The Framers' Attitude Toward Political Parties
Examination of the main provisions of the Constitution and awareness of the indispensable ingredient for its successful operation indicate that the constitutional system worked out by the Framers under inspiration from God set up a most unusual sort of government. It is difficult to describe it in few words or in a single sentence because the Framers did not adopt any single traditional form of government. Instead, they custom designed a new system with painstaking care using ideas from other forms of government but not adopting any known form in its entirety.
Perhaps the most accurate brief characterization of the form of government the Framers designed is to call it a religiously oriented republic. They believed that freedom could survive only among a religious citizenry living under a government based on harmony and good will. Under such a system, the people were to be united in seeking to follow God's will in their political decisions. Government officials were to be men "called" to public service by their fellows because of their integrity, righteousness, and sound understanding.
Framers Opposed Political Parties
The Framers were much concerned about the possible growth of influences or organizations that might diminish the unity, harmony, and good will among the American people. While it is sometimes said that the Framers failed to foresee the growth of the major political party system, [p. 38] the fact is that the Framers were greatly concerned about the possible future growth of major political parties.(1)
Some of the principal dangers the Framers feared from political parties were these:
They would have a divisive influence among the people and would tend toward disharmony and ill will. They would have the effect of putting ambitious, power-seeking men in office because these would be the sort of men who would seek office through building party organizations and fighting their way into situations of power and influence. The religious influence in government would diminish as the various factions fight for power and gain. Unsound laws would be passed as men with ambition and drive, but without soundness of judgment and integrity, influence laws in order to reward those who supported them. The competition for public support would result in deception and fomentation of antagonisms and would weaken the government itself.
An excellent summary of some of the damaging consequences to America's freedom system posed by political parties is contained in George Washington's comment on what he called the "Spirit of Party."
It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the Government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.(2)
It should be borne in mind not only that Washington solemnly warned against political parties, but also that he considered them a grave danger to freedom itself. He said: [p. 39]
Let me . . . warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party. . . .
It exists under different shapes in all Governments . . . but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension . . . is itself a frightful despotism.But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.(3)
It is sometimes argued that political parties are necessary checks to prevent government abuses. Concerning this argument, Washington commented:
There is an opinion, that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true. . . . But . . . in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose,and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.A fire not to be quenched; it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.(4)
Today it is popular to acknowledge politely the Framers' concern expressed in No. 10 of The Federalist and Washington's solemn warning quoted above.(5) After such [p. 40] polite acknowledgment, it is customary to express a contrary conviction, namely, that the two major party system is best for the United States.(6) ; Rejection of the Framers' concern and Washington's warning is not usually directly expressed. Instead, such rejection is generally indirectly indicated somewhat as is the attitude of a teenager who doesn't want to reject categorically the counsel of his parents, but who won't accept it because he is convinced that they just don't understand modern times.(7)
Of particular interest to Latter-day Saints is the following comment by Hyrum L. Andrus whose master's thesis and doctoral dissertation were on Joseph Smith's social, economic and political thought:
"The Fathers," Harry Elmer Barnes observed, "are conventionally held . . . to have been above party." But while some have considered them politically naive for espousing an ideal of government restricted in its powers and uncontrolled by political parties, a deeper insight into their intentions reveals a view of political economy that lesser minds have failed to grasp. The truth, Edward Stanwood declared, is that "later generations have departed from what seems to have been their original intentions." That such an apostasy had occurred was recognized by Joseph Smith. One cannot read his "Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States" . . . without being impressed with the similarity of his concept of government to that of the founding fathers and his desire to return to their ideals. On the issue of parties, the Prophet said"Unity is power; and when I reflect on the importance of it to the stability of governments, I am astounded at the silly moves of persons and parties to foment discord in order to ride into power on the current of popular excitement."(8) [p. 41]
Political Parties Undermine Checks and Balances
In considering the desirability of political parties, it should be borne in mind that to a very real extent political parties militate against the principle of separation of powers by undermining the system of checks and balances. They do this by weakening the motivation of government officials to resist encroachment. Under the party system a government official's ambition is best served by maintaining his standing with other members of his party. Hence, when persons influential in his party are involved in encroaching upon the authority of his department, his personal interest in remaining in their good graces is stronger than his personal interest in resisting their encroachment. In fact, if he resists them at all, it is likely to involve a sacrifice of his personal interests rather than a furtherance of them. In other words, unity in support of party is likely to supersede unity in support of the Constitution.
In considering political parties in the context of separation of powers and checks and balances, due concern should be given the possibility that all branches of the government may be controlled by a single party. The danger to our freedom system inherent in that possibility was indicated by James Madison in the following words:
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.(9) [p. 42] [p. 43]