THIRD LETTER ON PARTIES. Addressed to the People of the State of New-York. March 12, 1795.
I HAVE already attempted to shew that though parties may have been of some service in the cause of liberty, in former periods and under the irregular forms of government, which history small hands exhibits to our view, yet that the examples and the arguments, when canvassed and applied to our own institutions, lose their principle, if not their own force.–But let us not be content with considering the possible good which may have been derived from them. The innumerable crimes, the destructive wars, the monstrous image of moral evil and human misery, which have sprung from party-spirit, are objects more strongly visible, more interesting, more affecting the human heart.
It is impossible that society should be in a state of violence and agitation, without bearing upon its features impressions of distortion and pain, severe indeed in proportion to the height of the inflammation; but lasting, according to the nature and tendency of the violent state. Parties may sometimes be termed remedial; where the object of their application is to expel the corrupt humours and restore sanity and vigor to a diseased constitution.
In such case, the remedy may be painful, it may raise a temporary fever, or produce present debility:–But the final relief more than repays the disgusts, the sufferings, the distress attending the operation. Such has been the nature of all the contests between the people and their powerful oppressors in all ages and nations–one party has contended for power, which the contingencies of war, or the influence of superstition have enabled them to usurp; the other for rights, which nature has bestowed but tyranny withheld from them. The object of one party has been to maintain her patient advantages; that the other to accomplish a great end, the happiness of future times. Whereever this contest exists, the friend of mankind always feels a consolation in contemplating the final issue, whatever may be the struggle, the hardships, the perils, the torture which freedom and humanity sustain the trial. Even the follies of the people, their high intemperance, their cruel outrages in a revolutionary state, are excused, while tyranny excites their rage, and liberty is their glorious aim.
But tho’ the examples of history of the conflicts between right and power, and between the people and their rulers, are of high importance, they are few in number, and bear no comparison in variety, and extent to those of another kind whose only tendency has been to distract society, without securing any future good, without meliorating the condition of mankind–such has been the spirit of all factions, which have grown out of personal ambition;
factions in which the people have been only the blind, deluded and miserable instruments of proud and bloody tyrants. Compare the contests of the red and white rose in England with the dissentions between the patricians and the plebians of the Roman republic: or the horrors of the league and the other civil wars in France with the struggles between the people of England and their princes of the house of Stuart: Can you turn from the latter to the former without shuddering in horror? Can you turn from the former to the latter, without the glow of pleasing pride and animated sympathy? In all those interesting periods, the people, alike, suffered innumerable evils; but the great difference rested in the principle and motive of the struggle; In the one, the cause of freedom and general happiness was advancing: in the other it was still agonizing in chains and in silence. In the former, the sufferings of the people were but a sacrifice reduced and rendered easy by the energy of hope;–in the latter they were the earnest of future calamities still more certain and durable.
It would be a curious and interesting research, to trace the history of parties from their first appearance to the present day.–Such a history indeed would from a compendium of the annals of all mixed governments hitherto known; so entirely have civil and domestic dissentions interwoven themselves in the very frame and texture of such government. In such an enquiry, how few would appear to belong to the noble class I have mentioned, in which the people themselves form one distinct party, and in which their ultimate happiness is the motive and the reward! What a long and melancholy catalogue would rise in review, of factions founded on pride, on folly, on wanton ambition, and ending in misery, slavery and ten-fold despotism! It would appear perhaps that the wars and convulsions in the civilized world, that have arisen from the spirit of party, are more numerous, more lasting and fatal than those which have sprung from the spirit of conquest or from any other whatever, not excepting the spirit of religious bigotry. Indeed the fair image of religion has often been borne alike upon the shield of the factious leader, and the military crusader. Faction has usually courted the aid of superstition, and superstition in its turn, by its dividing, exclusive and malignant spirit, has formented the virulence, and prolonged the rage of faction. In the parties which prevailed in France, during the minority of Charles IX, one of the most bloody, and terribly that has ever polluted the page of history, two great and ambitious noblemen assume the banners of the church, and espoused the cause of two contending sects: After the melancholy and dreadful vicissitudes of three civil wars, the ambition and animosity of these two rival chiefs were extinguished only by the murder of both, and the massacre of thirty thousand of one party at a single stroke.
The spirit of foreign conquest tho destructive in its effects and unjust in its principles, is necessarily connected with the love of fame and glory, an object which animates as well to good actions as to bad ones: it sometimes allures and influences men of generous tempers; it really, except in barbarous state of society, marks the influence of the malignant passions, Besides, the spirit of conquest tends sometimes to improve, to civilize, to enlighten: much is wasted, much is gained. But look at the spirit of party, as it appears in history—where is its birth? From pride, jealously and revenge;–What is its nature issue? disorder division and destruction–The spirit of conquest is ruinous in its means, but it feels an interest in, and protects what it has won; the spirit of party finds gratification only in the annihilation of its opposers, and the waste of its own interests–the bad passions, which constitute this spirit, are inflamed and fostered by the constant presence of its enemy, and by the numerous points of opposition continually presented. On these principles rests the just and common distinction remarked between foreign and civil war, which latter is nothing more than the fever or paroxism of faction; and thus the feuds and convulsions in small states are generally found more deadly, more inveterate and fatal than those which prevail in extensive nations. Conquests are often determined by the great event of a single invasion. The great mass of the invaded people having often only a general and uncertain interest in the preservation of their political independence, have little personal rancour against the invading power to gratify by obstinate perseverance; of course the submission of the civil body often easily and naturally follows the defeat of the military; but in domestic factions, personal hatred and animosity infect the whole community–each individual has a strong interest, a strong affection and aversion; and tho’ eventual success in one party may possibly disable the exertions of the other for a time, it always enrages and embitters the rancorous spirit. It is extremely difficult therefore that deadly factions, when once seated in a small state, should terminate without the total destruction of one or both parties, or without some violent revolution, in which both are deprived of their pretensions and power.
Abundant and melancholy examples to justify these remarks, may be found in the civil convulsions of the Grecian commonwealths; in the ruinous dissensions of the Republic of Geneva, and in the more remarkable and more dreadful civil wars of the Italian states, in the middle ages; particularly those of Florence and Genoa; where a people, the earliest in commerce and the arts, and the first in the refinements of life, became, by the baneful influence of faction, more fierce and savage than any then existing in the world.–Terror and murder for a long and gloomy period, became the order of the day, and the whole body of the people threw away the instruments of commerce and cultivation, to butcher their fellow mortals, and feed on the blood. In the history of war, and the revolutions of empires, the transactions of these communities are but obscurely seen by reason of their circumscribed extent and small weight in the general scale;
but in the historical portraiture of faction, they stand advanced upon the foreground, and form a group the most instructive to the political, the most afflicting to the moral philosopher.
But had I the means or opportunity to enter into ample details on this topic, volumes would hardly contain the bare specification of examples, much less the full process of reasoning to be drawn from those examples to shew the mischievous and fatal tendency of party spirit.
© Gunston Nutbush Hall 2021, Reprinted and Republished for the internet by Gunston Nutbush Hall, Editor & Publisher, Watchmen Gazette