By John Avlon
When Barack Obama takes to the lectern to deliver his farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday, he’ll likely have a few things to say about a political climate that has grown viciously polarized over the past 8 years and culminated in a bruising, insult-driven campaign in 2016. If he does call out the destructive effects of hyper-partisanship on our democracy, he will be following in the footsteps of the first farewell address, by George Washington, printed in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796.
Washington warned of the dangers of political factions to democratic republics throughout history. His aversion to partisanship reflected the fact that just a few decades earlier, in 1746, political parties had driven England to civil war. This first farewell address, from our only truly independent president, hearkens back to an age when distrust of political divisions was perhaps higher than it is now—and offers a solution to what ails us today.
“I was no party man myself,” Washington wrote Thomas Jefferson,“and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.” As our first and only independent president, Washington’s independence was a function not only of his pioneering place in American history but also of political principles he developed over a lifetime.
To Washington, moderation was a source of strength. He viewed its essential judiciousness as a guiding principle of good government, rooted in ancient wisdom as well as Enlightenment-era liberalism. Much could be achieved “by prudence, much by conciliation, and much by firmness.” A stable, civil society depends on resisting intolerant extremes. The Constitution did not mention political parties, and during the debate over ratification, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton praised the Constitution’s “spirit of moderation” in contrast to the “intolerant spirit” of “those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”
Washington was nonpartisan but he was not neutral. He was decisive after consulting differing opinions. “He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew,” attested Vice President John Adams.
Washington understood the danger of demagogues in a democracy. He was a passionate advocate of moderation as a means of calming partisan passions and creating problem-solving coalitions. Adams also believed that “without the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation … every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.”
And it was a source of personal pain for Washington to see his Cabinet degenerate into exaggerated suspicions and vicious slanders during his presidency. Most frustrating was to watch his motives twisted and attacked for partisan gain by “infamous scribblers” in the newspapers. Even in the days after winning independence from Britain, Washington warned of the dangerous interplay between extremes. “There is a natural and necessary progression from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of tyranny,” he wrote in his Circular Letter to the States, and “arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness.” As liberty in France turned to anarchy and then tyranny during his administration, it confirmed his deepest instincts.
As a young man, Washington devoured the popular early-eighteenth century essays of Joseph Addison in the Spectator of London. Addison was the author of his favorite play, Cato, and while reflecting on the sources of England’s bloody civil war in the 1640s, he had written an influential essay on “the Malice of Parties.” It’s worth quoting at length: “There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers, and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of almost every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and not only so, but destroys even common sense. A furious party spirit, when it rages in its full violence, exerts itself in civil war and bloodshed; and when it is under its greatest restraints, naturally breaks out in falsehood, detraction, calumny, and a partial administration of justice. In a word, it fills a nation with spleen and rancor, and extinguishes all the seeds of good nature, compassion and humanity.”
Addison was not the only wise voice warning the revolutionary generation against the danger of hyper-partisanship. The English poet Alexander Pope declared that party spirit “is but the madness of many for the gain of a few.” The early 18th-century British opposition leader Henry St. John, 1st Viscount of Bolingbroke, described parties as “a political evil.” Informed by experience in both journalism and politics, Bolingbroke wrote that “a man who has not seen the inside of parties, nor had opportunities to examine nearly their secret motives, can hardly conceive how little share principle of any sort, though principle of some sort or other be always pretended, has in the determination of their conduct.”
The founding fathers’ suspicion of faction was rooted in the classical tradition that celebrated the virtue of moderation—and the subsequent independence of thought and action that moderation can create. “According to the classical doctrine, membership in a political party inevitably involved defending the indefensible vices of one’s allies and attempting to dominate one’s fellow citizens in order to satisfy a narrow self-interest,” wrote historian Carl J. Richard in The Founders and the Classics in 1994. “In the eighteenth century the greatest compliment one man could pay another was to call him ‘disinterested.’ To be disinterested was to place justice above all considerations, including one’s own interests and those of one’s family, friends and political allies.”
Throughout his career in Virginia’s House of Burgesses and as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington took labors to remain in the role of moderate. In his twenties, while serving in the Virginia legislature, when the House of Burgesses was divided between moderates and militants in their resistance to the British royals, Washington played a pivotal role by bridging the divides with personal diplomacy, dining with leaders of the different factions.
During the war, there was no political will to raise revenue to pay the soldiers. Washington’s frustration with the weak and fractured Congress helped form his belief that a strong central government led by an honest, energetic executive was essential to a successful democracy.
