The Fall of the Federalists

Thomas Jefferson.

The election of 1800 ushered in a new era of American politics. Thomas Jefferson won the election to become America’s third president, but also, it was a defeat for the Federalists, who had dominated politics in the first few decades of the country’s life. This was not just any defeat, however. This would mark the beginning of the end for the once powerful Federalist party.

By this point, Gordon Wood explains in Empire of Liberty, the Federalists had come to believe that ordinary people did not have “a direct role to play in ruling the society. They were so confident that the future belonged to them, that the society would become less egalitarian and more hierarchical, that they treated the people with condescension and lost touch with them.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 276. Wood concludes by stating that the Federalists “were so out of touch with the developing popular realities of American life . . . .” Id. Noah Webster, at the time, concluded that the Federalists had led to their own demise by resisting “the force of public opinion . . . .” David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy, (New York 1965), 151-52.

The fall of the Federalist party in the early Republic provides lessons to the modern political parties of the Republicans and the Democrats. The most obvious lesson is: Avoid public opinion at your own risk. The Federalists held onto the traditions of the monarchical republic, despite public opinion becoming increasingly more Republican-minded (the old Republican, that is).  Public opinion undoubtedly can be illogical, unreasonable, and misinformed, but the social compact that the government only is as legitimate as its people allow it to be highlights the importance of public opinion, whether it is right or wrong on any given issue.

Looking at recent news, the resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner, and the subsequent announcement by his presumptive replacement, Representative Kevin McCarthy, that he will not be seeking the Speaker’s chair, draws an interesting parallel between the modern Republican party and the Federalist party of centuries ago. The Republican party is currently fractured between its most conservative segment and the relatively moderate segment, both of which agree on some fundamental ideals, but the conservatives holding tightly to traditional beliefs socially, legally, and fiscally.

Recently, some of those positions held by the most conservative political figures have begun to be behind the curve of public opinion. While this is only a segment of the Republican party, it is also a vocal, active segment that has considerable sway in the party. Most analysts agree that John Boehner’s resignation is due to that vocal, active segment of the party.

Regardless, it is food for thought how the Republican party’s future may be shaped by its proclivity to maintain the traditional nature of the party, despite the changes in public opinion, socially and otherwise. While some have speculated the end of the Republican party may be nearing, this is unlikely barring significantly more turmoil and further clinging to traditional beliefs that have become outdated and antiquated from decades past. It is unlikely the Republicans will split, considering the party has been in existence for approximately 160 years. But it is possible.


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