"I have already intimated to you the danger of
Parties in the State, with particular reference
to the founding of them on Geographical
discriminations. Let me now take a more
comprehensive view, & warn you in the most
solemn manner against the baneful effects of
the Spirit of Party, generally."
-Farewell Address of 1796
In his last action as the first President of the United States of America, George Washington wrote a Farewell Address that he hoped would act as a warning to a fledgling nation. He used this address as an opportunity to describe to the nation what he thought the effects of forming political parties would be on the democratic process, in addition to defining his vision for American foreign policy for decades to come. By devoting so much of his last address as President to the subject of parties Washington, who to this day is still considered one of the most influential Presidents in our nation's history in addition to being the only President in our nation's history who was not a member of a political party, was sending a clear message to those who would succeed him to avoid the establishment of these powerful political organizations. But, despite Washington's strong warnings against the establishment of political parties two factions began to take hold during his eight years as President. The Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and the Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson were beginning to create a divide through the political landscape of the late 1700s. By making his views on parties so widely available, Washington hoped that just as his decision to hold the office of President for only two terms set a precedent for future leaders of the nation he would set another political precedent by warning Americans against the establishment of such political factions.
It was Washington's fear that by their very nature parties would be counter-beneficial to the democratic process. And, that as these groups evolve they would begin to invest all their powers into establishing one individual as their leader, and that this leader will eventually ignore or circumvent the ideals and principles of a democratic society for their own purposes. Washington was afraid that the exclusivity of political parties would not only limit who would run for office, but also who would run the parties themselves,
"The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline
the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute
power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of
some prevailing faction more able or fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty."
-Farewell Address of 1796
That the hierarchies within these factions would begin to become so obsessed and pre-occupied by the agendas of their parties that they would inevitably lose touch with the public, and cease to reflect the interests of those whom they were elected to represent, was a huge concern of Washington's. These despotic groups could then be more closely related to the tyrannical government that we fought against during the revolution than a government of the people.
As was true of many of the American Patriots of the time, Washington felt that it was the people who make up the fourth and most important check and balance on American government. He also believed that it is their inherent duty to maintain that power,
"The very idea of the power and the right of the
People to establish Government presupposes the
duty of every individual to obey the established Government."
-Farewell Address of 1796
By allowing these organizations to gain influence, under the auspice of uniting the people's powers, they would in fact subvert that power in an effort to extend their own authority over the people; which in turn would then eliminate the people's ability to effectively rule their rulers. They in turn have the opposite effect and divide the people into separate camps that inevitably oppose one another. In the late 1800s Lord Acton, an English historian, wrote, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely." This seems especially relevant to Washington's fears of what would happen with the development of political parties. Throughout their histories the members of these groups have been involved in scandals that have plagued these political factions almost from their beginnings, and these scandals continue to today's current political party members. So secure in their hold on power over the American political process, that today's politicians from both major parties are constantly having to reassure the nation's citizens that the system is still functioning as it was intended and, "that the government is not for sale," as Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fischer recently asserted in response to the latest federal scandal.
Washington strongly believed in the principles of a government governed by the people, and he used his last address as the President of the United States as a way of detailing the dangers facing the young American political process. This is not to say that Washington was without his flaws he, like many of his contemporary countrymen, was a slave owner. It was partially because of this personal flaw that he knew that the Republic would not always be perfect, and he believed that the people would adjust the system by adding new amendments to the Constitution to bring up-to-date. It was his fear however that the establishment of political parties would divide the American People and fracture the young nation. As the first President of the United States, and the so-called "Father of his Country," Washington was very conscious of the impact that his actions would have as leader of this young nation, and hoped that his warnings would leave lasting impressions on his fellow citizens. Washington's greatest fear, for the young nation, was that by institutionalizing the government within these powerful factions the people would lose their ability to police their government; and in doing so a "Culture of Corruption" would develop that would destroy the foundation of the Democratic society that so many have died to construct.