What America’s Founders Thought About Political Parties

What America’s Founders Thought About Political Parties

© David Burton 2020


Our Founding Fathers Thoughts on Political Parties

     “One of the enduring American myths we cherish is the two-party system. We must have two parties! To have three parties or more is impossible; to have only one, unthinkable. George Washington ran unopposed in the first two presidential elections but ever since 1796, the first election in which there were two competing candidates, Jefferson and John Adams, one political party has always tried to utterly destroy the other. From the outset, American presidential elections have been vicious. They didn’t just get that way in the 21st century.
     “To begin with, the Constitution did not provide for any political parties. It’s not that the Founding Fathers didn’t think about them but, to them, even the word 'party' was anathema. They preferred a presidential election, the linchpin of our political system, in which the top vote-getter got to be president; the number two man, vice president. Why would you need parties?
     “To the Founders, opposition to the new nation’s political leadership meant opposition to the government — treason. Many of their families, including George Washington’s, had fled for their lives from the bloody partisan warfare of the English Civil Wars of the 1640’s that ended with King Charles I’s beheading. In the ensuing contumacious political infighting, the austere, budget-slashing opponents of free-spending friend of the arts (and numerous mistresses) Charles II were branded 'Whigs', a derisive Scottish term for curdled milk. Whigs hurled back the word 'Tory', an Irish word for highway robber, at defenders of the king’s lavish lifestyle. Negative references were considered badges of honor and the first party labels.
     “During the civil warfare of the American Revolution, the two warring parties adopted these old English labels. Adherents to the American independence movement were called Whigs. The pro-English party, the Loyalists — the real Tea Party — was denominated Tories, the 'intestine' enemy which had to be purged and cast out.
     “So deep went the fear that post-Revolutionary party politics would again degenerate into civil warfare that the Founding Fathers understandably shunned the word party, much less the idea. Scottish philosopher David Hume, learning that his old friend, Benjamin Franklin, was armpit deep in American political intrigues, recoiled in horror. ‘I am surprised to learn our friend, Dr. Franklin, is a man of faction. Faction, above all, is a dangerous thing.’
     “Even when, in 1787, the thorniest political questions of a new nation were thrashed out in secret during the Constitutional Convention, there was no provision for a two-party system. Opposition to the new Constitution, while strong in many states, was so disorganized that it was expected to be short lived.
     “Away in France during this reform convention, Thomas Jefferson objected to the lack of any formal provision for a two-party system. ‘Men are naturally divided into two parties,’ he wrote, ‘those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes [and] those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests.’
     “It was obvious to the first president, George Washington, that unless he drew Jefferson into his government, Jefferson would organize anti-federal opposition into a political party. The uneasy honeymoon of the first American political system lasted less than two years. Inside Washington’s cabinet lurked the seeds of two quite opposite political parties. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton spoke for the prosperous seaport towns of the North, the banking and commercial interests, the creditors. Jefferson, the perennially debt-ridden man from Monticello, spoke for the South and the West, the farmers, the workers, other debtors. To Jefferson, the Federalists were intolerably aristocratic ‘monocrats.’ To Hamilton, Jeffersonians were French-style incendiaries who must be kept in check.” (Ref. 1)

     “It is tempting to think that political parties came into existence in this country if not when the Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, then at least by the time Vermont ratified it on January 10, 1791.
     “That is, it is tempting to think that the Constitution – somewhere, somehow, even if indirectly or implicitly – addresses an issue that has defined virtually every aspect of our electoral process for over two hundred years. Right?
     “The Constitution says nothing about political parties. Not only that, but the Founding Fathers explicitly did not want American politics to become partisan. In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison both warned against the dangers of domestic political factions.
     “Moreover, the first president of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president. In fact, Washington argued that political parties should not be formed for reasons he stated in blunt terms his Farewell Address. Washington's analysis is not only brilliant, but remarkably prescient.
     “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.
     “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.
     “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.

