With partisanship so often denounced today, opinion appears split between viewing political parties as a necessary evil or just evil. Those sentiments have deep roots. Josiah Tucker, an 18th-century Anglican divine and political economist, juxtaposed party with the common good in his 1781 Treatise Concerning Civil Government, while Adam Smith called “faction and fanaticism” the greatest corrupters of moral sentiments. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned that party spirit “serves always to distract public councils and enfeeble public administration” and also “foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” None of these seem much of a recommendation.
Yet party seems an inescapable part of representative government. How else can support be mobilized effectively? The success of Britain’s government, Lord Castlereagh told the House of Commons in 1817, derived “from that conflict of parties, chastened by the principles of the constitution, and subdued by the principle of decorum.” His Whig counterpart Thomas Creevey privately agreed that “without it nothing can be done.” However deplored in theory or threadbare in operation, party became part of the political furniture both in Britain and the United States.
Max Skjönsberg traces the 18th-century dialogue about this “enduring and crucial part of British politics” in his outstanding new book, The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord. Political practice and philosophical inquiry alike sought to tame conflict in a representative system where public opinion involved more than a narrow slice of metropolitan elites. Skjönsberg shows how theory aimed both to explain phenomena and help one side or another make its case. At the center of the story is a paradox articulated by David Hume: just as parties threaten the total dissolution of government, they also provide the source of life and vigor in politics.
Rapin: Party and Balance
If party divided and thereby weakened states, how did Britain defeat France under the absolutist regime of Louis XIV? The long struggle from 1688 included an era described as the “rage of party” under Queen Anne. Foreigners remarked on how even ordinary people in England discussed public affairs and politics. Voltaire observed from experience how party made half the nation the enemy of the other half. Even by mid-century, some feared party risked a return to the civil wars of the 1640s while others likened it to religious schism as a source of disorder.
Paul de Rapin-Thoyras (1661-1725), a French Huguenot Skjönsberg rightly described as “often mentioned, but rarely studied in detail,” sought to explain England’s triumph for a European readership. In his influential Histoire d’Angleterre, he developed a taxonomy of party and argued that England alone in Europe preserved a free constitution with power shared between king and subjects.
Rapin grounded English party rivalries in James I’s (1603-1625) efforts to curb parliament as a check on royal power. His son Charles I (1625-1649) went further in a bid for absolute rule that sparked parliamentary resistance and then civil war. Religion set those upholding the Anglican Church of England, with its hierarchal structure, against others seeking a Presbyterian settlement. The labels “Cavalier” and “Roundhead” lasted into the 1660s before “Tory” and “Whig” gradually replaced them. Rapin acknowledged political and ecclesiastical wings in both parties, finding those focused on politics to be more moderate.
Party conflict, Rapin argued, balanced monarchy and parliament to protect England’s constitution and church. Without it, one side would impose its will to the ruin of the other and detriment of the state. Rapin echoed Niccolo Machiavelli’s case that balance strengthened a mixed regime and channeled political tensions, but the divide was along the lines of party rather than social order. Party reflected ideological allegiances under a recognized banner rather than mere personal followings. Different reasons drew people to the same party, which would inevitably reflect those divisions, but Rapin thought this partisan diversity checked extremes by strengthening moderate factions
Jacobitism, however, tainted party with disloyalty. Its support for the excluded Stuart line challenged the legitimacy of Anne’s Hanoverian successors and threatened the state. George I ended the “rage of party” by excluding Tories as Jacobite sympathizers or worse. Robert Harley, a Tory minster under Anne, had imagined a self-regulating two party system operating “like a door which turns both ways upon its hinges to let in each party as it grows triumphant.” But the king locked it shut. Court and country parties emerged in the 1720s as an alternative with the latter including Tories and Whigs disaffected by the monarchy. Court Whigs, whose ascendancy persisted into the 1750s, sought to protect the revolution settlement of 1688 guaranteeing parliamentary liberty and the protestant succession.
Bolingbroke: Toward a Constitutional Opposition
Despite being seen as an advocate of a non-party state, Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751) spent much of his career justifying opposition’s legitimacy. Skjönsberg warns against reading his later views on party, especially those in The Idea of a Patriot King (1738), into his earlier years. A Tory minister who learned the working of party first hand, Bolingbroke fled to Paris in 1715 and espoused the Jacobite cause before returning to England with a pardon in 1723. He then became a perceptive critic of the long Whig Ascendancy.
Commentators used party and faction as synonyms, but Bolingbroke distinguished them: faction set private interest above the public good, while party organized supporters around the public good. Court Whigs led by Sir Robert Walpole represented faction, even if it hid “under the name and appearance of a national party.” Indeed, Bolingbroke sought to revive the spirit of liberty that had animated past opposition to powerful monarchs and set it against Walpole, who joined influence at court with control over parliament. He railed against corruption both in the form of executive influence over the legislature and the decline of public virtue which made that dominance possible.
Opposition was not only legitimate, Bolingbroke contended, but right given the court party’s self-interested corruption. Downplaying Jacobitism, Bolingbroke developed a case for legitimate opposition of landowners and traders who paid the cost of a fiscal-military state through taxation that serviced public debt held by a moneyed interest of financiers tied to the government. Far from entirely rejecting party, his writings, Skjönsberg persuasively argues, legitimized constitutional opposition and made a case for a country party to mount it.
