George Washington Warned About “the Party Spirit” and Foreign Influence

Given the fact that a sizable number of citizens can’t identify what is wrong with Donald Trump’s appeal to foreign governments for election interference and the accompanying impotence of Republican office holders to condemn it, I want to rehearse George Washington’s words about party affiliation and foreign influence. Here is Washington from his farewell address (1796):

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Washington foresaw our own time with his words here. Trump certainly cares about “his own elevation.” The extreme partisanship of the GOP is about party not country. Slowly but surely, Trump has transformed the GOP away from its principles into a group of people afraid to offer dissent.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

Trump has opened the door, now publicly and widely, to foreign influence and access to the Trump administration. In the case of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy angled for a meeting by pledging an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, even though there is no evidence of need for such an action.

The U.S. policy toward Russia has shifted dramatically under Trump and we still don’t know why. Washington warned about the very situation we find ourselves in. Where are all of the Christian nation, what-would-the-founders-do Republicans? They remain silent unable to come up with a good pithy Founders’ quote to support a president-monarch who farms out influence for personal gain.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Republican office holders who fancy themselves patriots after the spirit of the founders need a reality check. Donald Trump is not governing in the spirit of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. This is the time to ask ourselves, with Franklin, if we are going to keep this Republic

5 thoughts on “George Washington Warned About “the Party Spirit” and Foreign Influence”

  1. Even though I am vehemently anti-Trump. I was never on the impeachment train until now. Even after the Mueller report, I thought, even though impeachment was warranted for obstruction of justice, it was probably best for the long term interests of the country that he be voted out of office instead. So, I was against it. But seriously, what else can the Democrats do now? What other options do they have when the president is abusing the authority of his office to coerce foreign governments into investigating his political opponents? It’s so beyond the pale.

    Maybe he doesn’t realize, but he’s essentially backed the Democrats into a corner. If they accept this behavior, then they’ve all but conceded his re-election and maybe all future elections as this becomes the new go-to political strategy, using all the coercive power of the state to drum up phony investigations and charges against anyone that looks like a threat. Especially in places with state media like China, Russia, or Ukraine. The more embarrassing, the better. I think the Democrats are fighting for their survival at this point.

    Is that too strong?

    1. I am with you, and I went through the same back and forth about which path was best. However, I still think impeachment is politically dangerous, and could very well cause the Democrats more trouble in the next election. That said, it seems the constitutionally mandated response to such behavior. If we don’t do it now, I don’t know when we would. To my mind, it all ends up as “it is the right thing to do.” But to anyone who proposes that this will make a Democratic challenger the next president, think again. It has a more than likely chance of causing the opposite.

  2. Thank you for this relevant and historically-grounded response, Dr. Throckmorton. Of course, a sizable number of people can’t identify what’s wrong with Donald Trump’s unlawful behavior as Trump and his followers regularly traffic in the following diversionary tactics:

    conspiracy theories,
    false equivalencies, and

    We can see such intellectual sloth coming directly from the White House, from Russian troll farms, and from U.S. White Evangelicals as evidenced in recent comment section spamming.

    1. The weird thing is that Trump’s behavior is based on his beliefs in the conspiracy theories and lies that originated within the fringe and not-so-fringe right to explain away the truths that weren’t helpful and to distort reality enough to get him re-elected.

      But Trump is so dumb and incompetent that he’s looking at impeachment instead because he apparently believes the alternate facts.

  3. “Shall the man who has practised corruption, and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt?” ~George Mason of Virginia during the Constitutional Convention and the impeachment discussion.

    I would like this essay 100 times if I could. Has anyone noticed how Pelosi has mentioned several times in interviews of how she came to impeachment that “we’re a republic, if we can keep it?”

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