The 'Non-Partisan' Political Leader

Washington had developed his politcal prestige in terms of the union which his initial election had suggested, and for which it had provided a hope for the survival of the nation. Times were tense, and the "United" of the United States was by no means a foregone conclusion. It had been his presence in the first place which had provided the Constitutional Convention with much-needed validation, and it was Washington as a leader that was foremost in people's minds in deciding whether or not they would ratify the Constitution. A main point of dispute was what Hamilton called in a few sections of the Federalist the "energy" of the presidency, a planned strength for the executive office which would help counteract the serious problems encountered under the Articles of Confederation, where (as this time Madison puts it) the "legislative vortex" threatens to draw all governmental power into itself, where the legislative branch could issue any number of laws for the most provincial of reasons (each representative with too close a tie to the interests of his constituency), and effect unchallenged such disastrous measures as the over-issuing of "paper money." The new nation's anti-monarchical sentiments had perhaps gone too far; the new presidency, it was argued, would help remedy this problem. Washington, it was implied, or perhaps assumed, would define this new presidency.

What had begun as delicate business could only have heightened in Washington his own self-image, and impressed upon him the crucial standing it had in maintaining a functional Union. As Richard Hofstadter writes in The Idea of A Party System, it was this self-conception that first played itself out in the role of political mediator among members of his own cabinet, "urging mutual forbearance" between Jefferson and Hamilton. But as time went on, opposition itself became his target, so that while he perpetuated his own role (and so, the policies he supported) as impartial, those who disagreed were somehow considered outside the legitimate sphere of the politcal process. For example, "when the Jay Treaty was at stake, he angrily charged that the opposition to it was the work of a party, without seeming to realize that its supporters also constituted a party" (Hofstadter, p.91).

In a period when the Republican party was attempting to clarify itself against the Hamiltonian Federalist administration, Washington became a dangerous subterfuge. In espousing his own probably earnest sentiments about the danger to the Union that forms of opposition presented, he was only projecting his own image as a man above parties, as a figure who dwelled in an a priori realm of 'nation,' where presumably the contention of ideas, interests, and agendas that marked a politcal system had no place in 'true' government. It was a sentiment people have found easy enough to believe both then and in later periods (John Quincy Adams is a notable example), and as such explains Hamilton's description of Washington as "'an Aegis very essential to me'" (Hofstadter, p.99). The Republicans, meanwhile, found themselves embattled, and at times, damned by Washington's rhetoric. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 led Washington to condemn the Democratic Societies, "political clubs" which often served as "pressure groups on particular issues," and which did so as kind of a "left wing" to the Republican party. By attacking them as "'self-created societies,'" Washington seemed to censure all opposition as a form of rebellion, where "insurrection and sedition were fostered by the Democratic Societies, and these societies in turn by the Republicans" (Hofstadter, pp. 92, 94).

With the tension of political strife so dominant during his second term of office, and his symbolic power as a figure of unity more important than ever--both in his own mind and, for somewhat different reasons, in the minds of Federalists such as Hamilton--his Farewell Address thus becomes a kind of sermon against "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party generally." And to underscore the interest of the Federalists in such a speech, it should be emphasized that "the central passage warning against parties was drafted by Hamilton" (Hofstadter, p.96), where text is given sub-text: with the election on the heels of such a message, wouldn't then it be safer to stick with a good 'non-partisan' figure such as the current Vice-President (and Federalist), John Adams? As Van Buren tells it, Republican opposition had already been framed in terms of an attack on the administration, which is to say an attack on Washington himself. But then, "it would have been strange if ... the dominant party should have refrained from aspersing the motives of their opponents by attributing to them personal hostility to a chief so justly beloved by the people as was Washington" (Van Buren, p.182).

Further links: First Inaugural Address | Second Inaugural Address | Farewell Address

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