George Washington & Political Parties

When I began this blogging venture, and became exposed to the facts of early American history, certain topics caught my attention. I made mental & written notes. Other issues intervened, and I’ve not even gotten close to pursuing some of those earlier research/study goals. Watching ‘Meet the Press’ this morning, listening closely to Senator Graham’s analyses of the Obama administration’s record so far, and his thoughts & recommendations for going forward, glimpses of those goals re-surfaced.


One of the first things I remember learning, that gave me pause, was how political parties came into being in the young United States of America. The essentially two-party system that developed during Washington’s first term of Presidential office has remained to this day. Yet it always, eventually, generates combativeness. (Or is the crux of the matter an already-existing inner combativeness in man? A predilection towards taking sides…? and a political party provides convenient outlets? )

Inaugurated in the spring of 1789, Washington’s first order of business involved creating the first Cabinet, ‘setting up house’ (House?), so to speak. Filling those positions with exceptional & talented men. Establishing procedures. Once accomplished, our first President and his Congress tackled the issue of the nation’s finances. (Sound familiar?) A full year had passed before America’s new government reached this point, and about another half-year passed before things heated up concerning fiscal matters.

(Somehow, money is almost always in the mix…any mix…!)Alexander Hamilton, our first Secretary of Treasury, placed the idea of a national bank on the table. Jefferson, Madison and Randolph opposed this idea, arguing that the Constitution did not make allowances for Congressional incorporation of institutions. Boiled down, the debate was between ‘strict interpretation’ of the Constitution versus ‘implied powers’, and Hamilton’s ‘implied powers’ stance prevailed. But so did the heart of the conflict, and from it our first political parties were born. Jefferson’s camp called themselves ‘Republicans’ and Hamilton’s followers, ‘Federalists’.
“One of the expedients of party to acquire influence…is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” – George Washington, Farewell Address (1796)  
Has anything been better said than this! Our first President and Commander-in-Chief was very, very concerned with maintaining the unity of the United States. He wrote these words under the heading of causes which could disrupt that union. Washington went on to counsel the citizens of America against buying into party politics: “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations;” His warning that such ‘misrepresentations’ “…tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection” surely applies to American citizens today.
Washington saw clearly the possible outcome of ’the will of a party’ replacing ‘the delegated will of the Nation’ . He foresaw “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men {being} enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government…” He foresaw such operations as springing from intent to obstruct the execution of our laws, with ‘fatal tendency’. Though declared intentions for these operations may seem plausible, and for occasional seasons may ‘answer popular ends’, ultimately, Washington saw a kind of Machiavellian design at work.
And, with insight as piercing as the quickened & powerful word of God, discerning the thoughts & intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12), Washington lays bare the ‘spirit of party’, which he saw as being deeply rooted in human nature & passion, and aggravated by resentments. He understood “that love of power, and proneness to abuse it” found in human hearts, and believed the pitting of one faction against another could produce over time enough revenge, misery and ‘disorders’, as to impel the populace back towards monarchy. (His thoughts on such a consequence of party activity reflect the similar fears of Benjamin Franklin. Though Franklin’s concern over a regression to monarchy was for a different reason, these two pillars of the American Revolution both saw this horrid outcome as being within the realm of possibility.)
Washington also saw access of foreign “influence and corruption” to our country being gained through the agitations and animosities of party rivalry. (I’m still trying to think this one through…)
Of course, our first Commander-in-Chief was aware of the ’checks and balances’ effect of political parties, as pertains to the administrations of government & preservation of liberty. Washington writes about “the necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power” . But he believed that there would always be more than enough of that ’spirit of party’ to go around, and that vigilant effort to contain it, “by force of public opinion” must constantly be applied. And all this MUST take place within Constitutional bounds. Any other means of effecting change, “change by usurpation” in Washington’s words, “…is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
 I have taken all the words of George Washington, quoted above, from his Farewell Address of 1796. In the course of reading it, I was struck by similarities between some things Washington had described and descriptions of the Body of Christ, as explained in the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians. (Though many label George Washington as being a deist, and/or a secular leader only, I beg to differ.) Washington’s consistent and strong concern that the union of our nation be always maintained & protected mirrors the counsel of the apostle Paul: “That there should be no schism in the body {of Christ}; but that the members should have the same care one for another.” (1 Corinthians 12: 25)

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