Federalists — led by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams — dominated American politics during the 1790s. After the Revolution of 1800, which signaled the election of Thomas Jefferson and the peaceful transition to an opposing political party, the Democratic-Republicans gained ascendance while the Federalist Party gradually declined.
The Federalist Party never successfully elected a candidate to the presidency after 1800. After the election of 1816, in which Democratic-Republican James Monroe defeated his Federalist rival Rufus King, the Federalists never ran another presidential candidate.
James Monroe’s two terms in office are commonly referred to as an “Era of Good Feelings” because they represented a period of one-party government under the Democratic-Republicans. This period stood in stark contrast to the contentious, partisan nature of American politics during the 1790s and early 1800s.
Before the War of 1812 and the subsequent “Era of Good Feelings,” a code of deference still underwrote much of the American political order.
Deference was the social code upon which the foundations of Federalist political power rested. Federalists argued — and a significant number of Americans agreed — that a natural aristocracy of statesmen, landowners, and other elites — men like George Washington and John Adams — should lead the United States. Such men possessed virtue, or placed the common good above narrow self-interests, and, according to such logic, the rest of the nation should defer to their leadership. Federalist statesmen in the 1780s and 1790s expected and routinely received deferential treatment from others, and supporters deferred to such leaders because they were their “social betters.”
EXAMPLEGeorge Washington epitomized virtue for many Americans because of his conduct during the American Revolution. Thus, many deferred to him and considered his judgment beyond reproach. Such deference toward Washington continued even after he left office. In 1800, an Anglican minister named Mason Locke Weems wrote The Life of Washington, which introduced the fictional story of a young Washington who chopped down one of his father’s cherry trees and, when confronted by his father, confessed, “I cannot tell a lie.”
Although it was a fictional incident, the story celebrated the honesty and integrity of Washington that many Americans looked up to. The story also taught generations of American children the importance of virtue.
To reinforce this code of deference, Federalists implemented a number of restrictions to maintain their authority, and to keep the destabilizing forces of democracy, or “mobocracy,” in check. At the state level, the most common restriction was a property qualification for voting or holding political office. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike also agreed to define citizenship in racial terms.
EXAMPLEThe Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that an immigrant had to be a “free white person” of “good character” to become a citizen of the United States.
Such stipulations automatically excluded slaves and American Indians — as well as free African or Asian immigrants who wanted to settle in the United States — from citizenship. Property qualifications, meanwhile, also excluded the majority of free African-Americans, women, and poor whites from participating in the political process.
The “Era of Good Feelings” and subsequent periods witnessed a remarkable expansion in voting rights for part of the American population, specifically white males. There are three major explanations behind this expansion in voting rights, which went hand in hand with the overall decline of deference within American society.
EXAMPLEIn 1821, New York removed the property qualifications for voting for white males.
Such arguments represented a shift in how Americans understood voting. In a society defined by deference, voting was the privilege for the virtuous elite. However, ideas associated with the American Revolution steadily undermined that idea, by suggesting that voting should be a right for all white male citizens.
EXAMPLEIn an attempt to entice settlers from neighboring states, Vermont and Kentucky — admitted to the Union in 1791 and 1792 respectively — granted the right to vote to all white men, regardless of whether they owned property or paid taxes.
A number of other western states followed Vermont and Kentucky’s example. Doing so placed political pressure on eastern states, who did not want to lose citizens to the West and thus decline in political influence.
As a result of these trends, American politics during the early 19th century became a public, oftentimes rowdy, and predominantly male affair. Polling places typically displayed drinking, debates, and occasional violence.
The above image depicts a county election in Missouri during the mid-19th century, in which the artist provided a sense of all that might occur during an election day. Elections could include festivities such as horse racing (in the background), drinking, and common commotion. The variety of groups gathered might be discussing potential candidates and ballots, but note the general absence of women and people of color. In the middle of the frame, it appears that someone is dragging a drunken, passed-out individual toward the poll.
Given the variety of scenes that the artist presented, historians have debated whether the artist was celebrating or mocking American democracy.
As voting rights came to depend less on economic criteria such as property ownership, they came to rely more on the social categories of gender and race.
New Jersey epitomized this trend in regards to gender. In 1776, the fervor of the American Revolution led New Jersey revolutionaries to write a constitution that extended the right to vote to unmarried women who owned property worth £50. For the next three decades, politicians competed for the votes of New Jersey women who met this property requirement. However, by simply adding the word "male" to its voting requirements in 1807, the state of New Jersey effectively deprived women of the right to vote.
There was also a concerted effort to deny free blacks the right to vote. This was particularly the case in northern states that had only recently abolished slavery within their boundaries. For example, by 1838, black males lost the right to vote in Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Other states such as New York, which had given free blacks the right to vote in its 1777 constitution, subsequently raised the property qualification for black voters while removing it for white voters.
EXAMPLEAfter removing the property qualification for white voters, approximately 80 percent of the white male population in New York could vote in state elections by the 1820s. At the same time, however, New York effectively disenfranchised free black men by requiring that “men of color” must possess property over the value of $250 in order to vote.
The reasoning behind voting restriction rested largely on sexist and racist grounds. The act of depriving women the right to vote was intricately tied to the idea that females were inferior to males, as well as to the notion of Republican motherhood.
The concept of Republican motherhood helped to elevate women's symbolic status in the 18th and 19th centuries, and provided a basis for women's claims to expanded educational opportunities. On the other hand, it simultaneously relegated women to the household, or domestic sphere, while men handled public affairs such as voting.
In 1852, the New York Herald asserted that women were, "By her nature, her sex, just as the negro is and always will be, to the end of time, inferior to the white race, and, therefore, doomed to subjection" (Stanton, Anthony & Gage, p. 854).
Likewise, the deprivation of black voting rights on racist grounds was accompanied by other restrictions. By the 1830s and 1840s, the federal government barred free blacks from service in state militias or the U.S. military. Nor did any state in the Union provide equal protection under the law for blacks.
EXAMPLEIn a northern state such as Illinois, blacks could not vote, testify or sue in court, or attend public schools.
In these ways, sexism and racism exposed the limits of American democracy during the early 19th century.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image "The County Election" Public Domain. http://bit.ly/2kbkDvI, Some content adapted from Howe, D. W. (2007). What hath God wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press., Stanton, E. C., Anthony, S. B., Gage, M. J., & Harper, I. H. (1881). History of woman suffrage. New York: Fowler & Wells. Derived from Openstax tutorials: 7.2 http://bit.ly/2kbCoep Some , 8.1 http://bit.ly/2iKXmjZ and 10.1 http://bit.ly/2jy4Zr3Some sections edited or removed for brevity