Tag Archives: Factions

A common foe keeps friends united.

the annihilation of federal opposition has given opportunity to our friends to divide in various parts. a want of concert [unity] here threatens divisions at the fountain head [source]. nor is it on principle, but on measures that the division shews itself. but I fear it will produce separations which will be as prejudicial as they are painful.
To John Minor, March 2, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders appreciate the unifying effect of a strong opposition.
John Minor (1761-1816) was 18 years younger than Jefferson, a Virginia lawyer and Republican. The Federalist majority in Washington had been reversed by the election of 1800 and reduced to an empty shell in 1804. Jefferson lamented an unfortunate result of the Republican ascendency.

Since there was no political opposition to unite against, Republicans were splintering into factions and turning on one another. They weren’t disagreeing on key principles but on “measures,” how to implement those ideas. Not only would friendships be sacrificed over those differences, but prejudices would arise as factions accused one another of bad faith.

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Heard the one about two men in a lighthouse?

 
… speaking with Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin of this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties, he gave his sentiments, as usual, by way of apologue [a story with a moral]. He mentioned the Eddystone lighthouse in the British channel, as being built on a rock in the mid-channel, totally inaccessible in winter from the boisterous character of that sea, in that season; that, therefore, for the two keepers, employed to keep up the lights, all provisions for the winter were necessarily carried to them in autumn, as they could never be visited again till the return of the milder season; that, on the first practicable day in the spring a boat put off to them with fresh supplies. The boatmen met at the door one of the keepers and accosted him with a “How goes it, friend”? “Very well”. “How is your companion”? “I do not know”. “Don’t know? Is he not here”? “I can’t tell”. “Have not you seen him to-day”? “No”. “When did you see him”? “Not since last fall”. “You have killed him”? “Not I, indeed”. They were about to lay hold of him, as having certainly murdered his companion: but he desired them to go upstairs and examine for themselves. They went up, and there found the other keeper. They had quarreled, it seems, soon after being left there, had divided into two parties, assigned the cares below to one, and those above to the other, and had never spoken to, or seen one another since.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders recognize factions are just a way of life.
Since I’m excerpting Jefferson’s autobiography, this is the next noteworthy passage, even though it was a post more than three years ago.
The Continental Congress was having difficulty governing. Men divided into factions and refused to cooperate. As minister to France, Jefferson witnessed the same problem there. He used Franklin’s story to illustrate “this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties.”
If we bemoan how our political leaders now seem to divide into separate camps and refuse to talk with one another, this story reminds us it was that way in the late 1700s, too. The light keepers in Franklin’s story had an advantage, though. They didn’t have to cooperate to get the job done.
Benjamin Franklin often told a story to make a point, the meaning of “apologue,” the word Jefferson used in the first sentence above.

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What’s the best way to get rid of outdated laws?

Factions get possession of the public councils [legislatures]. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.
To James Madison, September 6, 1789

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders recognize that human nature will subvert the public good.
This is from the same letter I excerpted two days ago. Jefferson addressed the issue of one generation binding a future one.

Since any law or constitution could be repealed, wasn’t that adequate protection? No.
Do laws really need to carry an expiration date? Yes.

In a perfect society, the right to repeal would be adequate, but Jefferson recognized human nature as far from perfect. These get in the way:

– Factions, or special interest groups
– Bribery, or theft and greed
– Personal interests, which trump the public good
– “and other impediments” (Could you list a few?)

Far better that laws, constitutions and taxes (!) come with expiration dates. At a later time, voters could extend them if they wanted. Otherwise, if dependent on repeal, future generations might be stuck with them forever.

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