“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?

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

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.


  1. I wonder if the extreme partisanship today might be the inevitable result of a two party system where the temptation is for one party to gain almost absolute power by denigrating or even destroying the other party. In a multiple party system the only way to accomplish anything is through coalition and compromise. In a two-party system if one party senses that it can so weaken the other party that its opposition is meaningless, the dominant party’s leaders may decide to work toward that end rather than compromise on needed legislation. The gamble is that they can accomplish their goal before too much damage is done to the nation or state. Of course, in the long run the historical dialectic will prevail and another party will arise from the ruins of the destroyed party. The Republican Party achieved that in the 1850s and perhaps another as yet unknown party will arise from the ruins of the Republicans!?!?

  2. Sadly, we are living the worst case scenario Washington outlined: a zero-sum death match where the goal is to discredit & destroy scapegoats rather than seek reasonable compromises to promote the general welfare. I second Gabriel Conroy’s hypothesis that rabid partisan spirit is likely a symptom of organizational weakness. Both parties resort to short-term strategies (identity politics, “energize the base”) that work in part by discouraging voting, party affiliation and interest in politics. That, in turn, weakens the odds that coherent public opinion will form to check excessive party spirit. One welcome aspect of the current campaign is that each party is being forced to reconsider its fundamental ideology due to the unexpected strength of outsider candidates. The process is often ugly and unpleasant, but it may result in parties and perhaps ultimately policies that better reflect the will of the people, for better or worse.

  3. It seems to me the “spirit” of party GW deplored was more in evidence and more “baneful” when parties as institutions were weak. The 1790s/early 1800s party system was institutionally weak. Of course, you had Jeffersonian “democratic clubs” but the federalists seemed to lack a parallel organization (I think….the early republic isn’t my specialty). One could argue that the emergence of the Whig party in the 1830s helped for about 2 decades counterbalance the acrimony that had existed from the “corrupt bargain” to ca. 1832. (Of course, the fact that we had a Democratic Party and a Republican Party in 1860 kind of goes against my argument. But even then, the Democratic Party was falling apart between the Douglas-ites and the Breckinridge-ites.)

    The current “baneful” situation probably owes a lot to the decline of party bosses after WWII. While things are whacky now, we can look at how it’s been a while in the making and to me it seems to track from decisions about party governance made as early as 1972. (I’m thinking more of the new rules for the Dem’s that helped McGovern get the nod…I don’t know enough about the GOP of that era.)

  4. An inspiring piece.

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