SEVENTH LETTER ON PARTIES. Addressed to the People of the State of New-York. April 13, 1795
IN pourtraying the features of party spirit, I have been naturally led in the first place to notice, as one of the most prominent and most deformed its extreme opposition to the true spirit of republicanism. To every constitutional man and lover of his country this must form an interesting branch of the discussion: for our republican constitution is the palladium of our rights, and the guarantee of all our social enjoyments. The monster faction seeks to destroy it: To this purpose it assumes a thousand changeable shapes: At one time it assails it as an open antagonist armed and accoutered with the arguments of despotism: At another, it comes forward with flattering smiles and hypocritical presences; and in a moment crushes it in its false embraces. If you cherish your constitution, your first duty is to fight the spirit of party; for this is the only enemy that it has to fear.
It cannot be denied, that one of the most distressing considerations, that accompany the exhibition of the picture of parties, is the tendency which party spirit has to compel men of moderate principles and mild tempers to contract prejudices and to distrust the republican system. Parties, like atoms, repelled from their proper vortex, feel new attractions; fly to other centers, and associate and adhere to other bodies. The repulsive and dividing power is forever in exertion. The policy of a party is to assume a set of principles as opposite as possible from those of its adversary, and the chief merit of those principles is the perfection of this opposition. The enquiry never is, what is reasonable? What is agreeable to the nature of things? What is true? But the faculties are constantly employed in inventing and mustering arguments for actual service. The principles and views of a rival party are studied not to distinguish between those which are right and those that wrong; but to ascertain the position in which they stand, that they may be more conveniently encountered and the more effectually condemned in gross. It being first established, that the opposite system is wholly wrong, it follows closely in this process of error, that our system, to be wholly right, must be contrary to all points. Thus parties fly always to the extremes; and the faster they retreat from one another, in their principles; the hotter becomes the conflict of their passions; the more embittered their rancor, the more inveterate their errors: At every step they leave some good, some virtue, some truth behind them. The middle ground which they have mutually deserted, the only one on which the fruits of true knowledge will ripen, or the blossoms of peace and virtue flourish, becomes desolate and waste. But the parties, in their separation, do not tail to carry with them a set of names, as substitute for the political and moral realities they before enjoyed and cultivated in common. For example one party perhaps retains the fine words patriotism, liberty, equality, &c.
The other preserves the imposing sounds of order, law, good government and the like. But unfortunately, these words, like inscriptions on the tombs, represent only what is lost. Vice and villainy soon discover the separation, and clothe themselves in the deceitful covering.
Thus the whole system of nature become inverted: Principles produce distraction, and the practice of the virtues lead to ruin. What follows? Men of feeling grow tired of liberty; they distrust order and law–they are disaffected with government; they are ashamed of equality. Is not this the natural result? Study the history even of American parties; and you will see these remarks verified in the operations of the last five or six years: You will find that men now hold a language which they did not hold, and adopt principles and sentiments which they did not profess, at the commencement of our divisions. Formerly, the blessings of liberty and good government could consist together. On the one hand the warm friends of liberty, in the ardor of their views, became dissatisfied with restraint, and even with liberty itself, as they find it in the spirit of our own institutions. The temperate freedom which we enjoy is vapid to tastes so highly excited: They look abroad for a liberty more warm and more genial, more suited to a bold imagination. Such men in the fever of revolutionary visions, are eager to introduce maxims which lead to civil war; and are ready to suffer a political and moral expatriation, while they maintain their civil connection with us.
Now let us turn the tables. The very men who once could write, and talk, and fight for liberty and government together, now begin to think it is enough for them to write, and talk, and fight for government alone. You see in many of them an inclination to favor the adoption of principles of too high a tone for the simplicity and purity of republicanism. They talk little of liberty, public virtue and diffusion of knowledge among the common people; but much of energy, order, system, public strength, and something of national glory. These men are not indeed enemies of liberty: We know their integrity. Before liberty became a stalking horse, they adored it. Liberty and order are both excellent things: But when they are set in opposition to one another, the one naturally becomes despotic; the other turns to madness. This is all the necessary consequence of the party system.
I cannot in this place avoid noticing the strange perversion of what is called patriotism. Originally, patriotism, was the sacrifice of ourselves to our country: Now, it is the sacrifice of our country to ourselves, or the sacrifice of the opposite party to our own party, which is precisely the same thing.
There is this unhappy necessity attending all parties. Principles are sure to be neglected in the administration of affairs; and the whole government becomes a system of expedients.
Instead of dispensing universal blessings; it is constantly employed in protecting itself, and maintaining its own balance. All party spirit is opposition to government; and it has often as much to fear from its supporters, as its opposers.
When parties are first formed, they set out each with a system of principles somewhat variant from one another. Occasions may at first harmonize them, and give them a joint operation: but as they advance, the points of opposition multiply, and the principles of each are strained and tortured, till they become actually transformed, and are rendered irreconcileably hostile. What then is the actual situation? The state is subject to a two fold or to an alternate dominion. If one system has superior strength, it is then monarchy, power, coercion, oppression; if the other, it is licentiousness, folly and frenzy. Thousands of sober republicans have been driven by democratic intemperance, into the sheltering arms of monarchy: It is the only specific relief from the fever of faction. You have already heard the parties in this country, stigmatize each other with the imputation of foreign influence. The imputation, generally and unqualified as it stands, is perhaps equally false and scandalous. But no one can doubt, but that the continued slander with which the favorers of the French, for instance, have pursued and persecuted the opposite party with us has tended to heighten the relish in that party for the high toned principles of the British government: And on the other hand, it is equally true, that the contempt which the high flying democrats have suffered from those who abhorred the principles and conduct of the French revolution, have attached those zealots to the worse features, and reconciled their feelings to the most shocking enormities of that unhappy people. It is neither the merit, the power, nor the intrigues of those nations which has established this influence among us. The cause lies at home. It is our internal divisions. One party would willingly improve our own old fashioned liberty, by borrowing the licentious trappings of the French: The other would feign heighten the spirit of our sober institutions by an additional seasoning of prerogative.