Amid “the want of harmony in our councils—the declining zeal of the people,” Washington wrote his friend Gouverneur Morris, “it is well worth the ambition of a patriot statesman at this juncture to endeavor to pacify party differences—to give fresh vigor to the springs of government—to inspire the people with confidence.”
Washington’s call for a “patriot statesman” echoed Bolingbroke’s call for a “Patriot King” in a widely read 1749 pamphlet that articulated an antidote to the corruption and fanaticism of parties that led to England’s civil war. For Bolingbroke, the ideal was a benign monarch who could “defeat the designs, and break the spirit of faction” in a parliamentary democracy, toward the goal of delivering “true principles of government independent of all.” Washington’s substitution of “statesman” for “king” reframed the concept for an American audience. The ideal of a strong leader who operated beyond partisanship retained its attractiveness.
When Washington became president, he intended to establish a government above faction and special interests. “No local prejudices or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities,” he promised in his first inaugural address, “will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests.”
Washington did not want or expect unanimity of opinion in his Cabinet, perhaps reflecting the idea that in a place where everyone thinks alike, no one is thinking very much. He was aware of his limits on specific issues—especially law and finance. A competition of ideas and opinions was something to be celebrated, as he made clear in a letter to the governor of North Carolina two months after taking the oath of office: “A difference of opinion on political points is not to be imputed to freemen as a fault, since it is to be presumed that they are all actuated by an equally laudable and sacred regard for the liberties of their country.”
But as Washington preached an enlightened self-interest consistent with classical liberalism, dissension grew in his Cabinet ranks, as political divisions hardened and suspicions drove onetime allies apart. He was always aware that these fault lines could rupture the fragile federal government.
“My greatest fear has been that the nation would not be sufficiently cool and moderate in making arrangements for the security of that liberty,” he wrote after nine months in office. “If we mean to support the liberty and independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish,” he wrote to Rhode Island governor Arthur Fenner, “we must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach.”
In the spring of 1796, when he picked back up the first draft of his farewell address, which Washington had asked Madison to draft in his first term, Washington added new language explaining to the public that given the “considerable changes … both at home and abroad, I shall ask your indulgence while I express with more lively sensibility the following most ardent wishes of my heart.”
The next line in the draft drove right to the rise of faction: “That party disputes among all the friends and lovers of their country may subside, or, as the wisdom of Providence hath ordained that men, on the same subjects, shall not always think alike, that charity and benevolence, when they happen to differ, may so far shed their benign influence as to banish those invectives which proceed from illiberal prejudices and jealousy.”
In a line he deleted from the final draft, Washington went even further, warning that in a large republic, a military coup was unlikely to undermine democracy, even if backed by the wealthy and powerful. The base of the country was too broad. “In such republics,” he said, “it is safe to assert that the conflicts of popular factions are the chief, if not the only, inlets of usurpation and tyranny.”
Washington acknowledged that the spirit of party “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.” But he understood partisans’ perspective, stating plainly, “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.”
Beyond those wise limits, Washington warned, rampant factions were a “fatal tendency” in democracies. The thin history of republics up to that point showed that partisan factions led by “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” distorted democracies by pursuing narrow agendas at the expense of the national interest. Washington identified regional parties based on “geographical discriminations” as a particular danger, because they undermined national unity in pursuit of power. “Designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views” by misrepresenting the “opinions and aims” of people from other states and regions. “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations,” Washington warned. “They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
But the greatest danger could spring from the chaos of a dysfunctional democracy, compounded by relentless party warfare, which, Washington warned, would erode faith in the effectiveness of self-governance and open the door to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions. “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.”
Washington’s remedy was modest but comprehensive: Partisanship could not be removed from democracy, but it could be constrained by vigilant citizens and the sober-minded separation of powers. “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,” Washington wrote. Doubling down for emphasis, he added that “there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.”
For Washington, this wise balance was the prime pillar of our political liberty. By devoting so much of his farewell address to warning about the dangers of hyper-partisanship, Washington penned a manifesto for moderation, a guide for future leaders and citizens who would try to walk the line between the extremes, focused on the never-ending task of forming a more perfect union.
Now, in 2017, after an eight-year presidency that promised to bridge our divides but confronted the political reality of polarization and the election of a successor whose victory has highlighted the deep divisions in America, Washington’s vision for vigorous citizens checking the rise of extreme partisanship is striking in its relevance. We need to heed Washington’s warning.
Source: POLITICO Magazine
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