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.