FOURTH LETTER ON PARTIES. Addressed to the People of the State of New-York. March 14, 1795
An eminent writer, in treating upon the subject of PARTIES, has divided them into two kinds–REAL and PERSONAL: defining personal factions to be, such as are founded on personal friendship, or animosity among those who compose the factions; and real, such as proceed from some real difference of sentiment or interest. The division is an obvious one, and is perhaps more accurate than the definition itself which follows it. Personal factions may comprehend all those, which have for their object the interest, elevation or support of one individual, of one family, class or clan, in opposition to another—real factions comprise all such as pursue or profess to pursue the public good, but differ and divide, as to the means of accomplishing it.–these several kinds, however, are rarely found pure and unmixed. A variety of causes, necessarily connected with the factious system, and which I shall notice in the sequel, contribute to blend, transpose and even to transform them. Personal parties, in their original state, are less common in free governments, because the very principle of them is inconsistent with the general level of the system, and with the spirit of private sacrifice to the public welfare, which prevails in republics. They are found in a rude state of society, where the range of the human mind is limited; where the social affections have few objects, but strong impulses; where general policy is unknown, and public order arises from sentiment, rather than from the rules of art, or the calculations of knowledge: They are found, in their highest vigor, in governments somewhat advanced in refinement and extent, where the affections are formed into habitual prejudices, and the leader or chief has become powerful in the number of his followers, and in the strength of opinion: They are found, lastly, in all governments, in which the march of liberty has been commenced, and in which the privileged orders to being to feel her warm and withering approach. As the light of science advances personal factions assume the exterior garb and complexion of real; and veil their corrupt principles, by cunningly devised pretences of the public interest. Thus, in mixed governments, factions, tired of contending for their rival interests, fatigued with mutual exertions, and fated with the the effusion of human blood, settle at last into a mutual accommodation. A general interest arises–under the mantle of public interest, all the parties assemble, to talk of the welfare of their country, and to pursue, in secret, their own factious views.–This is what is called the balance of government: an artificial state of things supported by strong attractions and violent repulsions.–But the people at length obtain the habit of cherishing this creature of necessity and terror. Theorists and philosophers arise to comment on its excellencies, and to search thro’ the system of nature, for principles by which to test its value.–They even propose it as an original model for imitation, and labor to transplant its fantastic roots into the soil of nature and freedom.
The natural process of parties is, in the manner I have described, from
personal to real: For as the people become enlightened, ambitious men are induced to court their aid by pursuing or professing the public interest: As the public interest becomes extensive and complex, more objects arise from the exertions of the faculties, and as the field of industry and emulation enlarges, numbers engage, who have no other personal pretensions, but such as genius and zeal may give them. Thus the national welfare becomes a great study;–Violent attachments and superstition, veneration for individuals lose their force, as science and equality advance and not men but measures are the object of general attention. This is the theoretic state of parties in most republics. But unfortunately the different views, which the people naturally or occasionally entertain of their common interests, are converted into irreconcileable divisions, by the ambition and animosity of their leaders: for it will be noticed, that tho’ the warm affections which are found, in an early state of society, to subsist between the people and their chiefs, are reduced, as society extends and refines; yet the principle of animosity between the rival chiefs themselves remains in full vigor: It happens from the same cause therefore, that the natural tendency of parties in free states, is to resolve into the Real or parties from principle; yet the Personal or parties from sentiment and affection, always prevail while the community is in an agitated state; sometimes acting the disguise, and sometimes following the train of the former. Thus in the most refined state of national existence, while dissentions ferment in the political body, Personal faction recovers much of its original force: The people are taught to behold, with awe and admiration or with horror and hatred, the persons of individuals whom accident or influence, or their own free suffrages may have raised to official dignity–the merit or odium of measures, to which numerous unseen causes may, have contributed, is imputed solely to them; and the whole system of human policy is supported to depend on a single man. This has been the error of modern republics; perhaps it is gaining ground in our own.
Personal factions have made the greater figure in history, and have been more extensive, inveterate and destructive in their progress; for obvious reason: In much larger portion of history, the people are found to be, not the leaders; but the blind submissive followers, in all public operations: their general interest has not been the object of regard:–Not principles, but custom has been consulted; not reason, but ancient error has borne the sway: –Nothing has been held out to enquiry; but everything imposed upon belief. Such factions, therefore, have commonly proceeded as far as personal ambition, stimulated by revenge, and aided by military power, could go: whereas factions purely real sometimes furnish a cure for the disease they create, by holding up the public interest to view and promoting discussion. For altho’ faction always misrepresents; yet an enlightened people, when public questions are circulating, have a change to arrive, by the common force of their faculties, to some conclusions that are valuable and true.
Were it not for the natural tendency, in real factions; to receive a mixture of the personal; the last circumstance I have mentioned might be admitted in some degree to qualify our reasonings. Parties purely from principle cannot long subsist. Experiment and knowledge, the great remedy from speculative divisions and disorders, will in time root them out. It is the common policy of men interested in maintaining the party system to check the spirit of speculative enquiry, by exciting the personal affections or jealousies of the people.
The natural, established species of parties, in modern republics like our own, is the mixed species; varying, in respect to the predominance of one kind or the other, according to many circumstances connected with the frame of government, the distributions of wealth, the general diffusion of knowledge, and the moral habits of the people. It is not expected that in a free and regular governments; at this enlightened day, the reign of party spirit, in the mixed form, will ever hurry the people to such outrageous excesses, as have marked the history of personal factions in early times. The progress of commerce, popular independence, equality and knowledge, it is hoped, will prevent the dreadful crisis. But there is an extensive mass of evil both political and moral, which the despotism of faction has a direct tendency to entail upon a nation, and under which an enlightened people may suffer, for ages, without absolutely hazarding the extreme convulsions of civil war. The influence of this spirit is less obvious to common observation; because more silent and diffusible in its embrace. The monster rarely rushes to the front of the stage, brandishing his bloody arm over the affrighted crowd; but he wanders behind the scenes, presents his dark lantern, aims the assassinating dagger, cuts the sinews of public confidence, and poisons the fountain of social life.
© Gunston Nutbush Hall 2021, Reprinted and Republished for the internet by Gunston Nutbush Hall, Editor & Publisher, Watchmen Gazette