In 1796, as President George Washington was preparing to depart the Presidency, he wrote a farewell address. In many ways, the topics he addressed in this document are eerily prophetic as we look around our world today.
One topic was the subject of political parties. It’s very easy to check the news and see the damage that polarization around party is doing to our country today. Since President Washington had a lot to say, I’ll cover his thoughts across several posts.
First, here’s his thoughts I’ll cover today:
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. 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 alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a 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 the ruins of public liberty.
First, President Washington admits that people tend to segregate themselves with people who think like them. As he states, this is a part of human nature. We hang out with people who enjoy the same hobbies, sports teams, political leanings, etc. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless we allow ourselves to be defined by these items and begin to purposely exclude those who do not share our hobbies or beliefs. Today, I believe we are seeing an exceptionally worrisome trend toward political tribalism.
Second, President Washington mentions the back and forth between the parties as they alternate power. The last few years have certainly demonstrated this. Each party, in their turn, has changed rules to make things easier on themselves, only to protest strongly when the other party uses the rule changes to get their way only a few years later. One particular example was Senator Harry Reid’s 2013 change that eliminated the previous 60-vote requirement for confirmations of lower court and Cabinet appointments. At the time, he argued it was necessary because Republicans were being “obstructionist.” He also left Supreme Court confirmations at the 60-vote level.
However, even though he had exempted the Supreme Court at that time, he had essentially set the precedent that when the going gets tough, Congress can just change the rules to make it easier. So, in 2018, when the Democrats were being obstructionist, Senator Mitch McConnell changed the rules to eliminate the 60-vote requirement for the Supreme Court to get his way. Both parties either have regretted their choice (such as the Democrats in the current session) or will regret their choice (likely the Republicans if the Democrats get the Presidency and Senate majority back).
This is exactly the tit for tat that President Washington predicted. I was once told that before you support a law, make sure you’d support it if the other party was the one proposing it. Something for the tribalists to think about.
Finally, President Washington warned that this tit for tat would bring about a populace that longs for a strong man who will get things done and cut through the partisan gridlock. Once again, we’ve seen this already in the promises of presidential candidates to do everything within their power to skirt “the obstructionists in Congress” and make things happen. Their party usually eats it up, as does a decent part of the public.
This is not something we can afford to let happen. Making laws is messy. It’s designed to be. Laws that affect everyone in the country (if, and only if, they truly need to be made) should be written, debated, and re-written until they truly reflect the best interests of those they will affect, not merely the hopes and dreams of a single party.
If this interested you, take a minute to subscribe to or follow our blog. President Washington had a lot more to say about political parties, as well as other modern concerns, and I hope to give them a solid treatment in upcoming posts. Thanks!
2 thoughts on “Washington on Parties (Part 1)”