Truth Dig‘s Maj. Danny Sjursen (former asst. professor of history at West Point) has written a series of fascinating articles about the little known and sometimes seamier side of American history. His most recent covers the Andrew Jackson administration (1829-1837). Comparisons with our current President are unavoidable and a little uncanny. Just as interesting are Sjursen’s earlier articles about the War of 1812, and the Adams and Jefferson administrations. The entire series is definitely worth a read, since it demonstrates with great accuracy and clarity how our current political struggles are rooted in our national past. We may think this nation has never been so divided along partisan lines, but a peek at the political landscape of 200 years ago might contradict that assumption. Racism, white supremacy, fake news, populism, partisan violence, corruption, demagoguery– all the key players on the contemporary political stage have their counterparts in early 19th century history. In the end, history may give us hope that our republic has survived similar if not worse crises. (On the other hand, the early partisan divide did eventually lead us into a bloody civil war. So history may also serve as a warning.)
Tag Archives: political parties
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…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.”
In his Farewell Address to the nation (1796), a retiring George Washington made it clear that while the new Constitution was a sound foundation for a growing nation, it was by no means foolproof. Though designed with checks and balances to protect against the tyranny of both individuals on the one hand and the masses on the other, one thing it could not withstand was the tyranny of factionalism.
Our first President was not conjuring bogeymen to frighten us; partisan division was already a reality, the seeds of which had been sown even before he declined a third term. Now, without this unifying figure, almost universally revered, the country would surely descend into factions. He saw this in his own cabinet: with Jefferson and his camp on one side, and Hamilton’s party on the other, the acrimony was growing daily, pitting those who wanted less government against those who wanted more, a nation of gentleman farmers against a new moneyed class, an agrarian economy against a mercantile one, the wealth of the soil against the wealth of cities. In the press, in the taverns, on the streets, in the halls of Congress, the two sides began to demonize each other. Yes, the Constitution could withstand many things, but it could not withstand leadership that put party above country.
In many ways our Constitution is a realistic document, a work of genius and compromise, with safeguards based on a keen understanding of power, fallen human nature, and history: how democracies die, how some are overthrown or others rot from within. Yet it is also a hopelessly idealistic one, taking for granted that those who safeguard it will be men and women of principle who put the public interest before any other. Over the past year we have seen just how naïve a document it is and how limited in power, especially if the people entrusted with implementing it will not do so because they are bound to party over country, or selfish ambition and greed over the rule of law. This is how democracies decay, falter, and eventually collapse.
And where is the church in all this? Well, the most powerful and vocal part of it is poised defiantly on the funeral pyre crying for more tinder, more kerosene. There is something so attractive, so hypnotic about a conflagration. For decades pulpits from coast to coast have either thundered with anathemas against “liberals” or echoed with silence in the face of growing intolerance. Instead of railing against poverty, intolerance, racism, militarism, American exceptionalism, and the greed of fundamentalist capitalism, many ministers have sided with the moneychangers, turning instead on the “lazy” poor, immigrants, and the weakest, most broken members of society, or else aiming their cannons at a manufactured “war on Christmas.” Now constantly fed by a powerful propaganda machine fueled by corporate and foreign cash, it is perhaps improbable that these Christians will ever come to their senses. Ironic isn’t it, that this country should be destroyed by the very church that could have saved it?
Politics is all about compromise and tolerance. It takes both sides to keep the political log rolling. Fundamentalism, however, does not function that way. It is all about drawing lines in the sand, refusing negotiation, excluding and anathematizing the opposition. That is why fundamentalism destroys whatever it touches, including democracy. Fundamentalism and tyranny go hand in hand; they are both about control, my way or the highway, fear of dissent. The opposition is demonized, treated with contempt, because dissent and differing points of view represent a threat.
I would add that among the left, a contempt for religion, a disdain for religious values and language, and what is viewed as a pandering to the non-religious segments of society have alienated America’s heartland. Americans are a religious people. That’s what makes us resilient and hard-working. But if conservatives have claim to being a “party of biblical values,” so should liberals. Issues such as racial and economic equality, or caring for the poor, are just as biblical as the rights of the unborn, traditional marriage, or prayer in schools. That certainly used to be the case when, for example, in the wake of the Second Great Awakening, American evangelicals took on the evils of slavery, poverty, child labor, and poor working conditions. If the far-right has now co-opted Christianity, it is because the left has allowed them to do so without even a fight.
It is interesting that what we call Washington’s Farewell Address was probably written in stages by his constitutional adviser James Madison, a protégé of Jefferson, and later Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, both representing the opposing factions. Compared to these men, Washington was no scholar but he certainly must have laid out what he wanted to say; the idea of warning against factions was something he felt deeply and would probably not have originated among the members of the warring factions themselves. Still, he entrusted to these very men the laying out of the case, a task they performed with their usual erudition and skill. Their success is nothing short of ironic, and one wonders what was going through their minds, given the fact that as they wrote it, they were probably already plotting who would succeed him.
We will see within the next year or two whether our Constitution can withstand such a test, or whether Washington’s frightening vision was true, that partisanship just might prove our undoing. Our first President was certainly an idealist, and though he was no friend of factionalism, he admits that political parties are perhaps unavoidable, may even be a necessary evil. What he is appealing to here, however, is what Lincoln would later call “the better angels of our nature,” our love of country. The question still resonates: will we learn to put aside party spirit for the good of the Union, or like a noisy gang of two-year-olds, will we smash it all to pieces if we can’t have our way?
It is a tragedy that the church has nothing to say in this regard. If only the Scriptures had something to contribute on the subject of mutual respect or tolerance, selfish ambition or party spirit, instead of “Shatter the teeth of the wicked, O LORD!” and “Slay mine enemy!”
No doubt about it. We live in a time of partisan division not seen since the Civil War. Just last week, in a spirit of revenge, the GOP-dominated North Carolina state legislature voted to strip the incoming Democratic governor of some of his powers. Throughout this past presidential election cycle, voters were the targets of a relentless, partisan-driven campaign of misinformation. Emails of both parties were also hacked by a foreign power bent on influencing the election. Yet all of these outrageous acts (political revenge, misinformation, and foreign meddling) were foreseen 220 years ago by the Father of our country, George Washington.
In 1796, upon declining a third term, our first President (with the help of Madison and Hamilton, who both at some point had a hand in the writing) issued a bit of parting advice to the fledgling nation. Partisan politics and the evils bred by political parties come under especial condemnation because of their power to destroy a republic. His words now seem tragically prophetic. (Italics mine.)
Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those 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, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), 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, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. 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.
To read the entire “Farewell Address,” click here.