Washington’s advice to the political class still apposite today

Opinion: Parties and partisanship, though dangerous, are fundamental to our nature, first president thought


For more than a century there has been a ritual in the United States Senate. On or near George Washington’s birthday, which falls tomorrow (February 22nd) a member of the body reads the “Farewell Address” of the first American president.

This year, if senators bother to listen, they will hear some very compelling and contemporary advice.

Washington’s address is widely known for what it says about avoiding alliances. But at its heart, it is a stern warning about the domestic threats to liberty and union that are likely to destroy the United States.

Washington names three: sectionalism, partisanship and public debt. Not a bad list. The first very nearly destroyed the nation in a civil war; the other two appear to be doing so today.

Washington’s discussion of sectionalism begins with a long list of reasons why preserving the union is essential to American safety and prosperity. He then laments the likelihood that that union will dissolve. Why? Because politicians will convince citizens that local interests are more important than national ones. They will misrepresent the opinions and aims of other regions and foment jealousies among communities. The nation will ignore the need for preserving union because “a small but artful and enterprising minority” will sway the people and because “cunning ambitious and unprincipled men” will prey upon them.

Washington does not draw an attractive picture of politics in the new American republic. He apparently assumed that, in a democracy, the people would get things wrong from time to time. Sometimes they would be shortsighted; sometimes selfish; sometimes confused; sometimes just stupid.

Stupidity is, of course, not exclusively a problem for democracies. Dictators and kings can be stupid too. But the errors of monarchy were well known to the revolutionary generation. Washington was afraid that with enthusiasm for democratic rule – an enthusiasm he shared – Americans might miss the fact that even in democratic societies people can make mistakes. And they make mistakes more often when they are organised into groups.

Political parties
Political parties, Washington warned, are the greatest danger facing the new nation. They “distract the public councils”, “enfeeble the public administration”, “agitate the community”, “promote ill-founded jealousies and false alarms”, kindle animosity and occasionally contribute to riot and insurrection.

Nor is the competition between political parties a check on their power; indeed it may even be an inducement to bad behaviour. “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension . . . is itself a frightful despotism.”

If Democrats win a big election in 2008 and Republicans retake the House of Representatives in 2010, that process of shifting power does not necessarily restrain the two parties. It may make acts of partisan revenge more frequent and intense. Unfortunately, political parties are “inseparable from our nature”. We humans band together, sometimes for good purpose, more often for narrow interest. The best we can do is keep a watchful eye. Partisanship, Washington says, is like a fire that cannot be extinguished. “You have to be vigilant to prevent its bursting into flame, lest instead of warming, it should consume.”

Sectionalism and partisanship will undermine support for the union. But Washington mentions a third threat: public debt. There are times (war and national emergency) when borrowing is necessary to a nation’s survival. But once a government finds itself in debt, there is a temptation to walk away from it or postpone its repayment. We must guard against “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear”.

And how do we bear our burden? We pay taxes. But taxes are always problematic. In delightfully understated phrasing, Washington reminds us: “No taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.”

No one likes taxation, but if there are things that government must do there must be funds to pay national obligations. Making decisions about revenue is among the hardest things democratic governments ever do. But if they neglect public finance, if politicians excite and exaggerate sectional and party differences over financial issues, stalemate and stagnation can follow.

America’s first president describes democracy as fragile and imperfect. It is subject to the whims of public fancy, to the pull of parties, to the selfishness of generations, to the abuse of leaders and, in general, to the propensity of humans to make mistakes.

And, as the Farewell Address famously proclaims, foreign policy makes things worse. Other nations may take advantage of America’s sectional differences, distort its public discourse, and draw the nation into conflicts it would otherwise avoid – conflicts that lead to borrowing, debt and new financial burdens.

Though written in a language and style that belong to another time, the essential message of Washington’s Farewell Address could not be more modern. In a Congress where the flames of partisanship sometimes burn out of control and where sensible steps to deal with long-term budget obligations are routinely postponed, it may do some good for American senators to hear what their least partisan, and most responsible, president had to say in 1796.

America and the world should hope they listen.

Robert Strong is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and is a Fulbright Scholar this year in the School of History and Archives at University College Dublin

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