George Washington on the “Spirit of Party”

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this installment of his series of articles drawing on the wisdom of the past to reflect on our current election cycle, Dr. McKenzie reflects upon the wisdom of our first president, George Washington, when he warned of the dangers of partisanship. Has a tool meant to place checks on power become instead a tool of defining one’s self against another, kindling jealousies and consuming us in animosity?

 

“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”

So what would George Washington think about the 2016 presidential campaign?  There can be no doubt: he would be horrified and fearful for the future of his country.

I’ve promised to share words from the past from time to time that might be relevant as we make sense of this year’s contentious presidential campaign.  The point is not to ask “What would the Founders do?” (WWFD) and then do likewise.  This kind of appeal to the past is what Harvard historian Jill Lepore calls “historical fundamentalism,” and although I find her condescending tone grating, I agree with her basic point.  The Founders have no automatic moral authority, and it is actually a form of idolatry to treat them as if they do.

And yet, at its best the study of the past can be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Apart from sheer arrogance, indifference, or self-satisfaction, why wouldn’t we want to enter into that kind of dialogue?

The passage below comes from George Washington’s so-called “Farewell Address,” an announcement that he released in September 1796 to announce that he would not accept a third term as president of the new nation.  As you read, keep in mind that the members of the Constitutional Convention who had gathered in Philadelphia nine years earlier had not anticipated that formal political parties would come to be permanent fixtures of the American political landscape.  Nor would they have welcomed that prospect.  Though they had accepted the inevitability of informal, shifting coalitions in their colonial legislatures, they were suspicious of leaders who sought to solidify factional boundaries and make them permanent.

To Washington’s chagrin, by the end of his first term as president, divisions within his own cabinet had spread to Congress, and the alliances that would morph into the future Federalist and Democrat-Republican parties were already beginning to crystallize.  And so, as one of his last public acts, Washington warned the nation about the potential dangers of such a development:

. . . Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

. . . The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.

. . . There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Some prominent members of the founding generation–James Madison, most prominently–would come to see that permanent political parties could in fact serve a positive role in restraining the government from tyranny, and certainly today’s parties would claim to do so (at least when they’re out of power).  And yet there are aspects of Washington’s description that still sound timely.  I’d say that today’s parties do their fair share of agitating jealousy and kindling animosity, wouldn’t you?  The question for us is whether we should be following Washington’s advice to do all within our power to “mitigate and assuage” such poisonous partisanship.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Image: “01 George Washington” by W. Kennedy.  Available on Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license.

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