Study Guide

The Federalists

The Federalists Introduction

As the summer of 1787 waned, the general feeling in Philadelphia was, "Nobody breathe; we have finally got this Constitution pretty much fleshed out and agreed upon. Let's sign this sucker before anyone opens the floor for debate again."

That's not doctrine, but we're pretty sure it went down that way.

The next step was getting the states to jump on the Constitution bandwagon and agree to adopt it as the new rule of law. The deal was that 9 out of the 13 states had to ratify—a.k.a. agree to—the Constitution in order for it to take effect. Remember, these Founders did like to give the people some say in their government after all.

Just like with every good teen dystopia, people definitely knew which side of the fence they were on, and tried to sway people to their direction.

  • Team Constitution adopted the name of the Federalists.
  • Team anti-Constitution adopted the name the Anti-Federalists. (Very original, guys.)

The Federalists were fans of a stronger central government, and they liked the power that was granted to the federal government in the three branches outlined by the Constitution. Conversely, the Anti-Federalists thought that the Constitution gave too much power to the central government and that this power should reside the state governments instead.

So, with the ratification of the Constitution, the United States celebrated a new political beginning. But with this party and its anti-party, the epic battle began.

And while most Americans were optimistic, great challenges still lay ahead: national and state debts, a stagnant economy, and foreign threats lurking in Florida, Canada, and the Mississippi Valley.

Naturally, there were internal political divisions, as well. Over the next 12 years, two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, would play the principal role in steering the young nation through these challenges.

These Federalist presidents would accomplish a great deal, both domestically and internationally, but by 1800, their party and their policies would be—dun dun dun—rejected by the American public.

What is The Federalists About and Why Should I Care?

Americans still celebrate George Washington as the father of the country, but the nation that began to take shape during his presidency wasn't the one he had in mind. 

The raucous political debate, combative political parties, and broad definition of freedom of speech that emerged during the 1790s are now the very things we associate with healthy democracies. But in Washington's mind, they represented a perversion of republican government and a threat to good order.

George Washington wasn't the only founding father anxious to avoid these sorts of politically divisive behaviors. Most Americans believed that the survival of the republic depended on the public's willingness to set aside local and individual interests for the sake of the general welfare.

And in fact, Americans turned to Washington in the dark days of the 1780s because he seemed to be the only person able to bring the whole country together behind a common vision. But in this, Washington would ultimately fail, and the political landscape he passed on to his successor, John Adams, would be even more bitterly divided than the one he inherited.

There's no denying Washington's importance to American history. His support for the new government was essential to its success, and his economic and foreign policies laid an important foundation for the new nation.

But his political philosophy and style simply didn't suit the more energetic and democratic political arena that was emerging. While his designation as Father of the Nation is in many ways deserved, the political order that emerged during the 1790s might at best be considered his unwanted stepchild.

The Federalists Resources

Books

Joseph Charles, The Origins of the American Party System (1956)
The emphases within this little classic have been challenged by more recent studies. But as a brief introduction to the development of America's first party system, Charles' book is still the place to start.

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (1993)
This is an encyclopedic study of the Federalist period. 900 pages long, it's not the sort of book you pick up for a casual read, but it's comprehensive in its coverage—the most complete single-volume political history of the period.

Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2001)
This is a highly-readable examination of key figures and seminal events from the Federalist period. Challenging historians who argue that the Founding Fathers get more attention than they deserve, this book operates from the premise that a handful of individuals were critical to the success of the new nation.

Don Higginbotham, George Washington: Uniting a Nation (2002)
Higginbotham, a leading Washington scholar, explores the importance of Washington as a critical and unparalleled source of unity during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods. This isn't a comprehensive biography—more a reflection on the peculiar challenges of American nation-building and the distinctive traits Washington brought to his roles as general and president.

Thomas Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (1988)
As the title suggests, Slaughter links the Whiskey Rebellion, ideologically and politically, to the American Revolution. The book is academic, and not entirely free of historians' jargon, but for the most part, the narrative is compelling and the portrait of the frontier life is memorable.

Music

The Itinerant Band, Jefferson and Liberty (2001)
The Itinerant Band plays both period and modern instruments on this lively sampling of early republic classics inspired by the political career of Thomas Jefferson.

Various Artists, Music from Mid-19th Century America (2000)
The Yankee Brass Band plays early republic dance hits like waltzes, quicksteps, and polkas.

Various Artists, Music of the Federal Era (2000)
Another fantastic collection of late-18th and early-19th-century compositions performed on rare instruments crafted during the period, Music of the Federal Era includes an array of classic marches, hymns, and dance melodies.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
A fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

Barry Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down (1992)
Barry Phillips' collection of popular music from the Revolutionary and Federalist eras includes quaint folk songs, lively dance tunes, and other elegant compositions played in homes, taverns, and even on the war front.

Images

Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
Washington reviewing the troops at Fort Cumberland before departing for western Pennsylvania to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. Attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer, 1795.

Fracas in the House
Roger Griswold beating Matthew Lyon with his cane. Lyon defends himself with fireplace tongs. The print was made in Philadelphia in 1798.

XYZ Outrage
This cartoon captures American outrage over the XYZ Affair. Here, the French agent, his five heads representing the French Directory, demands a bribe from the American delegation.

Apotheosis of Washington
George Washington's extraordinary place in Americans' hearts is reflected in this engraving made shortly after his death—the Apotheosis of Washington, by David Edwin after Rembrandt Peale, c. 1800.

Our Father...
This fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 in the Capitol dome, reflects the century's continuing deification of George Washington.

Movies & TV

John Adams (2008)
Check out this Emmy-nominated miniseries on the life of John Adams during the Revolutionary period and the early years of the republic, and watch HBO make the man often (if unfairly) considered to be one of our most boring presidents look incredibly cool.

Founding Brothers (2002)
This television mini-series complements Founding Fathers by exploring the post-Revolution political careers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

Founding Fathers (2000)
Founding Fathers is divided into four parts to (1) trace the early stages of the Revolution (2) focus on Ben Franklin's diplomacy leading up to the war (3) focus on Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and (4) chart the complex political negotiations led by Madison and Washington.

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)
Actor Sam Neill (from the television series The Tudors) is Thomas Jefferson and Carmen Ejogo (Law & Order) plays Sally Hemings in this fictional tale based on historical events surrounding the controversial relationship between Jefferson and his slave mistress.

The Adams Chronicles (1976)
A 13-episode study of four generations of the New England family, The Adams Chronicles was produced in 1976 but has held up well. Six of the episodes follow John Adams' career from Boston lawyer to second President of the United States.

Websites

Mount Vernon
The Mt. Vernon Estate website offers an extensive collection of photographs of the grounds and outbuildings, and a virtual tour of the mansion. The images may be of interest to the casual "virtual tourist," but the thorough digital encyclopedia also offers an extensive introduction to the agriculture, society, and politics of the period.

Hamilton's America
Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America is an online exhibition hosted by the Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History.

Historical Documents

Washington Archive
George Washington Papers held by the Library of Congress. 65,000 documents available online in two formats: digital images of the originals and typed transcripts.

Adams Papers
John Adams' diaries, autobiography, and correspondence with his wife Abigail provided in two formats: digital images and typed transcripts.

Hamilton's Report
Alexander Hamilton's First Report on the Public Credit in which he outlines his plan to fully refund the national debt, 1790.

Farewell Address
Transcript of Washington's Farewell Address, 1796.

Alien and Sedition Acts
We've got an entire learning guide devoted to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.