     “The irony is that Washington's objections were ignored by his vice president, John Adams, who succeeded him. Adams was elected in 1797 as a member of the Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, while James Madison, our fourth president, was elected as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party. Hamilton and Madison evidently ignored their own objections as well as those of Washington.” (Ref. 2)

     “Today, it may seem impossible to imagine the U.S. government without its two leading political parties, Democrats and Republicans. But in 1787, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to hash out the foundations of their new government, they entirely omitted political parties from the new nation’s founding document.
     “This was no accident. The framers of the new Constitution desperately wanted o avoid the divisions that had ripped England apart in the bloody civil wars of the 17th century. Many of them saw parties—or ‘factions,’ as they called them—as corrupt relics of the monarchical British system that they wanted to discard in favor of a truly democratic government.
     “. . . ‘the idea of a party brought back bitter memories to some of them’
     “George Washington’s family had fled England precisely to avoid the civil wars there, while Alexander Hamilton once called political parties ‘the most fatal disease’ of popular governments. James Madison, who worked with Hamilton to defend the new Constitution to the public in the Federalist Papers, wrote in Federalist 10 that one of the functions of a ‘well-constructed Union’ should be ‘its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.’
     “But Thomas Jefferson, who was serving a diplomatic post in France during the Constitutional Convention, believed it was a mistake not to provide for different political parties in the new government. ‘Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties,’ he would write in 1824.
     “In fact, when Washington ran unopposed to win the first presidential election in the nation’s history, in 1789, he chose Jefferson for his Cabinet so it would be inclusive of differing political viewpoints. ‘I think he had been warned if he didn't have Jefferson in it, then Jefferson might oppose his government’ . . .
     “With Jefferson as secretary of state and Hamilton as Treasury secretary, two competing visions for America developed into the nation’s first two political parties. Supporters of Hamilton’s vision of a strong central government - many of whom were Northern businessmen, bankers and merchants who leaned toward England when it came to foreign affairs - would become known as the Federalists. Jefferson, on the other hand, favored limited federal government and keeping power in state and local hands. His supporters tended to be small farmers, artisans and Southern planters who traded with the French, and were sympathetic to France.
     “Though he had sided with Hamilton in their defense of the Constitution, Madison strongly opposed Hamilton’s ambitious financial programs, which he saw as concentrating too much power in the hands of the federal government. In 1791, Madison and Jefferson joined forces in forming what would become the Democratic-Republican Party (forerunner of today’s Democratic Party) largely in response to Hamilton’s programs, including the federal government’s assumption of states’ debt and the establishment of a national banking system.
     “By the mid 1790s, Jefferson and Hamilton had both quit Washington’s Cabinet. Meanwhile, the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists spent much of the first president’s second term bitterly attacking each other in competing newspapers over their opinions of his administration’s policies.
     “When Washington stepped aside as president in 1796, he memorably warned in his farewell address of the divisive influence of factions on the workings of democracy . . .
     “ ‘He had stayed on for a second term only to keep these two parties from warring with each other. He was afraid of what he called ‘disunion.’ That if the parties flourished, and they kept fighting each other, that the Union would break up.’
     “By that time, however, the damage had been done. After the highly contentious election of 1796, when John Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson, the new president moved to squash opposition by making it a federal crime to criticize the president or his administration’s policies. Jefferson struck back in spades after toppling the unpopular Adams four years later, when Democratic-Republicans won control of both Congress and the presidency. ‘He fired half of all federal employees—the top half. He kept only the clerks and the customs agents, destroying the Federalist Party and making it impossible to rebuild.’
     “While the Federalists would never win another presidential election, and disappeared for good after the War of 1812, the two-party system revived itself with the rise of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party by the 1830s and firmly solidified in the 1850s, after the founding of the Republican Party. Though the parties’ identities and regional identifications would shift greatly over time, the two-party system we know today had fallen into place by 1860 - even as the nation stood poised on the brink of the very civil war that Washington and the other Founding Fathers had desperately wanted to avoid.” (Ref. 3)

