The Founding Fathers & Political Parties
- Founding Fathers did not anticipate or desire the existence of political parties, viewing them as "factions" dangerous to the public interest
- Founders' republican ideology called for subordination of narrow interests to the general welfare of the community
- Under republican ideology, politics was supposed to be rational and collaborative, not competitive
- But the first American political parties began to form while George Washington was still president
The Founding Fathers got this one wrong. They were pretty smart guys—they got the whole separation of powers and checks and balances things right—but they completely missed the boat on political parties. They were convinced that political parties (or factions, as they called them) would only destroy representative government and that there should be no place for parties in American democracy. But we have since become dependent on political parties. For the past two centuries, they have played a critical role in both the political and governing processes.
So why were the Founding Fathers, in this case, so far off the mark? And why exactly did parties prove so essential to our system of government?
The Founders were republicans. No, not George Bush or John McCain Republicans; they were philosophical republicans (with a small "r"). This meant they believed that successful representative governments required the subordination of individual personal interests to the welfare of the community. They believed that the political process was all about identifying the common good. It was not about competition and disagreement; politics was a process in which rational voters and officials calmly sorted out what best served the entire community. The end result was not one camp of winners and another of losers, but the entire electorate united behind a common vision.
As good republicans, the founders believed that parties (or factions) threatened this rational, collaborative process. If the political community broke into small groups committed to their own narrow interests, the search for the common good would be compromised. Politics would disintegrate into battles between conflicting visions, and elections would generate division rather than consensus.
But within a decade of the Constitution's ratification, political parties had emerged. Some of the Founding Fathers originally most concerned about these "factions" had actually helped to bring them about. George Washington lamented that political party wrangling "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another."3 And Thomas Jefferson, always good for a pithy line, swore "if I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."4 But as president, Washington pursued economic and foreign policies that alienated a huge part of the electorate. And in 1793, Thomas Jefferson resigned his seat in Washington's cabinet to lead the opposition to the administration—a move that led directly to the formation of the first American political parties.
As the Founders discovered, to their dismay, the simple fact was that consensus was impossible to maintain. People simply disagreed about things. Reasonable people held conflicting visions of the common good. Politics was about conflict and division; and elections did produce winners and losers. And as politicians moved toward a more realistic understanding of politics, they discovered that some sort of political organization would facilitate—not destroy—the political process.