Are Political Parties Necessary?

Famously, George Washington warned against the evils of Faction as the destroyer of republics.  What he called Faction we call political parties. Historians explain the changes in American politics from 1789 to the election of 1800 in terms of a struggle between two opposing factions they call the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists who morphed into the Democratic Republicans.  These were loosely organized factions of diverse individual politicians of constantly shifting loyalty to one loosely organized cabal or another. They were not organized political parties in any meaningful modern sense of the term. The first organization in America resembling an organized political party was the Sons of Liberty, which created the American Revolution.  All of these men knew exactly what Washington meant when he spoke of Faction.

 

He meant an organized conspiracy to over throw the state or, at the very least, to capture the state, or the government.  The Anti-Federalists were not a well organized faction. They were a group of local politicians with a particular point of view and certain goals in common. After Jefferson returned as ambassador to France to accept the post of the first Secretary of State that was the beginning of an organized faction.

 

Jefferson never concealed his sympathy with the French Revolution, even at its most extreme and violent, likely because he sympathized with the publicly stated goals.  His replacement in France was horrified by the violence of the Terror, the mass executions, to the point that he let Tom Paine rot in a French prison. It is somewhat of a mystery how Paine escaped the guillotine but likely involved the intervention of Lafayette, who was an associate of Ben Franklin.  The Federalists were basic conservatives of John Locke’s theory of government in line with the thinking of John Adams.

 

Take note that Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were the committee that authored the Declaration of Independence, but Jefferson gets credit for the term “pursuit of happiness”.  Adams would have likely simply used the traditional term, property. Franklin is the wild card here. He presented himself as a conservative but was thought to be a libertine and a Jacobin (the Illuminati related secrete society behind the French Revolution who tried to play the role of Party within the Party.)  Jefferson was more of a political opportunist. He supported the Constitution which was largely written by his friend, James Madison, who succeeded him as President in 1808. He may have been miffed that they pulled off the Constitutional Convention without his input while he was out of the country, but he took the job as Secretary of State.

 

George Washington was the archetypal trusting conservative.  He did not seek to become the king, as the subversive French financed press who backed Jefferson’s ambitions claimed. He expected his cabinet to serve as loyal gentlemen. His entire Revolutionary career was marked by caution. In 1775 he cautiously avoided destroying the British Army and fleet in Boston by the use of red hot cannon balls to destroy them as they evacuated, famously stating that he was not fighting a war to destroy property, but to save it. He knew that such a bombardment would burn down Boston. Most of his war was thereafter a series of strategic retreats to save his army until he victory at the siege of Yorktown.  He was neither a war monger nor an ambitious political power monger.

 

If you doubt my claim that the Sons of Liberty was the first American political party, consider the fact that most of the troops which the British actually committed to battle after their disastrous surrender at Saratoga were American loyalists trained by the British, armed by the British, and paid in British silver shillings.  The Loyalists constituted the other party. In South Carolina the Patriot militia at Kings Mountain wiped out a small army of well trained and equipped Loyalists and the only British soldier present at the battle was Patrick Ferguson their commander. Next, with Continental reinforcements they wiped out another small army of mostly Loyalists and some Highlanders at Cowpens. Cornwallis’s fated march to Virginia, short on supplies and troops might have been doomed but the final outcome was further insured by the forced withdrawal of the Southern Army of mostly provincials at the second battle of Camden to their base in Charleston.  From then on the British were confined to coastal enclaves. The Loyalist faction lost the war and was abandoned to their fate, many evacuating to Canada and Bermuda.

 

Washington understood well the power of Faction and warned Adams to be on guard against it, but they did not know the lengths Jefferson was willing to go to to stab him in the back. It took decades for them to forgive and make friends again.  Jefferson accepted the collaboration of French Jacobins (whose goal was to bring America into a war on France’s side against Britain) in a smear campaign against the Federalists. Remember, Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison were all originally Federalists, and founders of the new Constitutional system.  

 

The so called High Federalist, the political ringleaders opposed to Jefferson, led by Alexander Hamilton, never knew what hit them.  The hate propaganda reached such extremes that in one case Richard Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father, was almost killed by an angry mob screaming at him that that he was a Tory, the name for loyalists during the Revolution, while defending a friend’s printing press in Baltimor. Does that sound familiar? Now they scream Fascist.

 

Historians white wash those events as an early party struggle and generally side with Jefferson, because he was the Leftist in that scenario.  It was only a party struggle in the most general sense. It was a factional power grab with a vague ideological veneer that appealed to the less educated.  These early parties were loosely organized electioneering factions not mass movements of organized citizens in the modern meaning. Organized mass parties can not correctly be said to exist until they created ideologically explicit nominating conventions.

 

Convention was a very significant term.  It was the Constitutional Convention that overthrew the Articles of Confederation.  Calling their party to meet as a convention was an intentional provocative use of the term to lend weight to their deliberations.  That was the Faction Washington warned against. The purpose of the party convention was explicitly to conspire publicly to capture the power of the government. After several failed mass movements each with its own conventions, from the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, the American Party, the various Southern agricultural conventions, the Republican Party was created. It successfully captured the government and the War Between The States ensued.  Washington was right.

 

About Steven Vandervelde

Science fiction writer.
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