Hume: Parties of Principle, Interest, and Affection
The difficulties entailed in determining the nature of party, David Hume (1711-1776) wrote in the 1740s, proved that history contained as much uncertainty as the most abstract sciences. He engaged both Rapin and Bolingbroke as the long Whig Supremacy gave way to a more fluid politics where party seemed to fade from view. Walpole’s system crumbled during the 1750s, and Jacobitism’s collapse as a viable political option lifted the taint of foreign sympathies on Tories, enabling them to cooperate more easily with country Whigs. The “Old Corps” of court Whigs could no longer form governments on their own.
Hume wrote as these changes unfolded and their effects shaped his thinking. An early essay observed how parties formed over real differences in principle but continued even after that purpose had been lost, often taking the form of personal loyalties. His typology drew on European examples to categorize parties as those based on interest, principle, or affection with the first as the most reasonable ground. Differences from interest were inevitable, but Hume saw those from principle, especially religion, as the most contentious. Affection involved dynastic loyalty epitomized by Jacobitism, but it also encompassed other loyalties. High Church Anglicans gave Tories a formidable base even in opposition, even though operating as a country party went against their principle of upholding royal authority. While Britain’s parliamentary constitution made the court-country split inevitable, Hume thought it fell along lines at odds with ideology.
Aware that party would not go away, Hume sought to “persuade men not to contend, as if they were fighting pro aris & focis, and change a good constitution into a bad one by the violence of their factions.” Revealing the strengths and weakness in each party’s viewpoints served that end. Indeed, Hume said that his view of things followed Whig prejudices and of persons Tory ones. In The History of England he traced both the development of party and how it corrupted understandings of the past. Rather than an ancient constitution outlasting challenges, he saw a series of constitutions emerging through practice.
Burke: Party as a Bulwark against Despotism
Coalition governments, like that of Newcastle and William Pitt the Elder during the Seven Years’ War, served Hume’s aim by strengthening moderates. Party could then harmonize discord instead of fueling it. The Pitt-Newcastle coalition joined independent and court Whigs (the critics of corruption with those allegedly promoting it, as Hume noted). Tories remained outsiders until George III ended their exclusion. Their reemergence, however, sparked a massive realignment, and an established party framework disintegrated during the 1760s even as labels persisted, attached to followers of leading politicians and a group of “king’s friends” who looked to the crown for their lead.
In this unstable period, the old anti-party argument saw a revival in the ideas of people like John Brown (1715-1766). Brown argued that, since liberty rested upon giving up desires inconsistent with the general welfare, opinion, as in Sparta, ought to “be free, yet still united.”
Skjönsberg, however, shows that the 1760s made room for a positive view of party provided by Edmund Burke. Jacobitism’s defeat provided space for “an unapologetic case for party” grounded on a combination of public and private loyalty. The Marquess of Rockingham, Burke’s patron and friend who inherited from Newcastle the Old Corps connection, showed how it could be done. Those Whigs resisted George III’s efforts to end party distinction, and Rockingham, with Burke, led them as an opposition rather than a court party. Burke, like Brown, feared the disappearance of political principle, but he offered party as a solution by distinguishing it from faction. Lord Hardwicke had set “honorable connection” apart from faction earlier, and the strength of Burke’s case often lay in reminding his readers what they already knew. By declining overtures in 1766 and staying with Rockingham when others took office in Lord Chatham’s administration, he made an important point. Party rested on a bond of confidence that enabled men to cooperate in pursuit of shared aims. He defined it as “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Other “pernicious connections” Burke labeled as factions or cabals. Where for Hume, principle hardened differences, Burke found in it a way to raise public duty above self-interest.
Party checked another pernicious trend for Burke: the exercise of independent royal influence through means of patronage beyond parliamentary oversight. Drawing on Montesquieu, Burke saw that men of property and rank, when united, could be an intermediate power between king and people and thereby resist despotism.
Burke’s argument supported his later case against the French Revolution no less than his opposition to George III. The Rockingham Whigs outlasted their namesake’s death, but split over the French Revolution. Burke feared not only the end to monarchy in France, but “the utter ruin of whole orders and classes of men” leaving no bulwark against tyranny of whoever led the mob. He saw French sympathizers like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft threatening Britain’s constitution as radical non-conformists in the 1600s had done. They, like Jacobites, opposed not men or measures but the system itself, which true Whigs strove to uphold. Loyal opposition, aiming to uphold rather than overthrow the constitution, had become an accepted feature by the 1800s.
Harmony and Discord
Ideas about party in 18th-century Britain developed from a dialogue responding to events. They served as a means to claim power or demonize rivals. Viewing them in this context leads to different conclusions than thinking of them as emerging from a grand narrative or great debate among thinkers.
While men like Brown envisioned a world without party, their arguments made better sense in principle than as a guide to political practice. Recognizing the inevitability of differences, others sought to manage consequent tensions. Discord could be harmonized if it could be channeled within bounds. Mobilizing opinion secured consent both to policies and the political system as a whole. Hence the eventual legitimacy party acquired. Indeed, the absence of disagreement and a misleading consensus might simply stifle discussion and conceal dangers. Rather than disparaging party and striving for a unity that does not exist, we might think, instead, of how to make harmony from discord.