secretary of the Hartford Convention, edited the New York Daily Advertiser (1817-36). Jedediah Morse, a Congregational minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, accustomed to delivering political speeches from the pulpit, and the father of Samuel Morse (the telegrapher), published a geography book and became known as the "father of American geography". Joseph Hopkinson, one of Samuel Chase's attorneys (1804-5) and author of the words "Hail Columbia", gained fame as a lawyer and as judge of the District Court of Pennsylvania (1828-42). Lastly, Manasseh Cutler, a lawyer, an ordained minister, a practicing physician, the founder of a private school in Salem, Massachusetts, a founder of the Ohio Company, a famous botanist a framer of the Ordinance of 1781, and a Federalist congressman (1801-5), because well-known because of his speculations and financial ventures.
Needless to say, no new leaders appeared in the party after the War of 1812. Brilliant young politicians are not inclined to espouse doomed causes. By 1846, only Josiah Quincy, Harrison Gray Otis, Theodore Dwight, Ashbel Green, ex-Congressman Nathan Read of Massachusetts, and ex-Senator James Ross of Pennsylvania were alive out of a group of over a hundred leaders. The last of these, Josiah Quincy, died in 1864, and with him went the last spark of life of the party.
Thus it appears that the loss of leaders played a significant
role in the death of the Federalist Party.
Century Dictionary, Superintended by William Dwight Whitney, New York: The Century Company, 1889.
Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia, New York: Unicorn Publishers, 1950.
The New Student's Reference Work, ed. Chandler Beau, F.E. Compton Company, Chicago, 1920.
Senate Manual, U.S. Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1944.
Williams, T. Harry, et al., A History of the U.S., New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959.