What is interesting about studying political parties is that there are no founding documents that set rules for how they behave or what their function should be.
For most political issues, I like to start with the U.S. Constitution.
While there are disagreements over interpretation, there is at least something written that we can try to understand. Yet interesting enough there is nothing about parties in the Constitution; America’s founding document is completely silent on the subject.
The best example of the founders’ lack of forethought in the creation of parties is how the president was chosen. According to the Constitution, “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons… The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President…In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.”
In other words, whoever wins the Electoral College is president and second place is vice president. If we still operated under this system, our current president would be Joe Biden and our vice president would be Donald Trump. Can you imagine how this would work today? Well, it did not work back then either. While there were no parties in the very beginning, by the third election in 1796 the Federalist candidate won the presidency, and the Democratic Republican candidate became vice president. It worked about as well as a Biden/Trump presidency would work today. And so, in 1804, the 12th Amendment changed voting procedures to the current system. It’s not that the founders could not envision political parties when they wrote the Constitution — they did. It’s that they hoped the new nation could rise above them and overcome their differences.
Many of the founders were fans of the political philosopher Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. Lord Bolingbroke, writing in England, pushed the idea of a “Patriot King,” a man who could stand above the political factions in Britain at the time and consider the people’s needs first. The founders hoped to model the American president along this line — a man not swayed by factions (an early word for parties) but someone who was above and represented the people. They wanted leaders who put the welfare of the people and the nation above his own. The problem with parties, the Founders believed, is that they value the party above the nation.
I heard Democratic leaders in 2016 and Republican ones in 2020 say they hoped the economy would sour so they could take back the presidency in the next election. Think about that. Actually hoping bad things would happen to the U.S. economy so their party could win the next election. This was the founders’ fear of factions in a nutshell: they would rather see the nation struggle under the other party’s leadership than be successful. A party cares more about the party than the nation. The founders knew this.
John Adams once wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” James Madison in Federalists No. 10 wrote, “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” While both these men would succumb to the intoxicating pull of parties, the one who always stood above them and made it the subject of his final thoughts to the nation was George Washington.
When Washington decided to step down after two terms, one of his fears was the nation’s political divide. During his tenure there were already the beginnings of a fracture, but as long as he was at the helm, he could keep them at bay.
Deciding not to run again, Washington’s Farewell Address, though mostly penned by Hamilton, warned of the two major issues the first president feared: One was getting involved in foreign affairs and the other was parties. Washington wrote, “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discrimination. 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.”
While all the founders saw parties as evil, they quickly became a necessary one as the two sides began to organize even while continuing to denounce them at their party meetings.
James Finck, Ph.D. is a professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He can be reached at HistoricallySpeaking1776@ gmail.com.