from May 4, 2016
When George Washington took the oath of office to become President of the United States in April of 1789, no political parties existed. Throughout the two terms of his presidency, Washington remained nonpartisan, and although he never joined the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, he repeatedly supported their policies.
Nevertheless, a second party of opposition developed during Washington’s first term. The year after Hamilton formed the Federalist Party, in 1792, Thomas Jefferson established the Anti-Federalist Party or Democratic-Republicans.
The two parties, and their leaders, had different views. Hamilton was representative of the commercial interest of the North and the Federalists, while the Anti-Federalists were more reflective of the values of Jefferson and the agrarian South. The two respective political parties formulated diverse views of how government ought to operate in the new republic.
At the end of President Washington’s first term, the old war hero was preparing to retire from public life and go back to Mt. Vernon to just be a farmer again. Amazingly, the two leaders of the opposing parties both wanted him to reconsider, with Hamilton and Jefferson pleading with Washington to stay on for a second term.
Thomas Jefferson is credited as stating: “North and South will hang together if they have you to hang on.” Finally, Washington reluctantly consented to such sentiments, and was again the obvious choice of the Electoral College as they re-elected him in February of 1793.
Washington’s second term was much different than his first term, and due to the issues confronting Washington’s administration, the divisions between the two political parties became more defined and more divisive. A good part of the underlying differences between the two factions centered on the French Revolution (1789-1799).
Jefferson had been in France as the U.S. Minister where he was witness to the beginning of the end of the French monarchy. France’s King Louis XVI was eventually guillotined in March of 1793 and Jefferson, as Washington’s Secretary of State, favored U.S. support of the new French Republic and the revolutionaries. However, being more cautious, Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation in May, and Mr. Jefferson, disgusted with having to tolerate Washington’s policies, resigned his Secretarial post at the end of that year.
As war broke out in Europe between the new French Republic and the European monarchs, Washington resisted taking sides even though the Federalists were inclined to ally with Great Britain during this widespread European conflict. Yet, by refusing to come to the aide of France, Washington earned the wrath of the Democratic-Republican Party members, several of whom were newspaper editors.
Attempting to remain neutral, American merchants still traded with both countries. This effort to maintain “neutrality” raised the ire of the British who started confiscating American ships and cargo that were destined to France or French territories. The British captured nearly 300 ships near the West Indies alone, and the concept of neutrality became a feeble cause.
In 1795, Washington sent Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a treaty with the British regarding restitution of the lost ships and a number of outstanding issues with the motherland leftover from the revolution. However, neither the Democratic-Republican Party nor the Federalist Party (although Hamilton had formulated the treaty) were pleased by The Jay Treaty and it fell short of Washington’s objectives. The intent of the treaty was to tie up loose ends with Great Britain such as the resolution of financial debts leftover from the Revolution, the removal of British troops from forts on the western frontier, and the normalization of trade relations with Great Britain.
However, the appearance that Washington had taken sides in securing a trade agreement with Great Britain caused the greatest opposition from the Democratic-Republican Party. Vehement outcry swept the country from the Democratic-Republican media outlets. Popular graffiti (yes it even existed in the 1700s) in Massachusetts reflected some of the anti-Federalist sentiment: “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t stay up all night damning John Jay!”
When Alexander Hamilton appeared at a meeting in his home state of New York to explain the benefits of the treaty, crowds hissed and booed and some even threw stones at the Secretary of the Treasury.
Congress had to debate the treaty behind closed doors due to the controversy, and when the public learned of the terms, Washington’s decision was attacked throughout all the states. The Party lines and rival loyalties were drawn to the point of personal bitterness and public destructiveness.
Such division along party lines represented the most severe split between the two political factions since the inception of the Republic. It made a deep impact upon Washington and the memory must have been in his mind as he wrote about the very real capacity of political parties to destroy the fragile unity holding the nation together.
It is not that Washington failed to understand the contribution of parties, but he was greatly concerned that they had in past history, and would again, continue to grow seeking more power than other groups to the detriment of the whole. Washington was aware that other governments viewed political parties as destructive because of the temptation to manifest and retain power, but also because they would often seek to extract revenge on political opponents.
Washington also saw the dangers in sectionalism (North vs. South) and warned that political factions gaining enough power could seek to obstruct the execution of the laws that were created by Congress and could prevent the three branches from properly performing their duties as outlined in the Constitution.
The first president was truly distressed especially by the personal and political divisiveness exhibited by Hamilton and Jefferson, two men that he admired and respected. However, he viewed such divisiveness to be detrimental to the fledgling young country to the entire nation.
President Washington argued that political parties needed to be restrained in a free country with a government empowered by the consent of the governed and established through popular elections. He warned of the possibility fearing they could distract the government from its required duty to the people and even lead to the eradication of the freedoms established at the founding.
Washington had reluctantly consented to his re-election in 1792, but in his second term, he determined that he would not serve a third term, Although the personal and political attacks on Washington had diminished significantly in violence and in frequency, as early as May of 1796, the old general requested a second time for Hamilton to help prepare an announcement of his decision to withdraw from public service. It was with great care that Washington worked with Hamilton to prepare his farewell letter.
Although known as his Farewell Address, the words Washington selected were never spoken to an audience. The president arranged with David C. Claypoole, editor and proprietor of the Daily American Advertiser to print his letter in the Philadelphia newspaper in September of 1796. As one reads Washington’s words in his Farewell Address, an adept reader may be astounded at how remarkably prophetic they are. Some of what Washington conveyed to his countrymen about the divisiveness of political parties reveals the president’s genuine wisdom:
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.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), 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. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds 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.
President Washington expressed genuine concern in that “the alternate domination” of one political party over another, thereby allowing one party to enjoy temporary power over the government that would use it to obtain revenge on the other. He seriously felt that this tendency toward atrocities directed at the party out of power “…is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Washington understood what America would become if “a wise people” did not do their duty to discourage and restrain the over-zealous development of political parties.
Unfortunately, it may be too late to restrain the hunger for power evident in America’s political parties in this day; such power now seems entrenched as it has become evident that both major political parties have a hard time yielding to the will of the people.
The presidential election of 2016 offers some hope as a “wise people” seem to have wised up, and the antics of this year’s primaries have helped many a naïve American citizen awaken to the realities of what “We the People” have allowed over several decades as the two major political parties “ran the show.” Americans trusted the political process, but now realize the political system is broken – and it threatens the existence of the very nation Washington and those of the founding generation had fought so hard to create.
If enough Americans can awaken in this time, they may begin to realize that it is not just one political party that is the problem, it is both political parties that have led to the state of politics that allows an aristocratic political elite to ignore America’s founding principles and values. If enough Americans can awaken in this time, the nation may be able to avoid the “frightful despotism… [which] leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”