The American nation was only a few years old before parties began to form and partisan disagreement emerged as open hostility. On one side were the Federalists who were formed chiefly by Alexander Hamilton during his tenure in Washington’s cabinet. The Federalist Party believed in a strong central government and tended to favor the less democratic institutions of government such as the presidency and the judiciary. The Federalists also advocated a national banking system and attempted to establish good trade relations with England. Opposed to these views were the Democratic-Republicans who would eventually fall under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson. The Jeffersonians favored an agricultural economic base rather than one based on banking, opposed the idea of strengthening ties with Great Britain and favored the rule of the people and the more democratic part of American government—the Legislature.
In the growing confrontation with the Hamiltonian Federalists, Madison agreed to write a series of essays for the National Gazette on political economy and fundamental republican principles. Several of those essays came to focus on political parties. The first, “Parties,” argued that a republican government should help to ensure political equality, create an equitable distribution of property and refuse to grant special privileges. These measures would help to alleviate unnecessary partisan strife. Parties should be based on natural differences among the people rather than the artificial differences favored by the Hamiltonians. This would include differences of merit or talent versus differences based on property or wealth.
Source: “For the National Gazette, [ca. 23 January] 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0176.
[Editor’s note: We have changed the formatting of Madison’s enumeration of the objections to parties; in the original, the list appears as running text in the body of his first paragraph, but for the sake of readability, we present it here as a numbered list.]
IN every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil:
- By establishing a political equality among all.
- By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches.
- By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a slate of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a slate of comfort.
- By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expense of another.
- By making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated. —If this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism.
In all political societies, different interests and parties arise out of the nature of things, and the great art of politicians lies in making them checks and balances to each other. Let us then increase these natural distinctions by favoring an inequality of property; and let us add to them artificial di[st]inctions, by establishing kings, and nobles, and plebeians. We shall then have the more checks to oppose to each other; we shall then have the more scales and the more weights to perfect and maintain the equilibrium. This is as little the voice of reason, as it is that of republicanism.
From the expediency, in politics, of making natural parties, mutual checks on each other, to infer the propriety of creating artificial parties, in order to form them into mutual checks, is not less absurd than it would be in ethics, to say, that new vices ought to be promoted, where they would counteract each other, because this use may be made of existing vices.