The Founders recognized that the success of the new republic depended upon civic virtue, or what would have then been called “republican virtue.” Taken from classical thought, the concept included public service as a duty or sacrifice. That is, citizens did not seek public office in order to obtain power, influence, or status, but rather to serve their nation, as a matter of patriotic duty. Virtuous citizens, when able, were expected to sacrifice income and leisure in holding public office and they were to put the interests of the nation above their own. Persons did not “run” for office, therefore. Instead, they “stood” for office. They would at least pretend not to desire the office, but rather to be willing to make the sacrifice to take it if their fellow citizens asked them to.
George Washington attempted to model this “republican virtue” by his conduct and example. As soon as he believed the army no longer required his service, he stepped down. He later accepted, but did not campaign for, the presidency.
When Washington saw his cabinet (and the country as a whole) splitting into competing factions, he was distressed. He decried the emergence of political parties, declaring in his Farewell Address that the “spirit of party,” “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.”
Because Washington believed so strongly in republican virtue and so adamantly opposed the emergence of political parties, historians have wondered why he didn’t step in and forcefully use his immense influence and authority to try to stamp them out. Some conclude that Washington’s refusal to attack the partisanship aggressively was in fact just another manifestation of his belief in republican virtue. It seems likely that he believed that the best way to combat the rise of parties and divisive partisanship was to behave as he had while commanding the army; that is, to model moderation and non-partisanship in his own conduct, trusting that his virtuous example would carry the day.
Perhaps the Founders’ reliance on republican virtue was naïve. Washington acknowledged in his Farewell Address that some believed political parties “are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty.” But he insisted that while that may be true in a monarchy, in republics “it is a spirit not to be encouraged…there being constant danger of excess.” He called upon the force of public opinion to keep political partisanship under control. “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.”
The painting is John Trumbull’s “General George Washington Resigning His Commission.”
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