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Partisan Politics

Partisan Politics

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Understand the controversy surrounding the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams and the transition to that of Thomas Jefferson.

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what's covered
The Federalists held the presidency and other major federal offices through the 1790s. Underneath this guise of Federalist continuity, however, lay significant division and disarray that contributed to the first party system, polarization, and the first of many instances of partisan politics in the United States. It was also during such a period of turmoil that one of most distinguishing features of American republicanism — a peaceful transition in power — occurred in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency.

Our examination of partisan politics during the 1790s breaks down as follows:
  1. Democratic-Republican Societies
  2. The Whiskey Rebellion
  3. The Alien and Sedition Acts
  4. The “Revolution of 1800”

1. Democratic-Republican Societies

The administrations of George Washington and John Adams, which came to represent the Federalist Party and their programs (most notably Alexander Hamilton’s economic proposals), generated growing criticism throughout the 1790s.

Much of this criticism and debate took place in the public sphere, as a number of Americans attended political meetings and read pamphlets or newspapers. Indeed, print culture, encouraged in part by Thomas Jefferson and other critics, played a key role in the growing dissatisfaction with the Federalist administrations and the eventual establishment of the first two formal political parties.

did you know
The number of newspapers in the United States grew from approximately 100 to 260 during the 1790s. By the 1810s, the United States featured over 400 newspapers.

The majority of these publications did not aim to be objective. Rather, they served to broadcast the views or opinions of a certain individual or group of people.


In 1791, Thomas Jefferson approached Philip Freneau to help organize opposition to Hamilton’s program by publishing a newspaper titled National Gazette. Its sole purpose was to counter those presses that wrote articles in favor of Hamilton’s proposals and the Washington administration. Until it ceased publication in 1793, the National Gazette attacked Hamilton’s policies and the Washington administration relentlessly through articles with headlines such as “Rules for Changing a Republic into a Monarchy.”

Here, the front page of the Federalist Gazette of the United States from September 9, 1789 (a), is shown beside that of the oppositional National Gazette from November 14, 1791 (b). The Gazette of the United States featured articles, sometimes written pseudonymously or anonymously, from leading Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. The National Gazette was founded two years later to counter their political influence.

Criticism of the Federalists and Hamilton’s economic program centered on the notion that the national government sought to enrich an elite few at the expense of everyone else. Thus, along with the flourishing of partisan newspapers, a number of critics formed Democratic-Republican societies.

did you know
At least 50 of these societies had emerged in the United States by 1794.
terms to know
An individual or institution that actively supports or defends the interests of a political party.
Advocates of limited government who were troubled by the expansive domestic policies of Washington’s administration, and opposed the Federalists.

Democratic-Republican societies championed limited government and individual liberty. For instance, the Democratic-Republican Society of Addison County, Vermont, declared, “That all men are naturally free, and possess equal rights. That all legitimate government originates in the voluntary social compact of the people.”

When expressing their fear toward centralized government, many individuals in these societies referenced their experiences during the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, when a distant, overbearing, and seemingly corrupt British Parliament attempted to impose its will on the colonies. The new Constitution, which, after all, had been written in secret by 55 wealthy men of property and standing (many of whom were now key figures in the federal government), ignited similar concerns. To opponents, the Federalists promoted aristocracy and a monarchical government — a betrayal of what many believed to be the goal of the American Revolution.

2. The Whiskey Rebellion

The Washington administration’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 further crystallized the fears of many Democratic-Republicans.

term to know
Whiskey Rebellion
A rebellion among farmers in western Pennsylvania in protest of a federal whiskey tax.

The tax, which Congress enacted in 1791, amounted to 7.5 cents per gallon of whiskey and rum. Many farmers produced whiskey from their grain for economic reasons. Rather than transport a bulky grain harvest to market without adequate roads or other means of transport, it was more cost-effective to distill grains into barrels of gin or whisky, which were easier to transport. For this reason, many farmers depended upon the sale of whiskey and interpreted Hamilton’s tax as proof that the new national government favored eastern commercial interests rather than rural, western farmers.

did you know
In some places, farmers also used whiskey as currency when paper money and specie (gold or silver) was scarce.

During the spring and summer of 1794, resistance to the whiskey tax became open and violent in western Pennsylvania. There, farmers tarred and feathered federal officials sent to collect the tax, intercepted the federal mail, and intimidated wealthy citizens. Some so-called “whiskey rebels” even planned to form an independent country. Many more, however, aligned themselves with the Democratic-Republicans. They saw the tax as part of a larger Federalist plot to destroy their republican liberty and, in its most extreme interpretation, turn the United States into a monarchy.

