- Published: 27 December 2011
Noah Webster, June, 1802
No task is more delicate and hazardous, then that of criticism and censure. To err, is the common lot of men—to acknowledge errors, is the rare felicity of great minds. The man who discovers his own mistake, feels dissatisfied with himself—he who exposes the mistakes of another, incurs his displeasure. Yet in political affairs, in which the individuals of a society have a common interest, it is the right and even the duty of every citizen, who believes public measures to be wrong, to express his opinions with decency and candor, and offer the reasons on which they are founded.
Nothing is so fatal to truth and tranquility, as party spirit. It is rash, imperious, unyielding, unforgiving. Blind to truth, and deaf to argument, it sees no merit in an enemy; no demerit, in a friend. Urged by the passion or convenience of the moment, it rushes impetuously to the attainment of its object, regardless of events, and forgetting that it’s own example may be drawn into precedent, and under a change of parties, prove a two-edged sword, as fatal to friends as to foes.
To a man versed in the history of nations, the conditions of parties in the United States, presents nothing new, but the men and the forms of proceeding. The general principles, view and passions displayed, are the same as have characterized parties in all ages and countries. Individuals of aspiring minds, who have been mortified by neglect, or irritated by the agitations of successless competition; men who can neither bear an equal, nor yield to a superior; have the address to inlist into their service, the credulous and illiterate multitude. To oppose them, men of principle unite and form a party. Public measures are proposed or attacked with zeal—opposition begets obstinacy—argument is resisted by will—mutual concessions are either not proposed, or rejected—and laws passed under such circumstances are either soon repealed, or ineffectual in their operation.
Parties thus arrayed against each other, often lose sight of the original points of difference; or magnify trifling differences into matters of vast concern to the public. Zeal is inflamed to enthusiasm—the regard to truth is extinguished in the desire of victory—and moderation yields to the apprehension of defeat. Then begins the reign of corruption—each party determines to triumph—and neither constitution nor law, religion nor morality, reputation nor conscience, can raise effectual barriers to restrain their passions and pursuits.
In this warfare of parties, the adherants to each voluntarily put themselves under a favorite leader, and take a popular name. Thus organized, each party rallies under the name and the leader, with the esprite du corps for the moving principle; forgetting the origin, or ignorant of the motives, of the association. The leader is stimulated by pride; his adherants, by the sound of his name, or the appellation of the party, which is neither understood nor intelligible. A white rose, a red rose, a cockade—round-head or cavalier, whig or tory, federalist or democrat, or other insignificant appellation, becomes the rallying point for a headstrong populace, prepared for violence.
In the effervescence of popular passions, the leader who has gained the confidence of a party, must feed the hopes, and gratify the expectations, of his adherents. Applying to faction, the military maxim of M. Porcius Cato, "Bellum seipsum alit," "war feeds itself," a victorious leader supplies the wants, and secures the attachment, of his followers, by dividing among them the spoils of the vanquished. Then commences the reign of persecution and revenge. The man who mounts into office on popular confidence, may rise with impunity, above the constitution of his country, and trample on the rights of the people. Under the specious titles of a republican, and the friend of the people, he may exercise the despotism of a Frederic.
To parties in government or religion, may be applied the profound remark of the Roman historian, respecting the populace—"They are distinguished for mean servility, or insolent domination—real liberty, which occupies a middle section between extremes, they can neither enjoy nor reject with moderation."* Nor is it less true, as the historian adds, that "demagogues are seldom wanting, who favor the passions of the people, and inflame their restless and unruly dispositions, to the horrid work of blood and slaughter." The men who flatter the people become their masters; and the party which, while a minority, will lick the dust to gain the ascendancy, becomes, in power, insolent, vindictive and tyrannical.
However surprising may be the fact, the truth of it is not to be questioned, that parties equally forget or spurn the maxims of prudence, by which individuals regulate their conduct. In political concerns, expedience, rather than strict theoretical justice, is the rule of action and the measure of practicable good. Yet how rarely will parties yield an iota of their pretensions, to meet their opponents on the ground of expedience! The federalists, in 1798, stood on high ground—they pushed their advantages too far, and contributed not a little to their own overthrow, and to the triumph of men, whose principles threaten a speedy dissolution of the Union.
