Upon examining the political beliefs of our Founding Fathers, it becomes quite clear that the America of today is nowhere near what they had idealized. The Founding Fathers were quite concerned with the creation of factions and believed that their existence would ultimately lead to the downfall of a government, if not controlled properly. Despite their endless warnings against factions and parties, the country they created has turned into a polarized battleground between the Democrats and the Republicans. Through investigating the beliefs of our Founding Fathers, we can see how their ideas failed to manifest themselves appropriately and the consequences that have followed.
Article No. 10 of The Federalist, written by James Madison in 1787, exemplifies the Founding Fathers contempt for factions. In this article, Madison goes into great depth about how the United States will be constructed in such a way so that factions will not be able to endanger the public good. He claims that there is no viable method to stop the causes of factions which are “sown in the nature of man” and that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control” (547, 548). However, Madison believes that there are other ways to control the effects of factions and that the best method of this would be to establish a large Republic. With this governmental structure, no factions would be able to gain power over the population. Minority factions would not be able to succeed because the majority outweighs them in votes. Nor could majority factions manifest themselves easily, because large Unions promote diversity and it would be very difficult to organize a majority of people under one unified cause (549). Even if a majority faction evolved, it would be even harder to get enough Representatives to spread their ideas to the entire Union. Thus, Madison concludes, a large Republic will be impervious to the effects of factions because “the influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States” (549).
George Washington’s “Farewell Address” shows the evolution of political opinions on parties and their effects. In his address to the nation, Washington gives some advice to the country and much of it dwells on the concern of factions. Instead of discussing how the Union will not be affected by factions and how they will not be able to take hold of the country, Washington takes a different approach. He accepts that factions do exist, especially those based on geography, but he pleads that people should be more concerned about the whole of the Union instead of their “immediate and particular interest[s]” (208). Washington agrees with Madison that the causes of factions are ingrained in human nature, but he argues that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” that will establish national morality and enlighten public opinion (212). Washington shows a progression in the approach to factions, from denying their influence to accepting that they exist and can hurt the unity of the country. He provides a solution to this problem by persuading people to be more concerned about “efficacy and permanency of [their] union” and that “no alliances … can be an adequate substitute” (209). This is significant because even within eight short years, Washington recognizes that the United States is not impervious to factions and that it will be something that the country will struggle with.
In the end, the Founding Fathers’ strong warnings against factions did not stop their occurrence. Even from the beginning, the country has almost always been divided into a small number of (usually two) political parties. From the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans and the Whigs to the Republicans and the Democrats, parties have ruled politics in the United States for the vast majority of its history. Specifically, the polarization of the nation between the Republicans and the Democrats has been the mainstay of politics for almost 150 years. Although the Founding Fathers were quite against the idea of factions, the real question is: have political parties stifled the ability of the United States government to reflect public good for all? Madison specifically voiced concerns over the majority impinging on the rights and liberties of the minority and Washington discussed the lack of unity that would result from factions. Do these issues exist today because of the polarization?
Minorities do seem to get overlooked in such a black and white (or rather red and blue) political system. One way to examine minority influence is to look at third parties. Occasionally, third party politicians are elected into offices, but the overwhelming majority of people in office either adhere to the Democratic or Republican party. Since the beginning of the Republican and Democrat polarization, there has been no third party Presidents. There have been some third party presidential candidates like those of the Progressive, Prohibition, Socialist, and Green Parties, but they continue to be overlooked by the majority of the population. There’s a common sentiment that voting for a candidate who is not Republican or Democrat is essentially throwing your vote away, since they won’t be elected anyway. Generally, minority concerns will be overlooked unless they adhere to one of the parties. The dichromatic (two color) view of politics that stems from this polarization has blocked the growth of other parties and the concerns for the minorities.
These dichromatic political views have also led to a great divide in the nation, something which Washington was particularly worried about. He stated that factions “tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection” (209). This has been quite evident throughout the history of the United States. There are many examples of how this polarization has caused a rift through the nation from the Civil War, to the Civil Rights Movement, to issues today like universal healthcare. The argument can be made that the two opposing factions will neutralize one another and thus end with a suitable middle ground. Although a fairly neutral government may come about due to this neutralization, the factions still polarize issues making things more black versus white instead of a diversity of shades of grey. Madison advocated that a large Republic like the United States should hold a diversity of opinions. However, in such a polarized country that diversity of opinions also becomes more polarized. Even if neutralization is obtained, it still leads to a more divided country which is against the Founding Fathers’ ideal of a unified nation.
The Founding Fathers’ hopes for the United States were not fully realized, especially regarding the issue of factions. Both Madison’s articles in The Federalist and Washington’s “Farewell Address” discuss their opposition to factionalism, but the country did not heed their warnings. As the nation has progressed, political party polarization has remained fundamental to American politics. Whether this helps or hinders the realization of the public good is more of a matter of personal opinion, but it seems clear that it subdues the ability of third parties to exist and ends up dividing the nation more than unifying it.
Madison, James. No. 10 “The Same Subject Continued.” The Federalist. Modern Political Thought: Reading from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008. 546-549.
Washington, George. “Farewell Address.” A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents. Volume 1. New York, NY: Bureau of National Literature. 205-216.