Political Parties

Did you ever wonder why the founders of this nation wrote a federal constitution? In this day of political paralysis it might be well if we consider that question, because the answer is that it was written in order to avoid political paralysis that was thought to inevitably follow the formation of political parties — or factions as they were called in the eighteenth century. To a man, people as diverse in their leanings as the Federalist from New York, Alexander Hamilton, and the Republican from Virginia, James Madison, agreed with Thomas Paine when he insisted that political parties were “evil” and would eventually bring about the dissolution of the Republic and of individual liberty as well. The example these men had in mind was England which had no written constitution and which was in their day being torn apart by the Whigs and the Tories who were ever at odds with one another. The only way to avoid the disaster that was England was to have a written constitution that would embrace the principles of Republican government and rally men of various political persuasions to the cause of the Common Good and instill in their hearts the spirit of public virtue. Paine insisted that “. . .it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and the impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far thou shalt go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.” Indeed, George Washington’s Farewell Address echoes Paine’s fears of parties: “However [parties and factions] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

But Washington’s hatred of parties merely anticipates that of John Adams who said in 1780, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” And John’s wife Abigail went even further, if that’s possible, in saying, “Party spirit is blind, malevolent, uncandid, ungenerous, unjust, and unforgiving. . . Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart. It is fatal to the integrity of moral character. It sees not that wisdom dwells in moderation and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous violence of sentiment.” And, of course, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment that “If I could not go to heaven but with a party I would not go there at all.”

The Federalist Papers, which were written to help persuade New York to ratify the newly written federal constitution, are rife with references to political parties, or factions; phrases such as “the cloven foot of faction,” “faction acting in disguise,” and “the dupes of faction,” together with literally hundreds of such references that can be found on nearly every page. One might say that the single thing the founders feared above all else  — even more than the return of the English King to power over the colonies — was the rise of political parties. As noted above, Thomas Paine, whom many historians regard as the major figure behind the American revolution, regarded the constitution as the essential barrier between the violence of party and the principles of republican government. Paine, along with virtually every other intellectual of his time was convinced that if political parties were allowed to develop they would inevitably destroy the constitution, the principles of republican government, and the republic itself. And with the republic would go individual liberty.

So when we look back from the perspective of the 21st century and ask what went wrong we need to look no further than the ascendency of political parties and the inordinate power and wealth they have been able to amass, together with the loyalties that men and women who feed at the public trough feel toward their party and those who fund their party rather than to the nation and its people they are pledged to serve.


13 thoughts on “Political Parties

  1. Hugh, excellent work. To your point, yesterday we had GOP and even some Democratic Senators and Congresspeople criticize the President’s budget proposal before they had time to read it. To me, it was a knee jerk partisan response, weighted more to the right, but with some left thrown in as well. The intelligent person’s answer would be, I am glad the President has submitted his budget. I look forward to studying it to find some common ground. I cannot remember if it was you, Barney or some other source that said the leaders are so out of touch with what others outside of their party are saying, they do not realize how many similarities there are in their proposals. They are too busy beating on their chests to read or listen to non-lobbyists. Well done, BTG

  2. Another insightful and provocative entry Brother Hugh, but the mischief (to be a bit of a devil’s advocate) comes in your last sentence where you suggest an either or choice in dichotomy of choosing to serve either party or nation. The seeds of “party” (read profoundly differing views of how the nation ought be) were sown in Philadelphia and before, and indeed have gained root throughout our history. Washington, with his rag tag group of ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-equipped soldiers at Valley Forge came to understand the profound need for a strong central government that perhaps escaped Jefferson on his Virginia hilltop. That a strong federal government was necessary to provide for the common defense in a way that the confederation so fervently relished by many could never provide was not a difference (for Washington and the Federalists) only a matter of philosophy, it was a matter of survival. Both Jefferson and Washington (and their supporting casts) deeply valued this new nation, they just saw profoundly different paths to its fuller promise. I read of bitter divisions of Adams, Jefferson, Jackson and JQ Adams, the expansionists and the isolationists, and the litany of other divisions of our early history and think, “all this sounds compelling contemporary!” Anyway, good stuff Hugh! Keep it coming, and have faith that our country is infinitely stronger than the Speaker might think.

    • Good analysis, Ben. Jefferson learned later as Prtesident that the country needed a strong Federal government, but it wasn’t until Lincoln that the Federeal government became really strong. Don’t forget that after Adams lost the presidency to Jefferson there were 24 years of Republican rule and they all agreed with Jefferson (on his hill) that the states — and ultimately the citizens — should be the real source of sovereign power. There is considerable disagreement among historians when what we now call political parties really took off. There were “factions” and groups who differed, but they agreed with Jefferson after he won the election that in the end they must all rally around the common good and leave factional differences aside. That is certainly no longer the case.


  3. This is a wonderful piece, which I am planning to reblog. In combination with BTG’s post today, it is an indictment of todays DC, no matter which party one supports. The partisianship, the anger, the gotcha’ politics, is beyond any conceivable definition of democracy, and as I’ve felt for a while now, I don’t see a change in the wind, nor do see us as being anywhere else than on the downside of the slope.

    Big money is running our congress, and big money only cares about winning at all costs, and cares not a whit about the individual citizen. Even in light of the fact that we’ve allowed this to happen, it still does not portend well for our future. Its as if we all, citizens, congress members, state governments, have cut off our nose to spite our face.

    I always believed that my goal in business should be to win the war, not every little battle. Today, we are so focused on the battles, that we have lost sight of the battle, and the long term loss facing us all.

    Well done

  4. Hugh, the last sentence of your response to Ben says much about the difference between parties today and those that were already emerging in the late 18th century. As Ben rightly points out, there were already sizeable partisan rifts — and nasty partisan campaigning — within mere years after the ratification of the Constitution. But, other than on slavery, there was largely, as you wrote: “There were “factions” and groups who differed, but they agreed with Jefferson after he won the election that in the end they must all rally around the common good and leave factional differences aside. That is certainly no longer the case.” Now, the factionalism — the partisanism — is non-stop (as if an election cycle never ends) and horribly gets in the way of productive public debate and the actual action of governing.

    • Don’t forget, those men didn’t campaign. They “stood” for office. The political parties came in with campaigning.

      ________________________________ From: hughcurtler To: hcurtler@yahoo.com Sent: Saturday, April 13, 2013 11:21 PM Subject: [hughcurtler] Comment: “Political Parties”

      New comment on your post “Political Parties” Author : Dana Yost (IP: , fc-dyn-dsl- E-mail : 1961danayost@gmail.com URL    : Whois  : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/ Comment: Hugh, the last sentence of your response to Ben says much about the difference between parties today and those th

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