On Sep. 17 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed. Just nine years later, in 1796, President George Washington issued his famous Farewell Address.
In that address, Washington warned Americans of the prospective dangers of political parties into the future.
“[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,” said President Washington in this well-known address.
Most modern historians interpret Washington’s words as ones that reflect the ideals of all the founding fathers at that time. However, in contrast to Washington’s staunch opposition to political parties, many of our founding fathers embraced the idea of political parties and chose to set a foundation for the country that included various political groups.
For instance, James Madison in the New York Daily Advertiser in 1787 declared: “Liberty is to Faction what Air is to Fire, an Aliment Without Which it Instantly Expires.”
In this statement, Madison outlined that in order to have liberty, a necessity in a free society, there must be factions, or political parties, to ensure that the members of that free society can express their opinions.
This idea was put to the test as early as the Ratification Conventions of the Constitution after Madison’s publication. This was the first example of political party practices in the United States, and set a precedent for many aspects of the modern-day political parties.
Holding conventions to debate the ratification of the Constitution, the 13 states instituted the most liberal laws of voting for delegates, many states allowing non-property owners to vote for the first time in history. This expansion of the voting population motivated a number of delegates to start their own campaigns, which led to the formation of new political parties.
It was only yet the 1780s, and the nation had only been in existence for a mere ten years. However, in places such as New York, there were already fierce battles between the working class and the landed gentry, resulting in occasional rioting in the streets of Albany and intense debating in New York City newspapers.
These conflicts came directly out of the competition of the two major political parties: one that represented the wealthier citizens, and another that fought for the middle class. However, the conflict was effectively resolved, during the New York Ratification Convention, with a healthy debate that led to the compromising of ideas.
For the Ratifying Conventions of the Constitution, delegates ran campaigns throughout all 13 colonies. These early campaigners appealed to extreme voter activism and promoted an involvement in the political process that had never been seen before.
Every state ended up ratifying the Constitution, allowing the United States to stay united and strong during a formative time in its history. These early political parties, which were formed by the campaigns of the delegates, were essential in allowing ordinary citizens to be a part of this necessary process. The precedents that were set in the Ratification Conventions concerning political parties would continue throughout the next two and a half centuries in America.
Throughout history, some political parties, such as the Republicans in the Gilded Age, the Democrats of the political machine at Tammany Hall, and Nixon’s Republican backers during Watergate, have been deemed guilty of massive corruption and malpractice. However, these two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, have always been considered the necessary evils that Madison outlined in Federalist No. 10; they have had their faults, but they were necessary for liberty to prosper.
Since the 1780s, political parties have allowed more people to get involved in the political process by supporting legislative initiatives, getting out the vote, and having representative responsibility to the people. In addition, rather than being forced to become knowledgeable on every single issue, voters can identify with political parties of similar ideologies to set their own agenda.
Political parties allow compromise and consensus to come easier in government, so that voting members of the same party can pass legislation at a faster pace rather than having each individual representative left up to their own devices. This process allows for our country to progress at a quicker rate.
Also, political parties have acted as a self-check on the government to ensure that the power remains in the hands of the people.
In the end, we cannot ignore the fact that modern political parties in the United States are certainly not perfect. However, we also cannot ignore the fact that they are essential to maintaining liberty and freedom for all citizens.
Their ability to encourage people to participate in the political process, encourage representative responsibility, and provide an additional check on the balance of power within the federal, state and local governments is unmatched across the globe.