American history is fascinating to me and never ceases to engage my interest the more I delve into it.
Recently, I was listening to a local radio talk-show host who was passionately explaining the writings of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison taken from the Federalist Papers (1787). Let me add at this point that every American should have a copy of this book along with the Anti-Federalist Papers. These writings were foundational in the establishment of what was shortly to become the Constitution of the United States (1789).
Back in those days following the recent American Revolution where we threw off the shackles of the British monarchy, the leaders of our fledgling nation of various states were using the printed word to share their political and philosophical views. To a thirsting American people who were wondering what this new republic was going to look like in principle as well as in practice, they read every word the various leaflets printed. Often the authors of these leaflets remained anonymous, for a variety of reasons, but mostly for safety reasons due to the rather novel and often incendiary views they expressed.
The concerns that Hamilton and Madison shared centered on the potential emergence of the political party system (what were called “factions”). England had already had its share of trouble between warring factions, specifically the Tories and the Whigs of the previous century. These same factions crossed the Atlantic where they emerged in the colonies and were firmly entrenched by the time the United States declared its independence on July 4, 1776. The primary difference between the American brand of factions (political parties) centered on the issue of whether America needed England or not. The Whigs wanted their independence from the English throne and were willing to take the necessary steps to obtain it, and the Tories felt the colonialists were making a grave mistake by cutting ties with Mother England. We sometimes forget that not all Americans were in favor of breaking ties with the British Isles. And an even greater number opposed the call to war against what was then the most powerful army in the world – The British Redcoats.
Alexander Hamilton’s opening sentence in the Federalist Papers No. 9: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, writes, “A firm union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.” He goes on to explain how other nations (he cites Italy and Greece – which ironically nearly three hundred years later are wrestling with the same problems!) struggled with power-hungry political parties.
Writing on the same subject, No. 10, James Madison goes at some length to address the viable concerns regarding factions, or parties, assuming too much power, and therefore infringing on the liberties of the people. If you’re thinking right now that this sounds like today’s political parties, namely the Democrat and Republican parties, then you are paying attention. You get a gold star and a cookie.
Madison writes in his opening line, “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” Parties, or factions, be they in the majority or the minority role, tend to hold to specific philosophical beliefs which they then believe ought to be held by, or at least enforced on everyone else. If they are the majority party then they simply exert their will by ignoring the minority party. Compromise is discarded. Dialogue and debate are dismissed.
Madison continues, “Complaints are everywhere heard . . . that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
There are two ways of dealing with the power of factions according to Madison. The first is to destroy the faction. But by so doing, you destroy liberty which a faction needs to survive. The second manner of dealing with factions is to give all citizens the same opinions, passions and interests. He concludes, “The inference to which we are brought is that the causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”
So, it is with parties that we learn to work out our differences through the controlling power of a republican form of government where a few people are elected by their constituents to represent them in the larger government we call the Federal Government.
These Founding Fathers were able to see into the future because they understood the nature of man, and they knew their history. Can the same be said of our leaders today?