Political Parties in the Twenty-first Century

     “The two-party system is destroying America. Democrats and Republicans are in a death match and the American people are caught in the middle.
     “The nation faces all sorts of serious problems, from growing inequality to spreading international terrorism, but the bitter fight between Democrats and Republicans has largely ground government to a halt. Partisans on both sides are so angry they can barely speak with the other, much less work together. The most extreme are convinced that members of the other party are treasonous and purposefully harming the nation. This isn’t just a perception. A recent Pew Research survey found that 36 percent of Republicans thought that liberal policies are ‘a threat to the nation’s well-being.’ 27 percent of Democrats feel the same way about conservatives. They don’t just think they have better ideas or their opponents are misguided and honestly believe that the other side is more interested in partisan gain than the well-being of the nation. Many of the more extreme partisans simply refuse to work with the other side. The result is that the two parties have the nation’s capital, and many state capitals, in a death grip.
     “This level of hostility is a direct cause of gridlock. The same Pew Study found that over the last thirty years the nation has grown more partisan and Congress has become less effective. Each side is more extreme, and each bases their political agenda on demonizing the other side. Each side engages in political machinations, which include partisan gerrymandering and manipulating the rules of Congress to get their way, stymie their opponents, or deny them office completely.
     “But that’s only part of the problem. The more destructive problem is the way this skews the discussion of the issues facing the nation. The media – meaning news sources from Fox News to the New York Times and everything in between – seem largely incapable of dealing with any issue outside of the liberal versus conservative paradigm. Whether it’s dealing with ISIS, the debt ceiling, or climate change, the media frames every issue as a simple debate between the Democratic and the Republican positions. This creates the ludicrous idea that every public policy problem has two, and only two, approaches. That’s nonsense. Certainly, some problems have only two resolutions, some have only one, but most have a range of possible solutions. But the ‘national’ debate presents every issue as a simplistic duality, which trivializes everything. This duality is making our political debate stupid. We can’t solve problems unless we can discuss them rationally, and we aren’t having a rational discussion about anything.
     “And the public is sick of it. 80 percent disapprove of Congress. That’s actually an improvement, last November 86 percent disapproved. Last year 71 percent disapproved of the way Republicans in Congress were doing their job, and 65 percent disapproved of the Democrats. And the public wants something new. In a Gallup poll from last year 60 percent of the respondents said they wanted new political parties. . .
     “But what if the problem isn’t the politicians, or the parties? What if the problem is the system? What if the problem is a system that makes every election a battle between a single Democrat and a single Republican? Maybe the solution isn’t new people, or new parties. Maybe the solution is changing the way we elect people.
     “We used to have viable ‘Third Parties’ in this country. A few, like the Whigs and the Republicans, eventually became the dominant party. Others, like the Abolitionists and the Progressives, brought important new ideas into the national debate, and helped change the course of history.
      - - -
     “. . . It is time to give the American people a meaningful choice in politics. We have choices in everything we do, but only a false and divisive choice in politics. {We} need to kill the two-party system, but {this is not to suggest that} we get rid of the Democrats or Republicans. {What is being suggested is that} we change the system to bring in new voices and new ideas. For this we need new political parties.
     “This will give voters more choices at the polls. It will also bring new ideas into the political debate, which will mean that public policy issues may be debated as if there are a range of possible solutions. This will get us away from the silly idea that every issue is a death match between left and right. And maybe, just maybe, the debate won’t be so stupid and we can seriously address the issues facing the nation.” (Ref. 4)

     The 2020 presidential election featured two presidential candidates who seemed to isolate a significant portion of their party membership. Donald Trump tacked radically conservative, while engaging in erratic digressions which isolated a great many moderate Republicans. Joe Biden, by contrast, lacked the diverse, progressive policy agenda that many Democrats would have preferred their presidential candidate to pursue. On both sides, it appeared that voters were disappointed with the candidates they were expected to support. This dissatisfaction is emblematic of a wider issue at stake in American politics – neither dominant party truly represents the widely varied interests of the American citizenry in 2021.
     On the right, the Republican Party seems to utterly lack a coherent policy agenda or platform. In essence, the party had surrendered to a “support of President Trump” core tenet, and meekly adopted a policy of marching in lock step with whatever Trump supported or opposed. Their 2020 party platform was effectively non-existent. Those Republicans who were not enthusiastic supporters of Trump, were left feeling isolated from their party. With no platform to guide them, Republicans were forced to either repose complete faith in Trump’s protean personal convictions or support a Democratic candidate whose platform was wholly contrary to their core beliefs.
     In 2020, the Democrats, by contrast, experienced the inverse problem. Their party platform of nearly 100 pages, outlined in excruciating detail the Democratic party’s positioning on nearly every issue imaginable. From resolving student debt to Native American healthcare, the platform was pedantic in its all-encompassing nature. On the surface, this level of detail and breadth seemed like a positive for constituents. However, such specificity presented major problems for Democrats in light of the ideological and pragmatic plurality within the party, which had grown to critical mass in the last decade. Schisms within the party were particularly stark on issues such as healthcare; while many moderate liberals would have preferred partially public subsidization or cost-ceilings on private plans, a robust progressive wing believed that the government should cover all healthcare and educational expenses for all individuals. On criminal justice, those who vehemently support law enforcement vied with those in favor of the complete abolition of police departments. Those who still supported the proliferation of natural gas fracking had to contend against others who seek more urgent and immediate action to transition to renewable energy. The list goes on; the essence of these divisions is that the Democratic base represents an exceptionally diverse range of opinions on most social and political issues. This dilemma applies to many of the issues that the party’s members are passionate about and demonstrates that the Democratic party membership has too broad a spectrum of opinions to remain an effective single party. While most Democrats can come to a consensus on some social and economic issues, the vast majority of these topics foment lasting conflict.
     The Democrat’s attitude of “settle for Biden” and the phenomena of moderate Republicans being “closeted Trump voters” shows how the two political parties are no longer good representations of their constituents. The Democratic party arguably needs to split into moderates and progressives based on their dramatic differences in opinions on social and political issues. On the flip side, Republicans need to form a strong platform that is not centered around the poisonous Trump rhetoric, or they must split to create a party that can also represent the non-Trump moderates in the party. So, following 2020 election, both parties will continue to produce dissatisfying candidates and agendas unless they greatly reevaluate the structure and positions of their organizations.[5]

