The Federalists held the upper hand in the American government from Washington’s 1789 victory to the end of the eighteenth century. Their advantage began to change in 1798, but it was not evident at the time. The Federalists overplayed their hand and allowed the Democratic-Republicans define them. In 1800, the opposition party manhandled the Federalists in the general election. The defeat marked the beginning of the end for the Federalist Party and ushered in the Jeffersonian Age.
John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 Presidential Election. Vice President Adams won on President George Washington’s popularity and success. By 1800, the president’s party was disorganized, fighting amongst itself, and Washington had died. The Democratic-Republicans attacked Adams as monarchical and railed against higher taxes and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The acts made it a crime to speak out against the government and the administration actually jailed some newspaper editors. A unified opposition organized at all levels providing an advantage for Jefferson. The challenger outpolled the president, but failed to garner enough votes in the Electoral College for victory. The House of Representatives finally selected Jefferson over his running mate, Aaron Burr. (Burr had refused to step aside after tying Jefferson in the Electoral College causing a constitutional crisis.) Afterward, the country amended the constitution so the president and vice president ran on the same ticket. On a side note, the three-fifths clause provided the margin of Adams’ defeat. The clause provided that slaves were counted as 3/5 a person for congressional representation. Without the 3/5 clause, President Adams wins the Electoral College vote.
Adams’ defeat reverberated down the ballot. The Federalists held a 14 seat advantage in the House of Representatives, but suffered a 22-seat loss. The lower chamber changed dramatically from 60-46 in the Federalists’ favor to a 68-38 Democratic advantage. The Federalists enjoyed no pickups in the election. The Democratic-Republicans gained five seats in Adams’ home state of Massachusetts and Jefferson’s Virginia. They picked up two seats in several other states to account for their 22 seat pickup. President-elect Jefferson’s faction did not lose a single House seat in the 1800 election.
The Democratic-Republican tsunami carried into the U.S. Senate. The Federalists ran the 6th Congress and held a 22-9 seat advantage in the upper chamber. At this point, state legislatures chose the Senate’s composition. The former majority party lost an amazing seven seats in the body. The Democratic-Republicans went from a super minority to the majority party and a 17-15 advantage. As a result, Jefferson’s party controlled everything except the federal courts.
The Jeffersonian landslide was a perfect storm. The Federalist Party split into factions supporting either Alexander Hamilton or President Adams. The disunity at the top filtered down the line to the local level. On top of this, the Alien and Sedition Acts reinforced Jeffersonian propaganda about Adams’ monarchical tendencies. Additionally, the country itself was in the midst of a transformation. America was growing younger and more libertarian in spirit. This self-reliant ideology fit the Jeffersonian ethic and Democratic rhetoric fed this movement. In the end, these forces overwhelmed the shocked Federalists and sent the party into a death spiral.