When America Was a One-Party State (Sorta), 1801-1824

James Monroe, who presided over the “Era of Good Feelings”, the height of Democratic-Republican power.

The 1796 and 1800 elections exposed a significant problem with the early Constitution. The candidate in second place getting to be vice president resulted in a disharmonious presidency, an executive fundamentally divided as the Adams presidency had proved. The Federalists had not been able to organize their second ballots around a vice president, while Jefferson’s supporters unified behind him. Electors could cast two electoral votes but could not indicate whether these were for president or vice president. Although George Washington and other founders warned of parties, the truth is that they were naturally forming based on common divisions. Even in the very first Congress, people identified as “Pro” or “Anti” Administration. By the 1794 and 1795 midterm elections, however, these factions became parties. Pro-Administration became the Federalist Party, with its major figures being John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. They stood for a centralized government, a national bank, and internal improvements for the purposes of growing American commerce. The Democratic-Republicans stood for agrarianism, state’s rights, political equality, and expanding the nation.

By 1796, it was Federalist Party and Democratic-Republicans, and the election was close, with Adams winning the North and Jefferson winning the South plus Pennsylvania. The total electoral vote was 71 to 68, with Adams winning by about seven percent. The two men would have bitter disagreements over the issues, particularly foreign policy, with Adams being pro-British and Jefferson being pro-French. In 1800, Jefferson won by over 20 points, although the electoral college vote was much closer, with Jefferson winning 73-65. The Federalists cast their two electoral votes in a way so that Adams got 65 electoral votes and running mate Charles C. Pinckney got 64, but the Democratic-Republicans granted both Jefferson and running mate Aaron Burr 73 votes. This resulted in the House having to hold 36 votes to break the tie, with Congress ultimately agreeing that Jefferson was president, and Burr was vice president. Another problem is that each state’s vote counted equally in this process, thus Federalist James A. Bayard of Delaware held the same amount of power over the result of the election as the 19-member House delegation of Virginia. Another problem was that this vote was held during the “lame duck” session of Congress that lasted until March that included members who had either lost reelection or were retiring (. This presented a danger that Federalists could maneuver in a way to upset the outcome.

The desire to change the Constitution over this is understandable, as the public will was strongly with Jefferson. This was reflected in the legislative results too, with Democratic-Republicans winning 22 seats from the Federalists thereby winning the House, and they gained three seats in the Senate, which although it meant the Federalists kept a Senate majority, they lost it in the middle of the session with special elections due to vacancies. Thus, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, wanting to enact their agenda and presumably the will of the people, were keen on preventing the possibility of a Federalist ending up in the Jefferson Administration and crafted the 12th Amendment, which held that electors would vote separately for president and vice president. However, because their majority in the Senate was not great enough to secure ratification, they waited until after the midterms to attempt to pass the amendment. In the 1802 and 1803 elections, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans won big gains, winning 35 of the 36 newly added House seats after the 1802 census and gained a Senate majority of 22-9, above the supermajority required to enact Constitutional amendments. The House on December 9, 1803, passed the amendment 84-42. The vote was highly partisan, with no Federalists voting for it and only six Democratic-Republicans crossing the aisle against. The Senate, which had passed the amendment on December 2nd, had been much the same, the vote being 22-10 with all Federalists opposed and only one Democratic-Republican defection. One of the opponents was future President John Quincy Adams, and some Federalists argued against it as not promoting men of quality for the vice president role. Other Federalists believed that this was a blatant effort to favor Jefferson’s reelection, and the election results the following year undoubtedly boosted this view.

The 1804 Election

The 1804 election isn’t remotely close, as Thomas Jefferson dispatches Federalist Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina with ease, winning 15 of 17 states (Connecticut and Delaware stayed Federalist), 162 of 176 Electoral votes, and 72.8% of the vote. The Federalists also lost eleven seats in Congress. They were now mostly confined to the New England region. The midterms are no boost for the unpopular Federalists, with two more losses for them in the House. Jefferson was popular for a number of reasons at the time, and one of them was the Louisiana Purchase.

Although James Madison prevails in 1808 with 64.8% of the vote and an Electoral College vote of 122-47, the Federalists make modest legislative gains but are still badly behind the dominant Democratic-Republicans and these gains were primarily a backlash to Thomas Jefferson’s unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which had injured shipping and manufacturing areas primarily in the New England region, rather than any upswell in support for what the Federalist Party stood for.

Below is a breakdown of Democratic-Republican and Federalist elections, the popular vote being expressed in percentages. The House and Senate election numbers show membership breakdown after the elections. The italics for 1812 Federalist presidential nominee indicate Federalists lining up behind Democratic-Republican DeWitt Clinton as their best hope to exercise influence.

The Federalists would continue to lose afterwards, with their last real shot at the presidency being the 1812 election, in which Federalists tacitly support DeWitt Clinton, a Democratic-Republican who shared their opposition to the War of 1812 (which they called “Mr. Madison’s War”). Clinton came within three points of victory, Federalists gained 32 seats in the House while Democratic-Republicans gained 7 due to population growth, and the former won two seats in the Senate. However, after the conclusion of the war and the PR nightmare that was the Hartford Convention (which I have covered before), the Federalists were doomed to irrelevancy. After Madison’s presidency was James Monroe in 1816 facing up against the last Federalist candidate, New York Senator Rufus King, and Monroe won with a whopping 68.2% of the vote, the worst showing for Federalists since 1804. King only won the states of Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts.

Monroe’s presidency is described as the “Era of Good Feelings” as the nation was, for the most part, in political accord and he ran without opposition for reelection in 1820 with 80.6% of the vote. However, on the horizon there was a war hero who was gaining great popularity among many working-class Americans, who represented the people more in background than the previous presidents…Andrew Jackson.

The Man Who Changed Everything: Andrew Jackson

In 1824, with James Monroe not running again, the Federalist Party collapsed while the Democratic-Republican Party had a party-destroying split over the rising populist figure and war hero Andrew Jackson. Most of the former Federalists sided with the anti-Jacksons, but there were a few notable exceptions, including future President James Buchanan and future Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. The American political system was now divided into Pro and Anti-Jackson factions. Anti-Jacksons included more conservative elements of the old Democratic-Republicans, such as former Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, and former Federalists. The political system had thus reverted to the old Pro and Anti-Administration divisions, with the parties arising out of this becoming the Democratic and Whig parties.


Levinson, S. The Twelfth Amendment. Constitution Center.

Retrieved from


To Adopt a Resolution, As Reported by the Committee, Amending the Constitution. Govtrack.

Retrieved from


To Concur in the Senate Resolution to Submit for Approval to the Legislatures of the States, an Amendment to the Constitution Regulating the Election of the President and Vice President. Govtrack.

Retrieved from


I got election statistics from the Wikipedia pages on them, I will not bother to cite them all individually.

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