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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/7789/washingtons-wisdom-on-factions/

Washington’s Wisdom on Factions

February 15, 2008 by

Americans have given up celebrating George Washington’s birthday in exchange for a 3-day weekend. The price includes overlooking the wisdom he has to offer us. That is particularly unfortunate at a time of intense political partisanship, illustrated by the Presidential campaigns, because he had plenty to say about such factionalism. The danger of factions to American liberty was a major part of his 1796 Farewell Address.

Washington offered ‘sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.’ In particular, he insisted that we keep ‘indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest … ‘


‘One of the expedients of party to acquire influence…is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s]. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.’

‘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 … 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 the common counsels and modified by mutual interests.’

‘Liberty … is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction … and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyments of the rights of person and property.’

‘Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party … in [governments] 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 … is itself a frightful despotism … 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 …

‘[faction] is a spirit not to be encouraged … 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.’

Americans, especially politicians, seem to have forgotten George Washington’s warning of how strongly factions undermine ‘the benign influence of good laws under a free government.’ But we need to aim for the higher standard he called us to: ‘It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.’ It is particularly important because, as he said elsewhere, ‘preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.’

Many have abandoned even the pretense of following the principles of the man our Capitol is named for. Those principles, together with his actions in defending our freedoms and forming our country, are central reasons why he was ‘First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’ One of those principles was avoiding the disunity of factions, which pose serious risks to our liberty. Instead of overlooking his insights in pursuit of factional advantages, we need to live up to Washington’s assertion that ‘Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.’

{ 8 comments }

P.M.Lawrence February 16, 2008 at 2:00 am

Washington calling for “indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest … ” is sheer chutzpah. That is just precisely what he and his crew had so recently done in massacring or exiling so many of his countrymen who merely would not join them – never mind resist them – and forcing the remainder to lie low until they faded away (some in upstate New York were still secretly toasting the King as late as the 1830s, and as late as the 20th century enough family tradition still continued that an upstate New York family could christen their son, later a famous ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson). And please don’t try to rebut that with any variation of the “no true Scotsman” argument; even if true, it would also undercut Washington’s argument here.

fundamentalist February 16, 2008 at 11:03 am

PM Lawrence: “Washington calling for “indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest … ” is sheer chutzpah.”

I suppose you take great pride in thinking you have caught the great Washington in an exhibition of hypocracy, but you’ve done nothing but violate the principles of honest interpretation. Washington clearly didn’t intend his call to apply to criminals or traitors. The nation must alienate them in order to survive.

Washington demonstrated extraordinary wisdom in his leadership and organization of the federal government and the world rightfully acknowledges that in viewing him as the greatest US president of all time. However, there is a serious problem with such great wisdom: wisdom requires wisdom in others in order for it to be recognized. It takes one to know one. People lacking in wisdom look at the wisdom of people like Washington and see foolishness, or power grabbing, or other devious motives, but not wisdom.

P.M.Lawrence February 17, 2008 at 3:13 am

What “criminals or traitors”, except by defining them as such for not supporting the rebels? If that is to be allowed, the rest of Washington’s call is empty, because you can define the people you want to marginalise as “not really Americans” – it’s the “no true Scotsman” argument, just as I said.

Joseph Huang February 17, 2008 at 11:13 am
  • it takes wisdom to recognize wisdom
  • Washington has wisdom
  • anyone who doesn’t believe in Washington has no wisdom.
  • okay, now let’s see if this logic is valid.

  • it takes wisdom to recognize wisdom
  • Washington has no wisdom
  • anyone who believes in Washington has no wisdom.
  • Joseph Huang February 17, 2008 at 11:22 am

    besides, that’s an ad hominem attack. whether i have wisdom or not has no bearing on whether Washington has wisdom. that’s just shooting the messenger.

    DickF February 18, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    When we consider factions in politics it is not best to look to Washington who spoke to the ideal that never was and never has been. We are better served to consider Madison in Federalist 10 where he recognizes that we will always have factions, Austrians v Keynesians, Chevy lovers v Ford Lovers, imports v exports, you name it. Madison cautions not against factions but against the accumulation of power by factions that allows them to rule over others. Only by the dissemination of power over the broadest possible base will we control factions. Democracy has power not because of the wisdom of crowds but because of the dissemination of power.

    Jdack March 26, 2008 at 1:44 am

    “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand”

    Mark 3:25

    are we not a divided house at this point of political term-oil?

    Gregg Frazer May 9, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Washington neither “massacred” any of his countrymen nor countenanced such an action. If the reference is to the atrocities which occurred in the southern states during the Revolution, that was an internal matter and done without Washington’s order or approval.

    Madison DID caution against factions in Federalist #10. He defined them as being “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He then spoke of the “mischiefs of faction,” but said that we cannot eliminate faction, so the best we can do is to control its effects. In short, he cautions against factions AND against accumulation of power by any one faction.

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