George Washington: Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy.”

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(Click here if you missed Part 5.)

I was going to take excerpts from President Washington’s farewell address to draft my next post on partisanship, extremism and civility.  But first,  the full text of Washington’s warning ought to stand alone.

“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State… 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….”

George Washington, from the Farewell Address, Sept. 19, 1796 in: The Writings of George Washington, pp. 969-71 (Library of America ed. 1997)

For the next post, click: Part 7: Extremism to Civility: Post-Partisan America.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Scott Rizzo says:

    Hei John,

    Great ideas from great men. Its good to know and share this. Thanks for taking time to develop it and post it.


  2. John says:

    Hi Scott! Great to hear from you! Thanks. I saw a star light up in Finland on the map and thought it was you. I’ve got one on this theme I want to get out today. All of these posts are forming the backbone of the book I’m getting out before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

    How’s life these days? Drop me an e-mail wen you get a chance.



  3. We need more articles like this waking people up to the destructiveness of partisanship. The propaganda machines are well oiled in our society and few are immune to their effect. I have a website devoted to this problem– We need a grassroots effort to educate people on the destructiveness of partisanship. The political parties and media are invested in having it continue. It is up to us. Thanks for the thoughts.

  4. John says:

    Thanks Jim. And congratulations on your thoughtful and important site! Good luck with your efforts. The country needs it!

  5. Mary Rose van Kesteren says:

    Phenomenal thought provoking. Will certainly use this material for Junior Youth and Mums Inspiring conversations.

  6. Thanks Mary Rose. Be sure to read the preceding and subsequent posts as well as they elaborate on these points in ways relevant today.

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