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Principle over party

By Steve Farrell
web posted February 23, 2004

Free elections are a blessing. So why do I cringe every time the election bell rings?

Maybe it's because, despite the fact that government by consent is a principle you and I claim as a common right, the process of electing men and women of like minded principles is rarely about principles at all, but more like a loud, dishonest, ugly exercise in "me over you," and "party over party."

"Stick to principles, not personalities", an American religious leader once counseled.

Great advice. Over two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson advised the same.

Though not altogether immune from the effects of party spirit, himself, Mr. Jefferson made an honest effort throughout his life to detach himself from it. Replying to a letter from Francis Hopkinson, regarding whether he, Jefferson, were a Federalist or anti-Federalist, Jefferson responded:

"You say that I have been dished up to you as an anti-federalist, and ask me if it be just. My opinion was never worthy enough of notice to merit citing; but since you ask it, I will tell it to you. I am not a federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in polities or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself.

"Such an addiction, is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." (1)

I like that. Who shouldn't? Party spirit is like a grasping, dulling drug that chips away at a man's agency, and, for that matter, a nation's liberties, because when people turn to ‘the party' to do their thinking, people stop thinking. Even for those whose minds and mouths remain in motion, when under ‘the influence', more often than not, the perceived motion is but a parroting of the vague, vulgar, venom party provides, and little more.

Man was meant for more than this. Jefferson, for his part, wanted to do his own thinking, not blindly rely upon party.

"Therefore, I am not of the party of federalists. But I am much farther from that of the anti-federalists. I approved, from the first moment, of the great mass of what is in the new Constitution; the consolidation of the government; the organization into executive, legislative, and judiciary; the subdivision of the legislative; the happy compromise of interests between the great and little States, by the different manner of voting in the different Houses; the voting by persons instead of States; the qualified negative on laws given to the executive, which, however, I should have liked better if associated with the judiciary also…

"What I disapproved from the first moment also, was the want of a bill of rights, to guard liberty against the legislative as well as the executive branches of the government; that is to say, to secure freedom in religion, freedom of the press, freedom from monopolies, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, freedom from a permanent military, and a trial by jury, in all cases determinable by the laws of the land. I disapproved, also, the perpetual re-eligibility of the President. To these points of disapprobation I adhere."

Jefferson sought a few amendments to the Constitution, but not at the sacrifice of seeing "the great mass of good it contained" overthrown in a hot debate. Let it go into force first, and then let us make intelligent changes through the amendment process later, he was persuaded, so that the union might be preserved.

"These, my dear friend, are my sentiments, by which you will see I was right in saying I am neither federalist nor anti-federalist; that I am of neither party, nor yet a trimmer between parties."

This is the way things ought to be: principle first and principle last, and so a people who do "a little reflection" before they vote.

That Jefferson made a valiant effort to be true to his 1789 resolve is evidenced by his successful peacemaking between the warring parties as president, by his resolve (despite being big on state rights) to put union first and state rights second, and by his post-presidency repair of busted bridges between he and John Adams (a friendship wounded by ‘party' people), so that he and Adams might join in a decades long pursuit of true principles, wherever they were found.

Were every citizen to follow Jefferson's example, party would fade, principle would reign, and we'd all have a lot less to cringe about, a whole lot more to think about when the election bell rings.

ESR senior writer Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe College, a pundit at America's News Page, NewsMax.com, and the author of the highly praised inspirational novel, "Dark Rose." Contact Steve at stevenmfarrell@cox.net.

Footnote
1. All Jefferson quotes in this article are from: Bergh, Albert Ellery, editor. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VII, pgs. 299-302, Letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789.

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