The importance of this topic has tempted me to dilate more largely than I intended: It embraces considerations which are very interesting to America. You already see that many are becoming dissatisfied with principles which they used to cherish: You see them ready to violate the independence of their country, by resorting to examples and maxims, which they ought to shun. The direct tendency of party spirit is to accumulate prejudices in the human mind, till the lights of reason are extinguished, and the principles of nature demolished. Man becomes a mere engine–an artificial being–a theatrical performer.
Another of the evils attending party spirit and which is nearly connected with those I have described, is its tendency to prevent the introduction of wife, moderate and independent men into the councils of government.
To make this appear let us in the first place consider what sort of qualities, in the human character, are best calculated to procure advancement and success under the party system. In a period of civil dissentions, the business of the legislature is (if I may be allowed the expression) an executive business: That is, the laws are calculated not to give effect to the general principles of justice and policy, as they exist in nature, and in the wants of society; but to carry into expression an artificial, pre-determined system. The enquiry is not, what is for the ultimate benefit of the community? but, what is necessary for the actual state of things, and useful to gain a certain point. It follows, that zeal, address and practical skill are the properties sought for; and general knowledge, a moderate temper, clear and cool discernment and an investigating capacity are neglected as of little account. No man in his sober moments, will hesitate to pronounce the latter set of qualities vastly the more estimable. But in factious times, the former are everything; and the latter nothing: Indeed they are worse than nothing: They are dangerous to the party system. For general knowledge will enable one to discover the illiberality and the partiality of party measures: clear discernment will detect and expose their baldness and weak sides; and a moderate temper will condemn their persecuting Spirit, and shrink from the outrages they contemplate.
Again, a popular and seductive oratory is a quality of the first stamp and an engine of irresistible power in times of dissentions. It has always borne great sway, and always proved dangerous to the peace & independence of free government. The republics of Rome and France are not the only governments which have suffered under its baneful influence. The aim of eloquence is to route the passions and enlist them in its cause; and when the passions are in full march, feeble reason lags silently in the rear. Now, wife and prudent men are rarely in possession of the powers of popular and declamatory eloquence: These powers usually accompany warm passions, a vivid imagination, and an ardent thirst of personal fame.
It must appear from the foregoing considerations, that young, inexperienced and turbulent men have, in times of party spirit, much the fairest chance to the post of honor, in exclusion of those whole passions and chastised by age, and whole principles and habits are improved and matured by long and studious observations. Still this is far from being the world view of the subject. The ebullitious of parties naturally bring forward the unprincipled and the profligate. In stormy period, when the people are in full pursuit of some precise object, whether right or wrong; they neglect to examine the general principles and characters of those whose services they require. The strong interest of their party must be maintained; and often by the vilest means. The question is, who will best effect our purpose? who will trouble us with the fewest scruples? who will with the greatest industry, go through the drudgery of vice to accomplish a great end of policy.
Men of virtuous minds have always troublesome stipulations to make, in favor of their own moral and political principles, in behalf of their own independence: But the profligate engage with the alacrity of volunteers, and are ready to encounter all kinds of opposition for their pay and plunder. The policy of a patriotic and virtuous administration is to follow a uniform principle, without regarding the occasional variations in objects or events: The policy of a party administration is to pursue an uniform object; and to vary their principles to suit every occasion.
Again, as the tendency of the party system is throw the efficient power of the community into a few hands; and as the interests of a party, unlike that of a state at large, become too much simplified in practice to require the combination of numerous representative capacities, it follows, that the conduct of affairs will require many actors, but few thinkers.–Those men will be entrusted who have a vote to give, but no reasons to offer.—When parties run high, one vote is worth a thousand reasons. A single vote often turns a question of great moment; but as for reasons, the more numerous they are, the more time they waste; the more weighty, the more they vex and inflame. When the plan of policy is determined on previous to deliberation, as it always is in high party times; argument is in fact impertinent: It is only indulged, in order to keep up the shew of regular proceeding, and to impose upon the multitude.–This is the reason why, in popular assemblies, it is commonly so mechanical, so declamatory, so much like a scholastic exercise. The man who has little knowledge or discernment, who has no positive will of his own, and who will assuredly in all events vote right, that is, will vote exactly as he is told, is certainly upon party principles, a safer and more eligible member, than one or more independent sentiments, or more doubtful discipline: For in some dubious contest between two parties, a small variation in events, a single misgiving of political fortitude, a flight qualm of political conscience in individual, may prostrate a fvaorite system, built with industry and care, at a great expense of intrigue and secret influence and with much waste of the people’s rights and liberties. Look into all countries ancient and modern which are infested with the demon of party discord, and you will see that as the party system ripens, violent and unprincipled men take the lead; and when it becomes established and inveterate, the number of ignorant and dependent creatures, in all the representative departments, naturally increases to a majority.
© Gunston Nutbush Hall 2021, Reprinted and Republished for the internet by Gunston Nutbush Hall, Editor & Publisher, Watchmen Gazette