By Max Skjönsberg
When is party politics beneficial and when does it become so polarized and militant that it risks tearing societies asunder? This question has been central in Western politics for several years on both sides of the Atlantic. It became acute during the Trump presidency, especially during the 2020 Presidential election and its violent aftermath. This discussion emerged at the very beginning of party-based politics in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain, as well as the early years of the American republic.
The Whig and Tory parties emerged in the English parliament in 1679-1681 at the time of the Exclusion Crisis over the succession of the monarchy. “Whig” and “tory” were initially deployed as terms of abuse, and borrowed from earlier usages in Scotland and Ireland, but they were gradually adopted by the parties themselves. After the beginning of annual sessions of parliament in the wake of the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89, political parties became an entrenched part of political life. This quickly generated a debate about whether parties were an unavoidable part of modern parliamentary politics, and whether they were beneficial or pernicious.
In this debate, parties were blamed for encouraging a form of herd mentality in politics. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, likened parties to “an Inquisition, where Men are under such a Discipline in carrying on the common Cause, as leaves no Liberty of private Opinion.” More fundamental was the concern that parties exacerbated division and turned neighbors into enemies. As Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator, “I am sometimes afraid that I discover the seeds of civil war in these our divisions.” What made things worse was that partisanship often seemed random. “There is a sort of Witchcraft in Party, and in Party Cries, strangely wild and irresistible,” wrote Thomas Gordon, co-author of Cato’s Letters. “One Name charms and composes; another Name, not better nor worse, fires and alarms.”
Most astute political commentators, however, realized that parties were not going away. They were a price worth paying for parliamentary politics and ultimately a sacrifice for political freedom. A state without parties was a state without liberty, as Montesquieu put it in his history of the Roman republic. A government without parties is an absolute government, since rulers without opposition are autocrats. Opposition, to be effective in a parliamentary system or in any system with an assembly, must be organized.
If the liberty of states depended on political parties, but certain parties could cause instability and even disintegration, this prompted another question: What made parties legitimate or illegitimate? The Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729/30-97) is traditionally considered the first defender of party. Others, however, preceded him. The French Huguenot historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), in his Histoire d’Angleterre (History of England), put forward the most important Whig interpretation of the English constitution in the eighteenth century. Before his History, Rapin had written a long pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on the Whigs and the Tories, published in 1717. This was a momentous text, not only for its historical insights but also in the sphere of political theory. It was the first text which offered a powerful argument in favor of political parties as distinguished from the social forces and private factions in the writings of Machiavelli.
Rapin argued that the two parties in Britain, the Whigs and Tories, represented the two pillars of the mixed and balanced constitution – parliament on the one hand, and monarchy on the other – and that both parties were necessary for the equilibrium between them. They were likewise necessary for balance in the religious sphere, which was as important as secular matters in public life at the time. The Tories favored the Church of England, the Whigs toleration for Protestant Dissenters, and the only way to achieve a sustainable equilibrium between the two extreme positions was competition and mutual checking and balancing between the parties. These parties would alternate in government and take turns to hold each other to account when out of power.
The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume (1711-76), who read Rapin at an early age, wrote at length about party in general and in its British guise in a series of essays published as Essays, Moral and Political in different instalments starting in 1741. Hume believed that parties – or “factions,” terms he used interchangeably – based on “principles” were particularly pernicious and unaccountable. Religious principles had the potential of making people fanatical and ready to both proselytize and persecute dissidents. Because they were more transparent and less extreme, parties based on “interests,” meaning different economic interests, were more tolerable. His early essays on party, “Of Parties in General” and “Of the Parties of Great Britain” (both 1741) treated the phenomenon as inevitable since the British parliamentary system produced to Court and Country parties, or parties of government and opposition.
In later writings, Hume suggested that party politics could be necessary and possibly salutary for political societies. In “Of a Coalition of Parties” (1758), Hume opened by arguing that it may be neither possible nor desirable to abolish parties. This essay was an apologia for his own History of England (1754-61). In this earlier work, Hume had written that “while [the Court and Country parties] oft threaten the total dissolution of the government, [they] are the real causes of its permanent life and vigour.”
Even as he offered this limited, skeptical defense of party politics, Hume treated “party” and “faction” as synonymous terms. However, a distinction between the two was crucial for party to gain wider acceptance. In the first half of the eighteenth century, no one worked harder to distinguish party from faction than Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751). Since Bolingbroke was barred from taking his seat in the House of Lords after his short stint as Secretary at the Jacobite court – the rival court championing the claims of the Stuart pretender to the British Crown – in 1715-16, he picked up his pen and led the opposition to Robert Walpole’s Court Whig administration as a writer in his opposition journal, the Craftsman.
