Factions: The Greatest Danger to the Cause of Truth and Liberty
Noah Webster warned us about the dangers of “party-spirit” and factions.
In his 1794 essay The Revolution in France, the noted American writer and dictionary author analyzed the situation in Europe, which had not only gained the interest of Americans, but divided political leaders over which side was right.
While Webster offered his own thoughts on the new French Republic and argued the revolution had been morally justified, he condemned the direction the government was headed and pinned the blame firmly on political factions, predicting a bleak future if the young American republic fell prey to the same:
“Nothing is more dangerous to the cause of truth and liberty than a party-spirit.”
In fact, he warned Americans that if they wished to protect their own republic they had to do something to prevent them.
“The revolution of France, like that of Rome, is fruitful in lessons of instruction, of which all enlightened nations should avail themselves, and which may be of great use to the United States of America.” [emphasis added]
“As the tendency of such associations is probably not fully understood by most of the persons composing them in this country, and many of whom are doubtless well-meaning citizens; it may be useful to trace the progress of party-spirit to faction first, and then of course to tyranny.” [emphasis added]
Recounting the history of Rome, Webster argued that feuding between factions such as the optimates and populares within the Roman Republic eventually destroyed it; dictator Sulla was a member of the optimates and eventually seized sole power. Though he eventually resigned, his actions set a precedent that Julius Caesar would later cite to justify his own actions.
Webster predicted that the French Constitution, as written, would guarantee a similar outcome:
“The Executive Council, to be composed of twenty-four members, will be a hot-bed of party; and party spirit is violent, malignant and tyrannical. The French could not have fallen upon a more effectual expedient to create and perpetuate faction, with its train of fatal evils, than to commit the execution of the laws to a number of hands; for faction is death to liberty.” [emphasis added]
Webster also argued that political factions, in and of themselves, often provoke conflict and inflame tensions:
“While the legislators of France confined themselves to a correction of real evils, they were the most respectable of reformers: they commanded the attention, the applause and the admiration of surrounding nations. But when they descended to legislate upon names, opinions and customs, that could have no influence upon liberty or social rights, they became contemptible; and when faction took the lead, when a difference of opinion on the form of government proper for France, or a mere adherence to a solemn oath, became high treason punishable with death, the triumphant faction inspired even the friends of the revolution, with disgust and horror.” [emphasis added]
Webster’s predictions for the French Republic were quite accurate. Eventually, it would collapse and be replaced, like Rome, with a dictatorship under Napoleon.
By the time of Webster’s essay, the United States government had already gotten a taste of factions via the conflicts between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Such factionalism led to the notorious Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, which was seen by many as a blatant attempt by Federalists to censor and suppress opposition.
While George Washington also staunchly opposed and warned against the danger of factions in his Farewell Address two years later, Webster took a much harsher stance: private groups centered around non-political issues were fine in his view, but political ones were a “scourge of almost every free government,” and needed to be stopped.
“It is thus that private associations may always influence public measures; and if they are formed for the express purpose of discussing political measures, they may prove pernicious to the existing government,” he wrote.
He believed one of the solutions to that was to ban them.
“And if any thing will rescue this country from the jaws of faction, and prevent our free government from falling a prey, first to civil dissensions, and finally to some future Sylla and Marius, it must be either the good sense of a great majority of Americans, which will discourage private political associations, and render them contemptible; or the controling power of the laws of the country, which in an early stage, shall demolish all such institutions, and secure to each individual in the great political family, equal rights and an equal share of influence in his individual capacity.” [emphasis added]
While we can debate the seeming contradiction Webster had between favoring freedom while prohibiting freedom of association, it’s difficult to argue with his underlying point.
When men are once united, in whatever form, or upon whatever occasion, the union creates a partiality or friendship for each member of the party or society. A coalition for any purpose creates an attachment, and inspires a confidence in the individuals of the party, which does not die with the cause which united them; but continues, and extends to every other object of social intercourse.
This, according to Webster, always leads to a faction-first mentality, rather than liberty-first:
“The general effect is always the same; while the union continues, the members of the association feel a particular confidence in each other, which leads them to believe each others opinions, to catch each others passions, and to act in concert on every question in which they are interested.”
Political factions shift the focus of a governing body from its actual duties to fulfilling the will of the party. It turns potential allies into foes and enemies, and makes political power the greatest objective.
He remarks upon the “good sense of a great majority of Americans” to restrain political factions, and that gets to the real issue. If Americans refused to support or stomach factions, the party system would not have succeeded in the first place.
Banning parties can’t stop people from associating with each other anymore than banning liquor stopped them from distilling it illegally. But both would have failed if the people had refused to support their activities.
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