Washington's warning against political parties

  • 15 February 2016
  • NormanL
Washington's warning against political parties

The ill-named "Presidents Day" is usually just a time for many people to enjoy a long weekend. But we take the day a little more seriously, and use it as a time to reflect on what the presidency itself, and our political life, has become since George Washington first held the office.

One item against which we measure the changes in the Republic is Washington's Farewell Address. You can read the entire document here. And as we are in the midst of a presidential election, we would draw your attention to Washington's criticism of political parties, and what he saw as their tendency to do much more harm than good to the people:

...the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the 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 & insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.

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 endulgence, if not with favour, 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 & 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.

This is an old, small "r," republican sentiment - one that was cast aside even before Washington could return home to Mount Vernon.

But it is interesting to think how our political history would have been different if Washington's warning against parties had been taken to heart.