History of American political parties

THE discussions concerning the national Constitution had party spirit in the new republic which speedily assumed definite forms and titles, first as Federalist and Anti-Federalist, and then as Federalist and Republican. The Federalist party was composed of those who favored much concentration of power in the national government; the Republican or Democratic party favored State sovereignty and the diffusion of power among the people. Mr. Jefferson, the Secretary of State, was the recognized leader of the Republicans, and Mr. Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, was regarded as the head of the Federalists. The lines between these two parties were distinctly drawn, during the second session of the second Congress, and the spirit of each became rampant among the people.

Events then occurring in France had much to do in intensifying party spirit in this country. The British government had sent George Hammond here as full minister, and he had arrived in August, 1791. In December following, our government sent Thomas Pinckney as American ambassador to England; and so a good understanding between the lately belligerent governments was established. With the French government, their ancient ally, the United States held the most friendly relations.

The virulence of partisanship in those days was not only as intense, but its methods were as dishonest as they are now. Among other means employed at about the time of Washington's retirement to private life, to injure his character, was the republication of a series of forged letters, purporting to have been written by him to members of his family, in the summer of 1776, and which appeared in print in 1777. These letters, if genuine, ought to have blasted Washington's reputation for patriotism, integrity, and honor. It was pretended that they were found in a small portmanteau which was in possession of his favorite body-servant, Billy, when the latter, as was falsely alleged, was captured at Fort Lee. Washington, conscious of his integrity and trustful of his countrymen, paid no attention to the publication at the time. There were ample proofs of their forgery, and they had been forgotten, when, before he left the chair of state in the spring of 1797, they were republished. The object then was the same as that twenty years before, namely to destroy public confidence in the great Leader.

Washington now thought it necessary to notice the forgery. He did so in a letter to the then Secretary of War, written on the 3d of March, 1797, in which, after giving an account of the original publication of the letters, and his silence concerning them, hitherto, he said: "As I cannot know how soon a more serious event may succeed to that which will this day take place, I have thought it a duty that I owe to myself, to my country, and to truth, now to detail the circumstances above recited; and to add my solemn declaration that the letters herein described are a base forgery, and that I never saw or heard of them until they appeared in print."

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