     To a large extent, the 2020 presidential election was one in which voters chose the “lesser of two evils” rather than the best candidate – a very sad commentary on the state of politics in America. Our two-party system of politics is failing America. Congress stands hopelessly deadlocked most of the time because of partisan politics. Civility in government has to a large extent completely disappeared. One solution to our national woes is to embrace more than two parties. Such a solution may even be in the best interest of the two parties now in power. Currently, no matter who runs, the winner will either be a Democrat or Republican, ensuring that the leaders, people and companies bankrolling them will win. It’s a system that favors the status quo. It has effectively turned our government from a democracy into an oligarchy. Even if the eventual choice is between two candidates or parties, let’s at least give more than two people, or parties, a chance in front of the entire electorate. Such a solution will be better than the bitterness, stalemate and bad government that we are currently experiencing. [6]

     “George Washington warned us.
     “{Heading into 2021,} America continues to be ripped apart by hateful partisanship and petty political tribalism.
     “Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was correct in recently describing the Senate elections as a ‘knife fight in an alley.’ That same metaphor describes the way our nation is governed too.
     “Politicians too often choose party over country, acrimony over unity, and posturing to win the next election cycle over doing the right thing.
      - - -
     “America’s duopoly party system bolstered by our shady campaign finance system is broken.
     “Our constitution does not mention political parties, George Washington, in his farewell address on September 19, 1796, warned us ‘in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of the party.’ Washington feared that the two political factions led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton would tear the nation apart.
     “Two hundred twenty-four years later, his stirring words are chilling and prophetic. 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 of its dangers.’ [Emphasis mine]
     “Washington was the only president in our nation’s history to not represent a political party and he sought to govern the entire country, not just those who represented his political views.
     “The majority of American voters are clearly tired of the knife fight.
      - - -
     “The two-party machine brings tremendous financial power to its candidates. That makes it hard today to imagine independent voters getting elected without significant financial resources, a system that does away with political parties, or the creation of a major third political party.
     “Challenges aside, we the people better figure it out. As Washington warned, the survival of our republic depends on it.” (Ref. 7)


  1. Did the Founding Fathers Really Want Two Parties?, Willard Sterne Randall, HUFFPOST, 31 October 2012.
  2. What George Washington thought of political parties , Arnold Cusmariu, American Thinker, 17 March 2016.
  3. The Founding Fathers Feared Political Factions Would Tear the Nation Apart, Sarah Pruitt, History,
    7 March 2019.
  4. The two-party system is destroying America, Michael Coblenz, THE HILL, 28 January 2016.
  5. The two-party system has failed voters — here’s why, Annie Maley, THE BUCKNELLIAN, 23 September 2020.
  6. The Two Party System Has Failed Us, Gregg Borodaty, Life Journal, 13 November 2016.
  7. To save our republic, heed George Washington and abandon this toxic two-party system, Doug Friednash,
    The Denver Post, 26 September 2020.

  24 December 2020 {Article 452; Politics_61}    
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