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Washington's Wisdom on Factions

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02/15/2008

Americans have given up celebrating George Washington's birthday in exchange for a 3-day weekend. The price includes overlooking the wisdom he has to offer us. That is particularly unfortunate at a time of intense political partisanship, illustrated by the Presidential campaigns, because he had plenty to say about such factionalism. The danger of factions to American liberty was a major part of his 1796 Farewell Address.

Washington offered 'sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.' In particular, he insisted that we keep 'indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest … '

'One of the expedients of party to acquire influence…is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s]. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.'

'They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party … to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by the common counsels and modified by mutual interests.'

'Liberty … is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction … and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyments of the rights of person and property.'

'Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party … in [governments] of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.'

'The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension … is itself a frightful despotism … 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. It 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 …

'[faction] is a spirit not to be encouraged … And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.'

Americans, especially politicians, seem to have forgotten George Washington's warning of how strongly factions undermine 'the benign influence of good laws under a free government.' But we need to aim for the higher standard he called us to: 'It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.' It is particularly important because, as he said elsewhere, 'preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.'

Many have abandoned even the pretense of following the principles of the man our Capitol is named for. Those principles, together with his actions in defending our freedoms and forming our country, are central reasons why he was 'First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.' One of those principles was avoiding the disunity of factions, which pose serious risks to our liberty. Instead of overlooking his insights in pursuit of factional advantages, we need to live up to Washington's assertion that 'Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.'

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