Politics and civics

George Washington’s crystal ball: a word about parties

Gen. George Washington understood human nature to an uncanny degree.

But before you nod your head or share a Washington birthday quote meme, please, read on. Because that quote may very well not mean what you think it means.

What were the political parties of the time?

When Washington stepped down as the nation’s first president after two terms (refusing the push for a third term), he took advantage of the “internet” of the day to issue a warning. Against political parties.

As a sweeping generalization, nationalists/federalists gave us the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Anti-federalists worried about a strong central government gave us the Bill of Rights. These political factions would lead to two parties, but they were not mirror images.

The Federalist Party was the party of Alexander Hamilton. The Democratic-Republican Party, usually called the Republican Party, was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposition to the Federalists. Washington’s warning was about the opposition party — the populists.

The Federalist party was aligned with the business community (like today’s Republican party) whereas the Republican party appealed to agriculturalists (cites account for 3% of the population) and was thus the party of the people (to some extent, today’s Democratic party).

The issues of the day should sound familiar:

  • Debt (how to pay for the war for independence)
  • Finance (banking system)
  • Foreign entanglements/alignments (England or France?)
  • The balance between executive and legislative government (the Supreme Court was birthed in 1789 and was not yet the political football it is today)

Newspapers as party mouthpiece

In the late 18th century, newspapers were a new mass medium, the route information took to get to the home from distances afar. So Washington’s “final address” was not a public speech (with its reach limited by geography). It was an open letter to the public, published in almost every American newspaper. This astonishing accomplishment in that age of partisan press is a testament to his community stature and leadership.

In 1783, there were 43 newspapers in the United States; most were small, weekly, and focused on the revolution. In 1793, Noah Webster founded New York’s first daily newspaper, American Minerva.

Newspapers of the 1790s reflected classic partisanship: political parties used the first mass medium to communicate directly with voters. In 1796, there were four Federalist papers for each Republican paper.

Georgia Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796

In this letter to the nation, Washington warned against an “opposition” party. In other words, he thought Jefferson’s advocacy (which led to a two-party system) would weaken the country.

16 To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable. . .

17 . . . in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, [is] often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, [they] make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.

18 . . . they are likely . . . 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.

20 . . . Let me . . . warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

22 The alternate domination of one faction over another. . . gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

23 . . . 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.

24 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. . .

43 . . . I dare not hope [these counsels] will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish. . . [that they may] recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism. . .


On tribal human nature

Jefferson, of course, was equally eloquent and insightful. We can see that intelligence in this letter to Henry Lee in 1824:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.

2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests.

In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object.

Where are we today?

Today, the Republican Party is the dominant party of the South, the suburbs and rural areas. The Democratic Party is a coalition of white urban Progressives, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Although party names have changed much of the geographic locus has remained constant: the core Confederacy.

One difference is the band north of Texas and west of the Mississippi River — much of which was not part of the Union at the time of the Civil War.

Chart - Third Party System
Source: Wikipedia
2012 Presidential election

And that constant seems unruffled by a huge shift in income and wealth distribution.

income equality chart


Both men are right.

Humans are tribal and naturally divide along social, economic, cultural and geographic lines. We are more nuanced than Jefferson’s dichotomy.

For those for whom security is a core value, an individual who promises safety is a beacon. The potential for that leader to “[turn] this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation” is real. The temptation, great.

Acrimony — which is not the same thing as disagreement — is antithetical to consensus.

Acrimony is distracting, does “enfeeble” the government, is often used to “[agitate] the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms”.

And in a state of acrimony, it is easier for “the chief of some prevailing faction . . . [to turn] this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

Washington and Jefferson both, I believe, were urging leaders to be statesmen. Citizens to be discerning. Washington was the more pessimistic; Jefferson, the more idealistic.

Which are you?

Read more about the first party system at Wikipedia.
Source: 2012 presidential election chart
Source: Third party system voting chart

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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