George Washington Warned Us About Political Parties — We Didn’t Listen

Chuckles Freely

With a 3rd term on the horizon, Washington instead chose to recede from public life and to issue a dire warning for his fledgling country.
Washington was so worried about political parties that he dedicated his farewell address to warning us about them(Gilbert Stuart, Public Domain)

It was 1796, a few months before the election, when famed general and US founding father George Washington turned down his chance for a 3rd term at the helm of the executive branch. Before leaving public life to satisfy hisardent wishes to pass through the vale of life in retiremt (sic), undisturbed in the remnant of the days…” (and to avoid opening the door for future presidents’ “concealed ambition”) he published with the help of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison his valediction in the Philadelphia-based newspaper Daily American Advertiser. Almost immediately it was picked-up by every newspaper in the country and then turned into a pamphlet that became more popular than the Declaration of Independence at the time.

Known today as Washington’s Farewell Address, it offers several important lessons for posterity, although we seem to have forgotten or conveniently ignored most of them. When the country was embroiled in civil war in 1862, thousands of Philadelphians petitioned the government to have it read before Congress because they believed it would remind a country tearing itself apart of the importance of unity, although this failed to calm tempers. The Senate has also read Washington’s Farewell address every year on his birthday since 1893, and the House of Representatives read it before each session from 1899 to 1984.

Why? What about this document is so important? And what does it offer us today?

“A Frightful Despotism”

Washington’s most poignant message was the destructive nature of political parties. He witnessed the birth of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party, the country’s first political parties, and he was appalled by their behavior. Led by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists wanted a stronger federal government, centralized banking, strong ties to Britain, and policies that favored the wealthy. The Democratic-Republicans were led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and they favored decentralization in most forms, strong ties with other European powers such as France, and policies that favored the average person, most of whom were farmers. Although Madison and Hamilton had argued against political parties in their seminal Federalist Papers, they became the leaders of the first two.

After watching the two parties battle for influence and positions in the nascent government, Washington had some particularly prescient things to say. He saidThe 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.” In other words, the need to beat the other party makes politics toxic and dysfunctional. Washington also said “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” He means, of course, that party politics leads to politicians lying to their constituents to gain favor.

In the run-up to the 1796 election between Johns Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans engaged in a no-holds-barred war that left Washington questioning the fate of the country. For example, Hamilton and his Federalists founded the Gazette of the United States, a Philadelphia-based newspaper, to push their agenda and slander their opponents. Using the penname “Phocion,” Hamilton published 25 essays to specifically attack Jefferson’s policies and character, such as claiming he was trying to cause a civil war, that he would free the slaves and the country would be overrun, that he didn’t believe in God, and that he was having an affair with a slave, although this actually turned out to be true, as he had fathered children with Sally Hemmings. Jefferson’s supporters were described ascut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.” Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans returned fire by founding their own newspapers and calling Adams “His Rotundity” and “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.” They described Hamilton’s policies as “numerous evils…pregnant with every mischief.

Therefore, when Washington spoke against the ills of political parties he had a lot to base it on, and time has only showed how right he was. Modern American politics is characterized by an almost complete distrust of the other party, as Democrats and Republicans are more divided today than ever before, besides maybe leading up to and during the Civil War. Both sides have their own media that exaggerates, intentionally misinterprets, or flat-out lies about their political opponents. For example, during the 2016 election, more than a few Republicans actually believed the lies that the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was part of an international ring of pedophiles that ran out of pizzerias in Washington DC. It sounds crazy, but people actually believed it.

And modern political parties struggle to even work with the other, regardless of legislation. For example, Senate leader Mitch McConnell saidOne hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration,” referring to Biden administration. He said something similar about the Obama administration: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” His goal was to beat the other party, not find middle ground; to stifle legislation, not govern; and to appear tough to impress his constituents, not solve problems like the Great Recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Therefore, Washington saw this coming. Just by observing the country’s first two-party system, he saw how dysfunctional political parties are and how destructive they are to a democracy. We would be wise to heed his advice to limit their power and return the country to the one Washington fought to create.

“An Artificial and Extraordinary Force”

Washington was also painfully aware that political hostility could easily bubble into violence. For example, the people of Western Massachusetts took up arms against the government in 1786 to protest a new tax. Called Shay’s Rebellion, Shay and 4,000 followers attacked an armory, shut down courts, and engaged federal and state troops for over a year. In 1791, Washington himself rode in front of 13,000 militiamen to quell the Whiskey Rebellion started by distillers in Western Pennsylvania, also over a new tax. It’s also likely that Washington was concerned by the violence of the French Revolution (1789–1799) spilling across the Atlantic, as the Federalists were critical of the revolution and the Democratic-Republicans supported it, causing even more conflict between them.

Naturally, Washington was concerned with keeping the peace, and he saw political parties as a direct threat. He saidIt 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.” He makes it clear that fighting between political parties would lead to hatred, violence, and a subversion of basic democratic principles. He said, “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.”

And this is exactly what the world saw on January 6th, 2021. Political zealots were driven to violence by their party leaders and tried to subvert an election by storming the halls of Congress. In an attempt to remain in power, Donald Trump and his supporters helped organize and incite a riot that left 5 people dead and the country weaker.

“The Insidious Wiles”

Furthermore, Washington sounded the alarm about foreign countries meddling in US politics. He saidAgainst the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” At the time, the US was susceptible to the more powerful European countries, particularly Britain, who schemed to regain influence over the US, leading eventually to the War of 1812.

Washington watched foreign powers use political parties as an inroad. He saidIt opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” He knew that by playing one political party against the other, foreign powers directly manipulated the people and the government.

This is the exact strategy Russia used in 2016. Literally every US intelligence agency agrees that Russia unleashed a massive disinformation campaign to help Trump win in 2016, and many Republicans believed the lies, as they took advantage of their hatred for their political opponents. It’s also the strategy Russia used in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and other former Soviet countries to help install pro-Russian politicians and sow discord, such as spreading conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines.

“Inseparable From Our Nature”

Washington understood that political parties were a manifestation of our natural tendency to form groups. He saidThis spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind,” but he knew they needed to be “more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed” for the country to survive. He believed so passionately that political parties were a major threat to the country that he dedicated the majority of his farewell address to warning future generations about them.

Did we listen? Of course not. Modern US politics has become a cesspool of petty arguing, lying, misinformation, and hatred, and it’s getting worse. We would all benefit if people took a deep breath, calmed down, and listened what the “Father of the Nation” had to say about political parties.

Originally published at on August 12, 2021.

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Politics and science writer at The Happy Neuron

New York, NY

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