Washington’s Warning about Political Parties

I am reading a volume from a collection of source materials that I was pleased to receive a number of years ago: America – Great Crises In Our History Told by Its Makers. I picked up the 4th volume recently because it covers the period during the Lewis and Clark expedition. My decision to read was precipitated by the fact that Bernie and I are heading out to Portland at the end of this month for a Road Scholar adventure on the Columbia River. I thought it would be fun to see what was the “buzz” among the country’s leaders at the time of the expedition. Enlightening, I must say.

Right now I am reading Washington’s Farewell Address which was not spoken put published on September 17,1796. I am struck by just how much Washington could anticipate as the seeds of destruction already present in the country’s earliest days. The one I want to mention this morning is what he had to say about party politics.

The first political party in the U.S. were the Federalists, formed in 1787. This was followed in 1796 by the Anti-Federalists that gathered around Thomas Jefferson. They called themselves Democratic-Republicans. These were the two parties in existence when Washington gave his address.

I am going to quote Washington here and let those of you who thought to stop by today to decide just how relevant his words are for yourselves:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the States…Let me now…warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party…
This spirit…(has) its roots in the strongest passions of  the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments,…but in those of the popular form, it is seen in its rankness and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has penetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads…to more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, 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 this the ruin of public liberty.

He goes on to talk about the “mischief of the spirit of party” and suggests it is in the best interest and duty of wise people to discourage and restrain it. Partisanship, he suggests, “…serves 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, (and) foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

I don’t know what I could possible add.

7 thoughts on “Washington’s Warning about Political Parties”

  1. Sounds fascinating. I have just started a series called ‘First Ladies, Influence and Image. Martha Washington was a powerful and persuasive woman. Very interesting to learn how the wives changed so many standards that we appreciate today.

  2. I am not sure how many are actually in the set. I have a few missing. The first one covers the years 1000 to 1562. # 12 goes from 1916 to 1925. I read the first one and the one I am reading now is volume 4. Here is the info inside on front cover of the first volume. It will help you find it. It is old – copyright 1925. (There may be more modern editions)

    Great Crises In Our History Told by It Makers
    A Library of Original Sources
    Volume 1
    Discovery and Exploration
    Issued by
    Americanization Department
    Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
    Chicago, U.S.A.

  3. Oh my goodness! Wise man!!

    We’re going to be in Portland sept 19! And then along the Columbia River for a couple of days. When are you there?

    1. We will flying there on the 20th. Our first night is at a motel. We tour Portland on the 21st until late afternoon when we board the ship. Then we are on board until the 28th.

  4. I hope you have a wonderful vacation. I’m anxious to hear about it when you get back. Bills going to look for that book series, He loves that kind of thing to read!

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