Anti-Partisan Original Intent

I was reading the introduction to The Invention of Party Politics by Gerald Leonard. The beginning comments caught my attention (Kindle Locations 62-65):

“This is a book about political parties and the American Constitution between the founding of the United States and the Second Party System of the 1840s and 1850s. In those years, and especially between 1820 and 1840, the idea and fact of party organization gained a preeminent place in the American constitutional order, even though the Constitution itself had been designed as a “Constitution against parties.”*”

(* From Idea of a Party System by Richard Hofstadter)

I knew many of the Founders saw party politics as a danger. This went along with the perceived threats of political factionalism and regional/state sectionalism. Unity was the watchword of those early Americans. They were seeking to create a United States, a radical vision. Not a nation-state and not just what the Articles of Confederation proposed. Plural states, but united, tied together with common cause and purpose. A Union.

As George Washington famously explained in his farewell address,

“In contemplating the causes, which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern, that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by Geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavour to excite a belief, that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

His warning was that parties would lead to ruling elites who served their own interests rather than the country.

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.”

It wasn’t just a complaint about the practical running of government. Rather, it was a conflict of visions. The vision of Union was in direct contradiction to the vision of partisanship. For parties to form meant the revolutionary spirit to have been defeated, the entire reason and justification for the founding of the United States.

“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, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.”

Washington goes into more detail, but you get the basic idea. The guy saw political parties as one of the greatest threats to a free country and to all who value liberty. Those are strong words for the first president who wasn’t known for stating anything strongly. He decided to make almost his entire farewell address about this single warning. We should take this as seriously as we take Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the Military-Industrial Complex.

To return to The Invention of Party Politics, the author continues with some thoughts on the Constitution:

“In all the massive literature on American political history in that period, however, there was little indication of what I have since come to understand: that the early history of party is best understood within the history of the Constitution, just as the history of the Constitution is best understood within the history of party development.”

It is good to keep in mind that the Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation. The early Confederation was too weak and so the vision of Union took form, but the idea of a Union was a guiding vision from before the Constitutional Convention. There was disagreement about the exact relationship between the states and yet there was much agreement that the states needed a shared system of politics, of laws, of economics, and more importantly of values.

However, that vision of a fully united Union didn’t last. Understanding that change is what this book is about. Also, it is about understanding why the founders fought so hard for a new vision of a non-partisan society.

“In the nineteenth century, the mass political party dominated American politics and, in fact, came to be the defining institution of modern “democracy,” a status it still enjoys (perhaps in tandem with the market economy). Yet thousands of years of prior human history had yielded practically no efforts to justify party organization or institutionalized opposition. Virtually every political thinker before the nineteenth century condemned “formed opposition” as destructive of the public good and fatal to public peace. The freedom of individuals to express dissent might sometimes be celebrated, but the organization of a political club in continuing opposition to the policies of the government— perhaps even conceiving of itself as a potential replacement for those currently in power—smacked more of conspiracy and treason than of healthy political competition . In the early nineteenth century, however, all that changed. Americans embraced mass party organization, and politics and governance were altered forever. Eventually, this embrace of party became a commitment to a “party system”— an enduring competition between democratic parties within a basic constitutional consensus, expecting to exchange power and office in indefinitely long cycles 2 —as the sine qua non of democracy in America and much of the world.” (Kindle Locations 66-78).

The American Civil War is a clear example of what Washington had warned about. We shouldn’t get too comfortable about our party system. And we shouldn’t be so naive as to think another civil war will never happen.

I want to end on a different note, though. Those on the political right often speak of original intent, specifically in terms of the Constitution. I just want to point out that any person in a political party (including the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party) who makes any argument about originalism, any such person is being blatantly hypocritical.

Of course, hypocrisy is part of the US political tradition going back to the Founders. Still, I doubt conservatives and right-wingers are basing their originalist defense on the standard of hypocrisy. Or maybe they are.

I find myself going back to that early period of American and Western history. The groundwork of principles and values were laid for modern democracy. Yet we don’t take those principles and values as seriously as we should. They are hard to live by and live up to, as the Founders quickly discovered.

I feel a desire to make my own defense of original intent about the entire early modern revolutionary era and the entire Enlightenment Age. I wish to defend the radical visions that transformed the Western world. Many of those early radicals didn’t fall into hypocrisy. Those are the people upon which I wish to base my own originalism.

Maybe it is time for us to revisit those radical ideas and visions. Maybe we took the wrong path somewhere along the way. Let us retrace our steps and rediscover the forks in the road that could have taken our society in other directions. Maybe party politics is a dead end, after all.