CITIZENSHIP

In a Post-Truth Era

To Know Your Country Is To Love Your Country

George Washington’s Warning About Hyper-Partisanship and Demagogues

Hyper-partisanship and demagogues are not new issues for the United States. In fact, George Washington, warned us about them in his farewell address.

George Washington’s second inauguration.
Image: Shutterstock

It might surprise you to find out that the politically divisive atmosphere in the United States today is… nothing new. Even in the earliest days of the United States, factionalism existed between the newborn country’s leaders. Our nation’s first president, George Washington, thought hyper-partisanship was such a danger to our fledgling democracy that he warned his contemporaries (and us) about it in his farewell address, published in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796. His messages still have relevance—perhaps more than ever—today.

George Washington was the first, and probably only, truly independent president in the nation’s history. “I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them,” he wrote to Thomas Jefferson.

Washington’s beliefs were rooted in ancient wisdom and Enlightenment-era liberalism. He believed that civil society depends on resisting the urge to move to intolerant extremes on either end of the political system. He wasn’t alone: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton praised the Constitution’s “spirit of moderation” as opposed to the “intolerant spirit” of “those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”

Civics Lesson: George Washington’s Farewell Address

George Washington portraitAt the end of his second term as president of the United States, George Washington delivered a 32-page handwritten address. In it, he announced that he would not seek a third term as president and expressed his hopes and fears for the new nation, including his warning about the dangers of hyper-partisanship and demagoguery. Although the address itself was largely written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the ideas were Washington’s.

Image: Shutterstock

While he was a young man, Washington read many essays written by Joseph Addison in the Spectator of London, and he took to heart the words of Addison’s essay, “The Malice of Parties” about the causes of the English Civil War in the 1640s:

“A furious party spirit, when it rages in its full violence, exerts itself in civil war and bloodshed; and when it is under its greatest restraints, naturally breaks out in falsehood, detraction, calumny, and a partial administration of justice. In a word, it fills a nation with spleen and rancor, and extinguishes all the seeds of good nature, compassion, and humanity.”

Sound familiar?

When Washington became president, he hoped to establish a government that was above hyper-partisanship. He did not, however, want or expect a Cabinet full of obsequious toadies who would do his bidding without question. “A difference of opinion on political points is not to be imputed to freemen as a fault, since it is to be presumed that they are all actuated by an equally laudable and sacred regard for the liberties of their country.”

Despite Washington’s hopes for constructive differences of opinion in service to a higher good, dissension grew among the members of his Cabinet. He worried that the political divisions that were hardening could bring an end to the fragile, fledgling democracy. “If we mean to support the liberty and independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish, we must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach,” he wrote to Rhode Island Governor Arthur Fenner.

Washington’s farewell speech at the end of his presidency repeated his entreaties against hyper-partisanship and demagoguery. In a line that we wish had not been deleted from his final address, Washington warned that in a large republic, democracy was unlikely to be undermined by a military coup, even if that coup were financed by the wealthy and powerful. “In such republics, it is safe to assert that the conflicts of popular factions are the chief, if not the only, inlets of usurpation and tyranny.” And President Washington warned that a demagogue could exploit partisan sentiment to usurp the powers of the state:

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

The solution for partisanship in government, Washington believed, was that although partisanship could not be removed from democracy, it could be “constrained by vigilant citizens and the sober-minded separation of powers.”

On this day, when we celebrate the independence of our nation from Great Britain, let’s take some time to reflect on the effect that growing demagoguery and partisanship over the past decade has had on our democracy. Let’s also take some time to consider what each of us can do to bring some moderation and temperance to our current political climate.

What Are Limits of the Presidential Pardon?

What Are Limits of the Presidential Pardon?

Since President Trump’s impeachment acquittal in the Senate a few weeks ago, he’s become quite fond of putting his thumb on the scales of justice.  Today, during his press conference at Andrews Airforce base, the president said of some recent court cases,...

read more
The Second Amendment Needs an Update

The Second Amendment Needs an Update

The Second Amendment was written to prevent the Federal government from taking away the arms needed to form a state-run militia. As such, the Second Amendment is completely out of date and in need of an overhaul.One of the most popular political memes on...

read more

Climate Activists Convene at Earth’s Call Event in Aspen

I’ve never considered myself a climate activist, but I am an activist for fact-based public policy. Given that “climate change is a hoax” is the world’s leading fake news story, I decided to accept an invitation to the Earth’s Call climate action conference this past...

read more

Climate Change Policies Deeply Divide Voters

Just when you thought America couldn’t be more divided, a new CNN poll rates climate change as the most important issue of the 2020 presidential election among registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. But for Republican voters, climate...

read more

To Impeach or Not to Impeach? That Is the Question

This week, as we collectively digested Robert Mueller’s 400-page report, a debate broke out over whether or not Congress should begin impeachment hearings into President Trump. The pro-impeach crowd led by Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria...

read more

A New Digital Contract with America

VOICES OF CIVICS NATION GUEST BLOGGER Of course the Green New Deal is audacious and not obviously within reach. That’s the whole point; to create space for ambition, to pull our emotions upwards and force us to feel the future.A practical and...

read more

Civics Nation strives to fulfill the mandate of an informed and enlightened public.
We address the need for educated voters and endeavor to defeat the many myths and lies
​driving the public policy debate in the US.

Compared to people in other nations, the average US voter has terrible civics knowledge and lacks clear information about issues and candidates. Civics Nation is committed to voter education and awareness. Go to KNOWLEDGE

Knowledge is power! Civics Nation is your hub for information about the Constitution, US history, economics,elections, demographics and government. Go to POWER

Voting is power. Join millions of Americans who are registered to vote by signing up in your state. Register to VOTE.

Donate, volunteer, or join our campaign...

“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

— Thomas Jefferson

Why we need Civics Nation….

“You cannot run a functioning democracy unless you have acceptable sources of objective facts…otherwise, we’re just going to become two shrieking bands of people who automatically distrust anything that comes from the other side.” 

— Ted Koppel, National Geographic “Explorer,” March 6, 2017 (source)

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from Civics Nation

You have Successfully Subscribed!