Politics & Policy

Washington’s Farewell Address Foresaw the Danger of Factions

Detail of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796 (Brooklyn Museum)
On the speech’s 220th anniversary, its counsel is as relevant as ever.

George Washington announced his permanent retreat from the world 220 years ago today. His “Farewell Address,” first drafted by Madison and later amended and expanded by Hamilton, was printed in nearly every newspaper in America and read widely throughout Europe.

Tinged by the dark, sober thought that he “must soon be to the mansions of rest,” it contains a penetrating analysis highly relevant to our domestic affairs today, and it remains superior to most comparable documents produced since. He offers his parting words as a “disinterested” onlooker, an “old and affectionate friend” who, without flattery, deals frankly with his countrymen, as is becoming of free citizens.

Washington foresaw that America would become “at no distant period, a great nation.” This would occur partly because North and South, East, and West would eventually become more homogenous on account of internal commerce, and because American commerce would spread throughout the globe. He also saw clearly that other nations would imitate and even adopt America’s constitutional order — if America proved that political liberty could coexist with order and unity.

For Washington, preserving America’s long-term interests required grasping certain permanent problems suffered by republics. Being aware of such problems prevents one from indulging in visionary hopes of total transformation. Such awareness moderates the imagination, staves off fanaticism, and elevates prudence, which can distinguish between the possible and impossible.

Among Washington’s main themes was the conflict between the unity of the public mind and the public’s tendency toward “parties,” or “factions” (terms that he, like many of the Founders, often used interchangeably). By “party” or “faction,” Washington meant the union of individuals who desire to rule without consideration for the lasting common good; a party is often made up of “a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.”

Without unity of public mind, he argues, prosperity and security are impossible. However, the “natural” passions found in all human beings create parties, which make demands upon citizens’ loyalties and subvert patriotism. The public, in other words, tends in two contrary directions.

Unity means that citizens must first and foremost consider themselves to be Americans, as opposed to members of a party or faction, whether geographical, ideological, or based on some other criteria, such as identity, today. This sort of unity is a prerequisite to prosperity, which may be achieved when a people believe in common ideals, common interests, and, therefore, possess common affections.  

The alternative is domination by the spirit of party, which guides citizens in the opposite direction. Rule by this spirit is a special problem of republican government. In fact, it is a republic’s “worst enemy.” In a monarchy, parties can provide a check on power and serve a good; in a republic, parties have few salutary effects.

Parties are not mere aberrations, Washington said. Rather, their cause “is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” In other words, our passionate attachment to particular parties distorts our judgment and obscures consideration of the nation’s long-term interests. Once these natural passions are energized and flattered, a predictable pattern emerges.

First, the rule of one party will inevitably give birth to counter parties. These will alternate in their domination of one another. This alternation of rule will be animated by the spirit of “revenge,” creating permanent “hatreds” and “jealousies” among parties. Citizens may cease to look upon one another as fellow citizens. Now motivated by hatreds, parties desire total domination and eventually become fanatical.

Such parties “distract” leaders and “enfeeble the public administration.” Government becomes divided and unable to perform its duties, and the public may lose faith in republicanism. As this spirit invites greater and greater disorder, the public, exhausted by it, might for the sake of “security” and “repose” give over its liberty to a powerful individual.

The spirit of party will also deform the very possibility of law. Rule of law depends on people’s belief that all citizens are equal before the law, but factional hatreds corrupt this belief by persuading adherents that only one group is right and just. Demagoguery therefore becomes a common practice.

Furthermore, factions can erode the constitutional separation of powers, as a faction can find its home in one of the branches. Once it overtakes certain areas of government, it becomes animated by a “spirit of encroachment.” Eager to consolidate its powers, it will operate by quiet “usurpation.” Surely this is true today of both the judiciary and the administrative state, the latter being a factional stronghold that rules fanatically for its own interests and the interests of it its constituents. As Washington reminds us, the Constitution has mechanisms for its own amendment. But rather than the nation’s voting to amend it, oppositional factions usurp constitutional powers piecemeal, which redoubles hatred and mistrust.

Not surprisingly, Washington discusses religion and morality immediately after he discusses parties. His ordering suggests that parties will rule if too much heterogeneity emerges — on account of a decline in the unity once provided by morality and religion. If the public’s attachment to morality declines, it can become insensible to justice and decency, instead becoming partisan and venal.

If the public’s attachment to morality declines, it can become insensible to justice and decency, instead becoming partisan and venal.

Parties even invite foreign influence, Washington warns. By weakening reverence for one’s own nation, parties give “to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens . . . facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity” (my emphasis). Today, one wonders whether the Left would sacrifice American interests for favored peoples, such as the Palestinians or, in the case of the Obama administration, the Iranians. Such “passionate attachment” to the foreign need not be done by way of open sabotage during times of war but can come in milder, smiling ways, as expressed memorably by Justice Ginsburg. While visiting Cairo in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, she offered advice to Egyptians who wished to write their own constitution: “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa.”

The conflict summarized in Washington’s “Farewell Address” is one of the permanent problems of republicanism. Yet today’s progressives openly rule by flattering various factions, encouraging their growth, without responsible consideration of how this may in the long term affect the nation as a whole.

Unlike Washington, the Left simultaneously admits and denies the power of factional passions over the mind: Various “identities” should be flattered into existence and positions of power, while the Left presumes that these attachments will eventually be transformed into love of the common good.

This method of governance presumes that either the entirety of the public will eventually be won over by their opinions or that these factions will generate such mutual affection and interests that they don’t set their teeth upon one another. Such presumptions, for Washington, go against experience, history, and nature. Indeed, they require a belief in the miraculous: After warring with one’s fellow citizens and habitually looking upon them with hatred and jealousy, these passions will spontaneously dissipate and lasting affection will emerge.

Today’s progressives ask us to share their contempt for the past — a past that in their view only serves to demonstrate their superiority. On account of this, they indulge in the belief that all problems are fixable rather than permanent and therefore requiring prudent management. But Washington advises future statesmen to remain constantly aware of the dangers of factionalism: Its causes in human nature cannot be removed, therefore statesman must attempt to “restrain” and “discourage” this natural effect of liberty.

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