In the vast and storied history of this country, there has only ever been one president who did not represent a political party – George Washington. Every man since who has occupied that prestigious position has been elected to represent not only the people, but the platform and policies of a political party.
When President George Washington left public office, he cautioned the nation not to divide themselves into political parties.
In his farewell address, he stated that the spirit of the party, “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.”
Was he able to see into the future and the division his beloved nation would face in the years to come?
Perhaps not, but he certainly saw with clarity the dangers of partisanship in this American experiment.
In his administration, he attempted to form a government that was above partisan ties and petty squabbles – but that was not to be.
Why was George Washington opposed to the creation of political parties?
Division in his Cabinet
The dangers of political party tension was played out in the microcosm of Washington’s own cabinet. In the years of his presidency, Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, vehemently disagreed with each other on a number of issues that arose in the administration. Hamilton vocally advocated for centralized government power whereas Jefferson preferred for governmental power to be as close to the people as possible, rather than held in the hands of an elite few.
Their animosity towards one another and their ideas created tension and hardship in the first administration and Washington saw how potentially dangerous the creation of political parties would be not only for future administrations but also for the nation as a whole.
Division in the Nation
In a Republic such as ours, the people must seek the interest of the country over their own. Washington foresaw how the formation of political parties would devastatingly tamper with Americans’ ability to see members of the other party as fellow citizens rather than political enemies.
To that effect he wrote, “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.”
The division of the nation that Washington foretold has undoubtedly come to pass, though this is not a new or even surprising revelation.
Our nation has been bitterly divided before – even to the point of a bloody civil war.
As we consider how best to move forward as a nation, perhaps it is worth considering heeding this voice from our past whose worries were proven right over time.
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”