SIXTH LETTER ON PARTIES. Addressed to the People of the State Of New York.
IN My fifth letter, I undertook to prove, that the spirit of party was repugnant to the operation of law, and to the spirit of republican government. I trust there are few, in this enlightened country, who are disposed to under value the republican system. Many anxious doubts and apprehensions have indeed been entertained with respect to its practicability for any extensive period:–Such doubts have principally arisen from a view of the fatality which seems to have attended the republics of ancient times:–But if we trace their history, with but a cursory eye, we shall discover that party Spirit, in one shape or another has been the most general and most operative cause of their destruction.
If it were necessary to the plan of this enquiry, it might be remarked, with little danger of error, that many of the defects in the organization of all the ancient republics, which were naturally adapted to promote party-spirit, are in a great degree remedied in that of the United States, by the multiplied improvements in theory, by checking and fettering the passions of men, and by extending and establishing the dominion of the laws.– Let us candidly conclude that party-spirit does not grow out of the original and native principles of republicanism, but out of errors and corruptions with which those principles have no necessary connection; and let us not too easily be led away, by imposing examples, to depreciate and despise principles, which have never yet been fairly tried.–Will any still insist that party-spirit is the natural offspring of republicanism? We contend that it is its natural enemy: It is a contrary power forever obstructing all its vital operations. Too long have the principles of liberty been disgraced by being associated with the those of faction: The association is as imaginary as it is monstrous. We think we stand on strong ground while we show you have repugnant and how hostile the properties of party-spirit are to those of pure republicanism: And if upon examination it is found that party spirit is not an innate, primary quality, but a foreign, adventitious and monstrous corruption; surely all true republicans and all found patriots will unite, not only to condemn but to banish it.–Few indeed are so hardy as publicly to advocate the party system; but many suppose we must submit to it as a necessary evil:–In this view the policy of many able men has been, not to attempt the abolition of parties in general; but to maintain the interests of their own, as being in their estimation the just and catholic one, and as pursuing the true interests of the State:–Such men, in their moments of calm reflection, will profess to abhor the principles of the factious system, and to deplore its fate effects; but immediately they will go and act as if they were its greatest friends:–Such are either mere pretenders or they are subject to all that common prejudice, which attaches all the opinions and sentiments of men to the side on which they act; and leads them to pronounce against the views and policy of their opponents the mos unqualified condemnation.
You have seen my last letter how contrary the operation of party-spirit is to the operation of law, and in that view, how inconsistent with the spirit of republicanism. Let us proceed in the detail we proposed.
One of the primary and most important principles of a republican government is–that the public good or general interest of the community supersedes all private or personal interests, and is the grand object to which the public counsels and the regard of individuals are invariably directed. On this principle all public depositaries of power must represent the people. Many governments, both ancient and modern, which are erroneously denominated republics, are defective in this principle. It is a glory perhaps reserved for the American Constitution to bring it completely into operation. This constitution, although complex in its form, & unequal in the apportionment of its official powers, is undoubtedly, upon true popular principles, the purest in the world. Subordination is an artificial thing: It is a matter of mere practical convenience essentially necessary to facilitate the discharge of the public functions: It does not affect the rights of the people; in the view of which all public functionaries, however various their station in the government, stand upon one common level. There is neither prerogative nor privilege known in the system; nor is there a particle of the spirit of monarchy or aristocracy in the composition: In it all power is representative, all office an occasional trust, all authority responsible: There is no man, no class, no order, no portion of the community, whose distinct interests it is the standing policy of the laws to protect and provide for. I owe this digressive eulogium to the constitution of my country; than which I know nothing in the world of political science, more worthy of our admiration or affections.