Do you notice any similarities between the actions or concerns of Democratic-Republicans and those of colonists during the imperial crisis of the 1760s-1770s? Why do you think such similarities exist?

In response to the protests, the federal government lowered the tax. However, when federal officials tried to subpoena those distillers who remained resistant, trouble escalated still further. Washington responded by creating a 13,000 man militia, drawn from several states, to put down the rebellion. The whiskey rebels offered no resistance and the conflict subsided, but the fact that Washington raised such a force made it known, both domestically and to European powers that questioned the survival of the republic, that the Federalists would do everything in their power to ensure the survival of the United States under the Constitution.

did you know
George Washington actually accompanied the militia part of the way to western Pennsylvania, which marked the only time in American history that an acting president commanded an army in the field.

This painting, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer (ca. 1795), depicts the massive force George Washington led to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion of the previous year. Such an action made it clear that the Federalists would do everything in their power to ensure the survival of the American republic under the Constitution.

Many Democratic-Republican societies disbanded by 1795 because Federalists blamed them for inciting the Whiskey Rebellion. Many of these members went on to become members of the emerging Democratic-Republican party.

Do you see any parallels between the Whiskey Rebellion and more recent conflicts between western, rural folk and the federal government? If so, why do you think such parallels exist?

3. The Alien and Sedition Acts

George Washington served two terms as president. Yet, in 1796, he refused to run for a third term (setting an important precedent for future presidents) and, for the first time, members of two distinct political parties — John Adams (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) — ran against each other for the presidency. Adams won the election by a narrow margin of three electoral votes and ensured another Federalist administration.

After winning the presidential election in 1796, John Adams oversaw a divided nation, one in which Federalists continued to face unrest and challenges to their political influence and to the legitimacy of a strong national government.


In 1799, led by John Fries, farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania — in order to oppose a property tax enacted by Congress — confronted tax assessors and released arrested individuals from local prisons. President Adams dispatched the army to the area, where they arrested Fries for treason and intimidated his supporters, which included a number of Democratic-Republican newspaper editors.

In the wake of suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion and other challenges to their authority in rural areas, Federalists continued to face criticism from Democratic-Republican presses, including many immigrant writers and editors. In response, Federalists enacted a series of measures known as the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. They included:

  • A new Naturalization Act that extended the amount of time necessary for immigrants to become American citizens from five to 14 years.
  • The Alien Act, which provided for the deportation of any immigrant that federal authorities deemed “dangerous.”
  • The Sedition Act, which imposed harsh penalties — up to five years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine (in 1790 dollars) — on anyone convicted of speaking or writing “in a scandalous or malicious” manner against the government of the United States.
term to know
Alien and Sedition Acts
A series of measures enacted by President John Adams to suppress criticism and other challenges to Federalist administration.

Of the three measures, the Sedition Act was the most significant because it was aimed toward editors and writers who criticized the Adams administration and appeared to violate the first amendment. Federalists looked down upon these individuals, viewing them as upstarts whose only goal was to incite political unrest.

In all, 18 individuals, most of whom were Democratic-Republicans, were indicted under the Sedition Act and ten were convicted. Among the most notable of these individuals was Matthew Lyon, a Congressman from Vermont who edited a Democratic-Republican newspaper titled The Scourge Of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth. Lyon was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,000.

The sentencing of Matthew Lyon under the Sedition Act was partly in response to Lyon’s background and his actions in Congress. Lyon was an immigrant who had arrived in North America as an indentured servant. He was also a former artisan and printer by the time he was elected to Congress. However, Federalists looked down upon Lyon’s class background because they believed that Congress should remain a realm for wealthier individuals.

In early 1798, Lyon spat in the face of Congressman Roger Griswold after Griswold had insulted him on the House floor. For a depiction of what followed, examine the 1798 cartoon “Congressional Pugilists,” provided below:

image of cartoon

Griswold (right) attacked Lyon with a cane, while Lyon (left) defended himself with a nearby set of fireplace tongs. After the incident, Federalists attempted to censure Lyon but failed to gain the two-thirds majority to do so. Under the Sedition Act, however, a court convicted Lyon for giving slanderous speeches and writing articles that criticized the administration.

think about it
In what ways does this cartoon display the partisan nature of American politics by the end of the 18th century?

The Alien and Sedition Acts did little to stifle criticism toward John Adams and the Federalist administration. If anything, such measures strengthened it. Democratic-Republicans across the nation argued that the acts were evidence of the Federalists’ intent to squash individual liberties and, by enlarging the powers of the national government, crush states’ rights.

