FIFTH LETTER ON PARTIES. Addressed to the People of the State of New-York. March 24, 1795
IN my last address, I entered into some theoretic and practical definitions in order to present to your eye a precise and distinct image of the subject which I have undertaken to examine. By pursuing the spirit of party itself, in its operations, we are best enabled to judge its effects.
I have stated, that the species of parties most natural to a regular and free government, is the mixed species; inclining indeed, in its temper and complexion either to the real or to the personal, according to the circumstances connected with the spirit of the laws or the habits of the people. In this view of the subject, therefore, my remarks will principally proceed.
In attempting to shew that the prevalence of party spirit is inconsistent with the true interests of society, we labour under the difficulty, which embarrasses us, when we apply the reasoning power to subjects of universal and sensible impression. The illustrations of argument seem almost thrown away, when they simply accord with the perceptions of the senses. Those have little need to be convinced, who forcibly feel. The unhappy effects of party spirit are strongly visible: they stand contest: they are evidenced in the complaints of all virtuous men; in the forced acknowledgment of those who labour to support and perpetuate the party system. Mere assertions and simple descriptions of the evil influence of faction meet a ready assent in the silent and painful consciousness of the sufferers: but silent complaints do not produce reform. The suggestions of the press are re-echoed by the murmurs of the people; still faction triumphs over their best impressions, and holds them fast in her magic circle. Under this view of the futility of flight and superficial applications to a wound so so deep, I commenced the present enquiry; and this shall be my apology for pursuing it so extensively. I expect no positive or final success from a single effort: but my ambition would be, to open the field of fair examination, and to excite a spirit of general enquiry; in order, that our ideas and views may assume a consistent and embodied form, and that we may be enabled thereby to make the more vigorous and decisive exertions.
Let us proceed to shew that prevalence of party spirit is inconsistent with the dearest interests of society.
In the first place, party spirit is incompatible with some of the essential principles of republican government:–One of these principles is, that all shall be subject to the controul of general, standing laws, and nothing to the occasional impulses of arbitrary will. Without this principle free states could not exist. The people, even in small societies, if governed by their own arbitrary will, would soon destroy their own liberty. Law, which is but the expression of the steady will of the people, is the only power which can protect them. They cannot rely upon expedients, for they have neither the capacity to judge, nor the power to apdly them: Their safety and welfare will be in proportion to the extensive and equal operation, and to the permanency of the laws. Two objects, therefore, are of high importance; that the laws should be a just and faithful expression of the public will; and that they should be permanent and steady in their operation. This joint principle forms the perfect union of liberty and order:–it is the secret of an everlasting republic.
Again, it should be a main design in fundamental institutions, to provide that the public will shall be consonant to the dictates of sound reason, as well as that it shall be truly and faithfully expressed in the councils of government. But how shall the public will be agreeable to reason, when the public mind is under strong impulses of passion and prejudice? Reason forms just estimates of our substantial interests, by a comparative and calm survey of objects, with all their attendant circumstances. Passion creates deceitful visions, and imposes false estimates, by confining us to single objects and to single points of view.–Reason binds us to the society, by shewing us the strong relations between our interests, and those of our country: Passion divides us from it by obscuring those relations. In a state of moderation and peace, reason always assume her high controul; passion always triumphs in times of faction and dissention. There is only one case in which a state of violence induces a sacrifice of partial to general interest: it is the case of external war. War involves our partial and joint interests in one common danger. Such a sacrifice is natural. But the tendency of party spirit, is the very reverse. Id party dissentions, to support the partial interest is the very object of the violent operation. Faction nourishes a selfishness of the worst kind, a selfishness founded upon malignant passions.
It follows form these considerations, that while party spirit prevails, the general will of the people, venerable as it is, can rarely endure wisdom, purity and justice in the public administration.
Another great enquiry is, how shall the public will be ascertained and collected? This is one of the most difficult, as well as most important operations, in government. It is not a mere matter of mechanical skill—Much will depend upon the temper and habits of the people. Wise legislators, when have provided, in the structure of the system, the most sure and convenient channels, thro’ which to convey the sovereign will of the people have done but half their work: a greater and nobler effort of genius is to provide in the same system, a principle of re-action and moral influence upon the people themselves, in order to form and model that will, according to the eternal laws of virtue. This may indeed be in part accomplished by a mechanical operation. For example, one of the highest improvements in constitutional theory, is to divide a state into small districts for the purposes of election: But what constitutes the merit of this principle? chiefly its tendency to exclude or check party spirit. Faction delights in large combinations under a singular form; in setting a mass of people in motion: in drawing a thousand points of excitability to the touch of contagion: It derives its first infantine nourishment from the more domestic relations; but as the monster arrives to a more vigorous growth it requires a stronger ailment, the product of a wider harvest. A favorite object of great legislators has ever been to guard against the dreadful evils of party-spirit. To this end, they have by every possible means, calculated their institutions to promote equality and independence among the people; to exclude corrupt influence; to temper the passions and to improve their habits, by educating them in the moral school of the laws.