But to return–In a season of moderation and peace, the principle I have above mentioned will be operative: and the sacrifice of private interest to the public good will be more easy and natural: For in a regular government the ordinary restraints of the laws will be sufficient to check the ambition of any individual who is not powerfully supported; and at a period when the public mind is in a state of tranquility, the ambitious man can hardly reckon upon being powerfully supported; because at such a period, the affections of the people are more diffused and less violent; because they are naturally less indisposed to allow any pretensions, but such as the laws authorize, or a long course of meritorious services have established; and lastly because they have cooler judgments to discern, and more independent spirit to pursue, the public interest, without a demagogue or a dictator: It follows, that in such a state, what is called influence, that is, a secret power which individuals have over the minds of men contrary to the operation of law, will more rarely prevail: whereas in times of internal dissention, the people are nothing without a leader. Their plain sense and well meaning integrity are found inadequate to the difficult energy: a different sort of talents become necessary–address, cunning, courage and intriguing industry, and a seducing eloquence: They have little other political agency, but what consists in ranging themselves under their several commanders, and marching encamping, attacking or retreating in exact obedience to general orders. Under this discipline, and with the splendid qualities of their leader always in full view, the people learn to love and obey: They form their views of the public good through the medium of corrupt confidence: They mistake the interest of their party for that of their country, and finally the interest of a single individual for their own. Thus without any legal or official authority, one or a few individuals frequently usurp a degree of popular confidence, which is due only to their constitutional rulers: control the measures of government and obstruct the operation of law without responsibility; and thus the public good is sacrificed to personal ambition. All this in inconsistent with the principles and spirit of republicanism, which allows of no exercise of power but what is delegated by the people or recognized by the constitution.
Another principle of republican government is that the tendency of all public operations is to maintain political equality. Some have presumed to question the soundness of this principle: but they have never dared to do it, without first perverting its sense. Political equality may consist with personal inequality. It is not only compatible with, but essential to a system of equal rights, that a man should enjoy the fruits of his talents and industry. The personal advantages of men, honestly acquired, can never affect the rights of others: But personal advantages when they are applied to dishonest purposes, and when they interfere with the rights of others, as is common in times of party dissention, become inconsistent with the principle of equality. When parties prevail the political liberties of men are surrendered, with incredible facility, to those who least deserve it. By means of superior address, a bad man directs the will, dictates the votes and usurps the rights of thousands. This superiority is gained by art, not by merit: It is won from the passions, or forced from the fears, not conferred by the judgment or the conscience: It is therefore incompatible with political equality.
Again, it is a principle of republicanism that no power be exercised, but what is created or recognized by the constitution and laws. This has been hinted at above.
By means of influence, an individual enjoys and exercises a power of amazing extent and energy; a power which often controls the laws, instead of being controlled by them. No person, who looks into the history of parties, can fail to observe the great authority of certain men, who are not seen in the official catalogue, who have received no trust at the people;s hands, and have no responsibility to their country. When parties prevail, an opposition is established, those who represent the people support the laws and are protected by them; those who are in opposition have need of aid and support from other quarters: They naturally have recourse to secret influence and intrigues, they form establishments and institutions not recognized by law, in order to have the force and advantage of joint operation and concert–they form clubs, correspondence committees, and societies of various descriptions–they assume the mock solemnity of legislation, and in their proceedings, affect to imitate the majesty of a Roman senate: the leaders of these associations actually arrive, by dint of skill and perseverance, to a conspicuous elevation, from which they sometimes menace the constituted authorities of their country. All this is substantially a dangerous usurpation; but it is a crisis to which the party system naturally leads.
Further, it is incident to the spirit of a republic to promote and maintain the union of the citizens. The operations of a popular government proceed on the principle of general content and agreement: The facility and perfection of these operations, therefore, will be in proportion to the perfection of this union. Again, union is also necessary for the safety of the state. Weakness always follows division. A free people rely upon themselves alone for protection. All external and auxiliary power is danger and inadmissible. But, without a standing military force, a divided people is totally defenseless, and with it, they are not free. Look thro’ the volume of history. Ambitious invaders always begin by sowing dissentions and creating parties. When this is effected they often find one party ready to deliver up the other.
Having pointed out some of the grounds on which party spirit appears to incompatible with the spirit and principles of republicanism. I shall refer to future communications the consideration of the other evils both political and moral that incident to the prevalence of the party system.
© Gunston Nutbush Hall 2021, Reprinted and Republished for the internet by Gunston Nutbush Hall, Editor & Publisher, Watchmen Gazette