During Washington’s second term in office, inter-party animosity was at a high tide (as ever, it seems). The factions that supported Britain and France respectively took every opportunity to press for any advantage, call into question their opponents’ motives and register their disagreements in often violent ways. Political newspapers appeared seemingly overnight, publishing vicious editorials and slanderous cartoons; farmers and distillers in Western Pennsylvania staged a tax revolt; Spanish authorities in Louisiana intrigued with disaffected Westerners and plotted to break away from the union. Not since the Revolution had America seemed so near the brink of utter disaster, and few were more conscious of this fact than Washington himself. It is unsurprising then, that his Farewell Address contains repeated cautions against excessive factionalism and repeated assertions of the common causes shared by all Americans. What is perhaps surprising is how relevant they seem to the present state of politics in the United States.
Before I dive into the Address itself, I’d like to take what I'm sure you've come to see by now as a customary pause to discuss some matters of context. It is, in this case, of particular importance to understand exactly what Washington was confronting in 1796, what his assumptions about factionalism were, and why he was so alarmed by what modern Americans have come to see as accepted role of political parties.
As I’ve referred to before, the factions that emerged in the United States in the 1790s grounded their opposition in both the foreign and domestic spheres. One, referred to as the Federalists, was generally sympathetic to Britain, believed in a strong federal government, and supported commerce, taxation, and the national debt. The Federalists found their strongest support in large urban areas, particularly in New England, and were led by men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The other, called the Republicans or Democratic-Republicans, tended to align themselves with French interests, preferred strong state governments, and supported agriculture, low taxes, and free trade. They were popular among Southerners and Westerners (in this era meaning settlers in Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and later Ohio), and were led chiefly by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Neither party was prepared to accept the existence of the other, claimed their opponents were actively endangering the republic they claimed to protect, and believed that they needed to be completely destroyed in order to ensure the survival of the United States of America.
This apocalyptic view of party politics was a consequence of an 18th-century mindset, and particularly a republican mindset, that didn't really account for the existence of formal political parties. Factions were an accepted, if undesirable, reality: court factions, country factions, factions that formed and re-formed to meet the needs of a given situation. But these entities were the product of monarchies, were rarely permanent, and lacked almost all of the characteristics we've come to associate with modern political parties; no charters, no formal hierarchies, no fundraising capabilities, and no single, identifiable brand. A common lifespan for this kind of faction would be to coalesce around a particular leader or issue, do battle with an opposing faction, eradicate said opponent, and then disperse or divide. Because they were transient things, and because monarchies tended not to place a great deal of value on the will of the common people, factionalism was generally viewed as unavoidable, if unpleasant. For factions to exist in a republic, however, was seen as far more problematic.
Republics, after all, are structured around the idea that a government is ultimately responsible to the people it governs. The people’s ability to choose representative for that purpose is the literal expression of the same idea, as is their ability to replace them at regular intervals if they so desire. Presumably, the people select their representatives - their Congressmen, Senators and Presidents - based on the belief that whomever they choose will act with the best interests of their constituents in mind, and in accordance with republican principles, practicality, and good sense. However, if these same representatives were to group together in a series of factions or parties whose aim was not observing the will of the people but consolidating power and destroying their opponents, how is responsible government to function? And if these factions actively work to inflame public opinion in order to rally support, and in so doing create an atmosphere of violence and anxiety, how long would it take for one person or another to seize power for themselves in the name of promoting security and stability? It was questions like these that worried classical republicans like Washington, and led both the Federalists and Republicans to refuse to accept the label of “political party” for themselves. In both their eyes, their factions were only temporary associations of like-minded statesmen that sought to protect the fragile American republic.
I make these points mainly to drive home the idea that nobody in 1796, not even members of the factions themselves, thought that political parties were a good idea. This would continue to be the case in America for several decades, until at least the 1840s. Up until that point political factions tended to assume power with the understanding that they would right all the wrongs of their predecessors, and that organized ideological divisions would no longer need to exist. The idea that a party could exist, could oppose the government without being accused of disloyalty or treason, was a novel one, and evolved very slowly. Thus, when Washington refers to parties or factions in his Address, it’s important to remember that his understanding of these terms and ours is fundamentally different. However, that doesn’t stop many of the ideas he puts forward, about national unity and the dangers of excessive partisanship, from being highly relevant to the America of today.
For instance, in sections 17 and 18 of his Address Washington argues that any and all “combinations and associations” whose principle aim is to “direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities,” are ultimately destructive to the liberty of a free people, however well they might serve the needs of a few. These associations, he claims, aim to replace the will of the nation with the will of a “small but artful and enterprising minority,” for the purpose of making “the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction.” While Washington was almost certainly talking about the influence of the Democratic-Republican societies, local political organizations that had emerged in the early 1790s and were connected to the Whiskey Rebellion, it’s not difficult to see how this denunciation might relate to modern money politics and the influence of interest groups and lobbyists. Though American politics in 1796 were far less transparent than today, Washington saw that groups or individuals that possess the proper resources or influence might easily take hold of the political process and direct it to the own ends, to the detriment of the people. Then as now, American politics exists in a delicate balance; responsive to the popular will, but also capable of being manipulated by it. Washington believed, and I think it true today, that however effective certain methods may seem to be at getting things done, one must always be aware of their potential implications, particularly if they come into conflict with the basic principles of republicanism.
That being said, and though he likely would have preferred it otherwise, Washington did not believe it possible to eradicate the spirit of factionalism altogether. Indeed, in section 25 he admits there is evidence to suggest that the formation of a formal government opposition party could provide a useful counterbalance against administrative excess. However, at the same time he cautioned that while factionalism may be capable of serving a useful purpose it was not something that should be encouraged. It being man’s natural tendency to group together with others of like mind, Washington believed that it was necessary for a republican government to “mitigate and assuage” the spirit of partisanship and channel it in a useful way. “A fire not to be quenched,” he wrote, “It demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” While Americans today are far less reluctant to acknowledge the utility of organized parties, they are also at times far too willing to allow the party contest to eclipse all other political concerns. Party conventions, filibusters, government shut-downs; these are the events that seem to dominate the American political landscape, yet how much have they to do with government? Are they not the flame that Washington warned against? I doubt very much that he would have been able to foresee the heights to which factionalism has risen in the United States. Still, he knew well enough that partisan politics, lest it become destructive of good government, must always require a degree of restraint; a trait which has, from time to time, been lacking in American politics.
Before I bring this lengthy series to a close, I’d like to take a moment and reflect on one last insight that Washington saw fit to share in his Farewell Address. It comes early in the text, in section 10, and like his explanation of the necessity of taxes I believe that it may be one of the most wise, profound, and eloquent statements ever made by an American leader. In short Washington claims while discussing the advantages of a union of the states that Americans have every reason to be proud of their country, and that this pride unites them across all boundaries, real or imagined.
He goes on to say:
“You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
Imagine that. The things that Americans value most, their freedom and their independence, they owe not just to themselves, to their government, or to the efforts of some old white men from centuries past, but to each other. However much Americans may disagree (and they do) on how their government should function, the operation of the law, the freedom of the individual, and workings of culture and commerce, they could not have achieved the pride of place they now enjoy in the world without each other, and without a shared devotion to their country and what it stands for. For Washington, who witnessed in his lifetime perhaps the most divisive period in American history outside of the Civil War, this is a very magnanimous view to take, and one which we could all do well to reflect on, now and again.