But to recur to the question, how shall the general will of the people be collected? It can be done only in times of moderation and peace: or in particular moments, when they are subject to some universal impression of common danger, or labor under some palpable oppression.—-The will of the people to be just, must be general, the result of natural impression and calm reflection. When parties prevail, the general good of the whole society, is out of fight, for this one melancholy reason, among many others; a measure of universal utility must embrace both parties in the circle of its benefits; is totally inconsistent with that spirit of rancor and hatred, which possesses the breasts of both. So deadly is this spirit, that an established faction will freely sacrifice the personal advantages and enjoyments of the individuals who compose it, in order to involve its enemy in the same sacrifice.–This is indeed a strong position, but I ask ask and the supporters of the party system will answer me in the triumph of conscious rectitude, or with the blush of guilty regret, if they have never advocated measures inconsistent with the general good of the people, because such measures were necessary to enable one half of the community to gain a victory over the other; if they have never opposed a measure of obvious utility, because their political adversaries would participate in its benefits.—True; the party leaders are ready on all occasions to hold out to the view and embraces of their deluded followers,–an image which they call the public good; it is the standard, round which to rally.–But it is in truth an empty phantom, compounded of mischief and error—the eye of reason looks thro’ it, and sees the wicked mechanism of sorcery under its gaudy garb. The public good and the interest of a faction, let that faction appear in what shape it will, are totally incompatible.–The public good excludes the idea of a partial interest, and with a partial interest a faction cannot exist.
When a community is split into two great divisions, which is the actual state of things to which the party spirit system inclines, the public good is a subject justly understood by those calm and philosophical patriots alone, who, retiring from the scene of dissention, are equally freed from the influence of passion and the stimulus of interest. But in such a state, what is called the will of the people is a mere fiction. The true will of the people must approach unanimity: it must accord with their true interests, which are always too general, comprehensive and indefinite to be confined to any distinct portion of the community. It will avail nothing to say, that the will of the people is determined by the voice of a majority.–It is an outrage upon our common understanding and feelings. That a majority should govern is a rule founded on dire necessity; and where does this necessity arise? from party spirit. Look into all legislative bodies, at a period when parties run high, do you not see all questions of public policy, tho’ never so various, tho’ ever so simple, tho’ ever so momentous, discussed in the tone of hostility, by parties disciplined, officered and draw out in martial array? Do you not see these rival armies generally well matched in numbers, in prowess, and skill? Do you not see victory often determined by the treachery of a leader, the loss of a man, or the capture of a post? What is the process of collecting the public mind, under this corrupt system, but a method of recruiting for the field? What is legislating by bare majorities but tyranny and usurpation?–It is only a means for one half of the state to triumph over and oppress the other. If it becomes the established system, it is not to be endured: It becomes an outrageous and habitual sacrifice of the natural interests of the people to artificial objects with they have no concern.
The only remedy for this great evil is the extinction of party spirit.
Again, the measures of government, in order to express the true will of the people, must be uniform; for the interests of the people are uniform: they rest on principles and circumstances which are subject to a few changes. But, where a state is rent into two factions, the public measures will fluctuate with the slightest accidents, with the occasional variations in the success of the several parties: instead of being safe and permanent, they are exposed to all the risks and casualties of the ocean and the enemy; today a system is established, to which the habits of the people may assimilate, under which, however vicious it may be, they may find protection, if not felicity: to-morrow, it is levelled to the ground by a single vote. At one moment a measure of general public policy is adopted, as just and necessary; at another, it is condemned as dangerous and absurd. Can this be the will of the people? No! it is the will of a rival power; a power unrecognized by the principles of a free state, and unknown to the constitution and laws.
It appears then, my fellow-citizens, that wherever party spirit prevails, the measures of government can never be uniform and steady; can never represent fairly the national interest, nor express truly the national will—it appears then, that the operation of party spirit is directly repugnant to the operation of the law, which delights in diffusing equal and universal benefits, and abhors uncertainty, partiality and a fluctuating policy. It appears in fine, that the spirit of party is the most bitter and dangerous enemy to the principles of republican government.
I shall pursue this branch of the enquiry in a subsequent letter.
© Gunston Nutbush Hall 2021, Reprinted and Republished for the internet by Gunston Nutbush Hall, Editor & Publisher, Watchmen Gazette