The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.
The Founders Warned Against Political Parties
Throughout history, governments have risen and fallen due to a variety of factors. One of the most dangerous and insidious means of destroying an independent government is through the actions of agents inside the government itself.
The Founding Fathers of the USA were composed largely of educated, well-read men whose studies included a great deal of Greek and Roman history. These men were able to study the rise and fall of the early democracies and republics that gave life to Western civilization and so were uniquely positioned to theorize on the dangers of factionalism within a government.
Factionalism within a representative government is typically represented through political parties. At their most benign, political parties organize the will of their constituents into well-intentioned social clubs. At their worst, political parties form elite clubs dedicated to advancing or protecting the desires of individuals over the needs of society.
Among the Founding Fathers, the idea that factionalism was a danger to the republic was extremely prevalent. These men advised against such parties because they knew them to both be inamicable to good society and impossible to prevent from forming. They argued that factions, while natural outcroppings of personal politics, could and should be curbed wherever possible.
Factionalism Throughout the Ages
History is the study of the rise and fall of the people that came before, and this study leads to the conclusion that factionalism is a danger to society through and through. From the earliest democracies up to the present day, factions have schemed at great cost to freedom.
The Greeks were the first to record experiments with large-scale democracy. In Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, we consistently find examples of the warring Athenians and Spartans utilizing political infighting to capture city-states when siege warfare failed. This early period of history saw methods of defensive war surpass offensive methodology, and so generals were either forced to starve a city out, or get an inside faction to betray their own people, often into massacres, enslavement, or other depredations of war. By the end of the world's earliest "Great War," we would see free Greeks allying with Persian dictators to ensure the success of their own faction against the whole of freedom.
In Rome, this process would continue, albeit into the hands of tyrants rather than foreign invaders. In the waning days of the Roman Republic, factions comprised of the Optimates and Populares fought increasingly devastating wars that turned the once proud Republic into a dictatorship in all but name. Internal strife between political factions caused such upheaval that people were willing to trade freedom for bread, and the victors of the Civil Wars crushed factionalism by destroying personal freedom.
This process continued through the ages, with examples all across Europe. The English Civil War saw the rise of Cromwell’s Roundheads, the dissolution of the Kalmar Union by the Swedish House of Vasa, and Napoleon coopting the French Revolution are all examples of factions breaking apart established systems to establish political dominance.
Madison and the Federalist Papers
James Madison, philosopher and president, laid out an energetic attack on factionalism in the Federalist Papers no. 10. Madison argues that the federal system acts to break apart the greatest dangers of factionalism while leaving the greatest amount of liberty to the people to assemble as they wish.
In Madison’s view, both the majority and minority can cause great harm to the national body with factionalism if their opportunities to do so are not curbed. From the enactment of laws to seize property and devalue currency to suppressing the rights of others, factions, being drawn from collections of people with similar ideals, inherently seek to maintain control of their own interests.
Since factions grow organically in free-thinking societies, it's necessary to limit their capability to cause harm rather than to limit their ability to form. By splitting powers between Federal and State, the founders hoped to fulfill a limit on factions taking power nationwide.
These limits on factionalism assume that the same interest groups would continue to exist, in spirit if not design. National and state focus should have prevented the formation of national political parties, but time and money managed to overcome these restraints by the early 20th century.
Washington’s Farewell Address
George Washington—general, president, and founding father—was also adamantly opposed to political parties. In his farewell address after declining to run for a third term, Washington famously stated that "[factionalism] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration."
Washington goes on to argue that factions act to stratify power structures, indebt the nation to foreign governments, and generally disrupt the flow of good governance from top to bottom. Party allegiance takes the place of loyalty to the State as a whole and the ideals it encapsulates.
While it has remained an enduring speech for the ages, it must have fallen on deaf ears, as the 19th century saw the rise and fall of political parties throughout all levels of government. Despite the growth of factionalism, these political parties remained largely connected to geographic constituencies, and few parties lasted more than a couple decades.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the American political system had centralized around two main parties, and this was cemented into Democrats and Republicans around the time of the New Deal. Factionalism seized the national stage, inextricably linking local politicians to federal politicians in nominally shared causes by the middle of the 20th century.
History is fraught with examples of the horror of civil wars spiraling out of control. When factions are allowed to run roughshod over democratic traditions, they inevitably seek to dominate and destroy the very system that let them take power.
Going into the 21st century, political parties continue to paralyze the mechanisms of government in the USA, often over issues that should be handled at different levels of government. As it stands, factionalism will continue to hold the government in thrall until the American people are able to recall the wisdom of those who’ve come before.
- Washington, George. Farewell Address. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.pdf
- Selections from The Federalist Papers. Hamilton, Madison, Jay.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 A Anders