We have strayed from the path our Founders forged 237 years ago. Under the Constitutional Republic they created after the Revolutionary War, the United States has prospered over the centuries beyond the founding generation’s wildest dreams; however, we are wandering further from those very Constitutional principles that enabled us to thrive.
Our Founders developed an ingenious system of checks and balances, which George Washington described as, “though not absolutely perfect, it is one of the best in the world.” This government “by the people, for the people,” empowered the citizenry to select representatives that would unite the nation’s factions while protecting those liberties so many died to defend.
But over the years, power has shifted from the local level to the federal government, where bitter partisanship clogs the mechanisms of that ingenious system by which we might begin to repair.
If history is a guide, Washington would not give up on our Constitutional Republic now – he would fight to return it to its proper functioning. And he would begin by rallying the electorate. As he did during his time, he would extol us to replace wayward politicians with leaders who will act in the best interests of the country instead of their party.
The evils of modern politics were foreshadowed by the prescient words of the founding generation.
Washington, our nation’s first and only president with no declared party allegiance, was perhaps the most weary of the harms caused by uncompromising political factions.
With the ink on the Constitution barely dry, the nation fractured into competitive political parties.
President Washington derided these factions as “[a] fire not to be quenched, . . . demand[ing] a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” He believed that they “agitate[d] the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindl[ing] the animosity of one part against another.”
Fortuitously, Washington prescribed how we might fight that fire: “by force of public opinion.”
James Madison echoed this sentiment in Federalist 10, where he suggested we might cure our partisan ills via an engaged electorate who diligently watch their leaders.
Our Founders charged us, the public, with the responsibility to elect those representatives that will rightfully uphold our Constitution – and reject those who place their own power and parties over the good of the nation. And what if we cannot find any good candidates? Run for office. It is our civic duty.
On this July Fourth, we find ourselves in a great country that is mired by politicians who seem to expend more resources fighting one another than adhering to our Constitution.
The United States government was never meant to be a “team sport” of Democrats vs. Republicans.
Our forward thinking Founders have gifted us with advice from the grave: we must beat back the partisanship with our votes and civic involvement, and install principled leaders, as our Founders were.
If we are to lead our nation towards those core Constitutional principles that have enabled us to prosper, we do so “by force of public opinion.”
“The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined,” Washington wrote in 1783, “At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”
Logan Beirne is an Olin Scholar at Yale Law School and author of "Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency" (Encounter Books 2013).