In the pages of the Craftsman, Bolingbroke justified the existence of an oppositional “Country party.” In Bolingbroke’s formulation, it would function as a constitutional party, and he argued that the government of the day (Walpole’s Whigs) had betrayed the core principles of the constitution by corrupting parliament and making the legislature dependent on the executive. In A Dissertation upon Parties (1733-4), Bolingbroke separated the political landscape into three camps: 1) enemies of the government but friends of the constitution, referring to his own Country party; 2) enemies of both, meaning the Jacobites; and 3) friends of the government but enemies of the constitution, that is, the Court Whigs. Only the first category was a legitimate party, whereas the other two were factions, according to Bolingbroke. To save the nation, he argued, the enemies of the constitution had to be opposed, and opposition must be systematic and concerted.
Burke, a Whig later in the century, was not favorable towards Bolingbroke’s Country Tory politics and even less so towards his Deistic and anti-clerical religious writings. Burke continued, however, to distinguish between party and faction in even more forceful terms than Bolingbroke, as he sought to justify his party connection, the Rockingham Whigs, in the 1760s and onwards. To defeat what he viewed as the Court cabal and the abuse of the royal prerogative in the reign of George III, Burke believed that party connection was essential to restore Britain’s mixed and balanced constitution. “When bad men combine, the good must associate,” Burke wrote in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), “else they will fall, one by one.” Politics was not about having a clean conscience but about making a difference, and party was a necessary instrument that could unite power and principle. As he famously defined party: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” At the heart of this definition is a distinction between party and faction. Parties for Burke are devoted to promoting an understanding of the national interest, and they are united by principle, and not exclusively by interest, although that can be a supporting principle.
The core of Burke’s party was made up of major Whig aristocratic families such as Cavendish and Devonshire. In the Present Discontents, however, Burke stated that he was “no friend to aristocracy,” in the sense at least in which that word is usually understood, that is to say, as “austere and insolent domination.” What the Whig aristocrats possessed was property, rank, and quality which gave them a degree of independence, and this enabled them to stand up to both the Court and the populace. In this sense, Burke’s conception of party was indeed aristocratic, but it was not aristocracy for its own benefit but for the sake of the whole, and part of his defence of Britain’s mixed and balanced constitution.
The British party debate left an ambivalent legacy among early American political actors and thinkers. The most famous discussion of party and faction in the early American republic is found in James Madison’s Tenth Federalist. In this canonical essay, Madison argued that differences and “mutual animosities” could not be extinguished in free governments. He further agreed with Hume that parties of interest were generally more peaceful and governable than parties united and actuated by passion. His solution to party violence resembled Hume’s argument from “Of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752): the effects of faction can be better controlled in larger states and federations than in city states. Thanks to the greater size and the scope of the United States, the impact of each faction would be mitigated
A less philosophical but comparably historically significant party argument surfaced in the 1790s. After Madison and Alexander Hamilton had co-operated as Publius in the Federalist Papers, they became rivals as the early American republic split into two political parties: Republicans and Federalists. Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793 led to a sharp disagreement between the two on the question of executive power in the constitutional order. In short, Madison associated with his old friend and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, to oppose Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s centralizing ambitions. In this political environment, a party argument emerged which had more in common with Bolingbroke, and to an extent Burke, than it did with Hume. This was the idea of partisan opposition. The ideal for Jefferson and other opponents of the Federalists was national unity. However, because of what they perceived as the corruption of Federalists such as Hamilton, an opposition party in the shape of the Republican Party was necessary to defeat the enemies within. Jefferson believed that the Hamiltonians and the Federalists were monarchists, and he viewed the 1790s as an ideological battle between liberty and tyranny. In this struggle, partisanship became a necessary evil.
Many eighteenth-century thinkers contended that constitutional party politics were sometimes necessary to save liberty from authoritarianism and corruption. Indeed, party politics itself was a sign of liberty, since it enabled isolated individuals to participate, and thus gave life and vigor to politics. Such politics could generate “harmonious discord” and be as close an approximation of the common good as the imperfections and diversity of human society permit. But for this to materialize, the political debate must retain a degree of civility. Admittedly, most eighteenth-century partisans fell as short as we moderns in this regard. This is the reason why Hume sought to persuade partisans “not to contend, as if they were fighting pro aris & focis,” literally for altars and hearths, or for God and country.
For Hume, it was also crucial that parties were “constitutional.” According to him, “[t]he only dangerous parties are such as entertain opposite views with regard to the essentials of government,” be it the succession to the throne as in the case of the Jacobites, or “the more considerable privileges belonging to the several members of the constitution,” as with the great parties of the seventeenth century. On such questions there should be no compromise or accommodation since that type of party strife could turn into armed conflict. Eighteenth-century politics retained a civil-war edge on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent events, and indeed the nature of party politics itself, have shown that this is a history and a debate we forget at our peril.
Dr. Max Skjönsberg FRHistS (University of Liverpool) is the author of The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Featured Image: William Hogarth, Triumph of the Deputies from Humors of an Election, 1755. Sir John Soane Museum, London. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.