The proclamation of neutrality in April, 1793, was advised by the policy, and sanctioned by the deliberate approbation of the federal councils; while their opposers, with shameful solicitude, urged for the adoption of measures, which would result in a war, in concert with France, against Great-Britain. In 1798, when the outrages of the French government had turned the popular current, the federalists became the advocates of war, in direct contradiction of the principles of 1793, and nearly succeeded in carrying the proposition. In the period preceding 1797, the federalists complained, and justly, of the influence which the French had obtained over American presses; but in 1797, when a professed British subject, and a declared enemy of our Independence, established a Gazette in Philadelphia, the federalists opened not their mouths, but in many places, gave him unusual encouragement. Anterior to the year 1798, the federalists were outrageously clamorous against every opposer of the executive authority, denouncing him as a jacobin and disorganizer; but the moment the President adopted a measure that displeased particular men, the federalists turned their arms against the administration. And in the pursuit of this absurd policy, if one of their friends, wishing to be consistent, and foreseeing the ruinous tendency of such measures, happened to call in question the propriety of these contradictory proceedings, they fell upon him like wild beasts, ready to tear him in pieces.
*Aut servit bumiliter, aut superbe dominature—libertatem que media est, nec epernere modice, nec baber sciunt. Liv. Lib. 24. 25.
Of the measures before mentioned, we now severely feel the effects. The following essay on the Rights of Neutral Nations, presents to view another subject, no less interesting; and the consequences of the principles admitted by our government, in regard to it, are not yet fully felt, and may be remote. The Congress which conducted the revolution, recognized, with general approbation, the principles of the "Armed Neutrality," in regard to the freedom of neutral ships; and the proclamation of neutrality in 1793, virtually acknowledged the principles, in recommending "modern usage of nations," as the rule of contraband commerce. Yet in the treaty with Great-Britain, the administration receded from the principles. Then to vindicate the conduct of the government, immense efforts were made to prove the claims of neutral nations ill-founded, and to lessen the importance of free ships during a war. The immediate effect of these efforts has been, to give a false coloring to the subject, and a wrong direction to the public opinion. The ultimate effect, by enabling the British Court, in future negociations, to repel our claims to the principle of free ships, by the reasonings of our own administration, and the very popular administration of General Washington, no man can undertake to predict nor to estimate—The writer himself was misled by his confidence in the executive, and in the elementary authors to which the appeal was made for authorities. But the public should be disabused of their errors.—Within a year past, an effort has been made, thro the medium of the public prints, to depreciate the principles of free ships; and one writer has attempted to persuade our citizens that the privilege is not only no benefit, but a positive evil to a neutral nation. Where there is contradiction, there must be error. The unalterable principles of justice and true policy should not be held at the mercy of temporary attachments and aversons.
Such are the mistakes of the federalists, which have furnished their opposers with the most efficacious means of victory. On the other hand, the party which has assumed the name of republican, have not only objected to federal measures of a wrong or equivocal tendency, but have opposed, with unabating zeal, the most salutary regulations. They have struggled to defeat the measures intended to establish public credit, to enforce the laws, and to secure peace with Great-Britain. They have execrated, and would have invoked fire from heaven, to consume the proud, but rich, learned and respectable nation, to which the world is greatly indebted for arresting the career of French victories. They have omitted no opportunity to weaken the administration of our government, and degrade the honor of the American name. No public character, however pure, has been safe from the shafts of their malice—no corner of the United States has escaped the poison of their slanders.
Unfavorable as has been the opinion of the writer, respecting the principles and views of the leading men in the party, he had no conception that a man in the United States would have been found weak enough to avow the principles on which the present administration has proceeded; nor bold enough, under cover of republican principles, to attack the most essential provisions of the national compact.