Moreover, in the winter of 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison raised important constitutional issues in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions:

term to know
Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions
Argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the First Amendment and, were, therefore, unconstitutional.

The Kentucky Resolutions, authored by Jefferson, went even further by introducing the idea of nullification:

term to know
The theory that a state could nullify, or declare a federal law null and void, if it threatened the interests or sovereignty of that state.

No other state adopted the resolutions and, in fact, many Democratic-Republicans opposed Jefferson’s proposal of nullification, even though it would go on to provide the foundation for the notion of states’ rights.

A number of commentators emphasize the partisan nature of our politics today, so take a moment and consider whether this tutorial has changed your perception of partisan politics. It seems that partisan politics is endemic within the American political system. If so, do you see any similarities between the partisan politics of the 1790s and the partisan politics of today? In what ways have expressions of partisan politics changed since the 1790s?

4. The “Revolution of 1800”

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Alien and Sedition Acts was that opposition to the acts (and the Federalist administration behind them) contributed to the victory of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans in the contested presidential election of 1800. Before Jefferson won the election, however, he confronted an important constitutional crisis after he and his vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, received the same number of electoral votes.

did you know
In an attempt to avoid such an outcome, both the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties arranged to have an elector throw away one of their two votes for president. This way, each party’s presidential candidate would receive one vote more than their vice presidential candidate. For reasons unknown to history, however, the Democratic-Republican elector designated with this responsibility failed to carry it out and, as a result, Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College with 73 votes each.

Because of the electoral tie, the House of Representatives (in which the Federalists still enjoyed a small majority) was required to decide the election. However, after 35 ballots in which neither candidate received a majority and with the election having dragged into February 1801, Alexander Hamilton intervened on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson won the election.

Thus, the Revolution of 1800 refers to the first transfer of power from one political party to another in American history. That such a transition occurred following a contested election calmed contemporary fears about possible violent reactions to a new party’s taking the reins of government. The passing of political power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans without bloodshed set an important precedent for the history of the United States and for the world.

term to know
Revolution of 1800
The peaceful transfer of power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans during the election of 1800.
did you know
Hamilton’s conduct during the contested election of 1800 would set into motion events that, four years later, culminated with his death at the hands of Aaron Burr. In 1804, when Burr lost his bid for the office of governor of New York, he quickly blamed Hamilton. On July 11, the two men met in a duel in which Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton.
Partisan politics dominated the American political scene at the close of the 18th century. The Federalists’ and Democratic-Republicans’ views of the role of government were in direct opposition to each other, and such views were a reflection of tensions in American society. The 1790s was a period in which a number of Americans expressed interest in and read about politics. Meanwhile, instances of unrest, such as the Whiskey Rebellion, displayed opposition toward the Federalists’ attempts to consolidate American economic policies under the umbrella of the federal government. After the Federalists attempted to restrict criticism and unrest further through the Alien and Sedition Acts, the tide turned with the close election of 1800, after which Thomas Jefferson would begin an administration based on Democratic-Republican ideals.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Image of Congressional Pugilists, Public domain,, Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, 4th ed., vol. 1 (2014), pp. 288-299, Gilje, The Making of the American Republic, 1763-1815 (2006), 155-159, Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.1 and 8.3 Some sections edited or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.2, “The New American Republic,” Some sections edited or removed for brevity. Democratic republican society quote retrieved from

Terms to Know
Alien and Sedition Acts

A series of measures enacted by President John Adams to suppress criticism and other challenges to Federalist administration


Advocates of limited government who were troubled by the expansive domestic policies of Washington’s administration and opposed the Federalists

Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

Argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the First Amendment and, were, therefore, unconstitutional


The theory that a state could nullify, or declare a federal law null and void, if it threatened the interests or sovereignty of that state


An individual or institution that actively supports or defends the interests of a political party

Revolution of 1800

The peaceful transfer of power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans during the election of 1800

Whiskey Rebellion

A rebellion among farmers in western Pennsylvania in protest of a federal whiskey tax

People to Know
Aaron Burr

Vice President under Thomas Jefferson who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel

Dates to Know

George Washington's presidency begins.


Thomas Jefferson establishes the National Gazette; Congress enacts a taxes on whiskey.


The Whiskey Rebellion involves the uprising of farmers in western Pennsylvania in protest of a federal whiskey tax.


George Washington declines to seek a third term; John Adams is elected president.


Congress enacts the Alien and Sedition Acts; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison propose the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.


Thomas Jefferson is elected president in the "Revolution of 1800", and power transitions from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans without major incident.