The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
--George Washington, Farewell Address, September 26, 1796
I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of this society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820
There must be a positive passion for the public good… established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.
--John Adams, letter to Mercy Warren, April 16, 1776
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men … 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.
--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
--James Madison, Federalist No. 10, November 23, 1787
If we move in mass, be it ever so circuitously, we shall attain our object; but if we break into squads, everyone pursuing the path he thinks most direct, we become an easy conquest to those who can now barely hold us in check.
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Duane, 1811
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
--James Madison, letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822
Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.
--John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
--James Madison, letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.
--Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
--George Washington, Farewell Address, September 26, 1796
Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.
--John Adams, Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
… the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and…no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.
--James Madison, Federalist No. 45, January 26, 1788
…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
--Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil.
--James Madison, Parties, January 23, 1792
Living Up to the Founding Generation's Vision
At its core, The Common Interest is an effort to more fully realize the vision
that the founding generation had for government by, for, and of the people.
Over 200 years since they declared our independence, it's difficult for us to
fully appreciate the audacity of that act. Never in the history of the world
had popular government succeeded for any extended length of time or on any large
scale. Although intimately familiar with that record of failure, they dared
to fight for an opportunity to give government by the people another try even
though it would require defeating the most dominant military power since Rome.
It is a stunningly bold vision. Yet, if all they had had was a bold vision
the American republican experiment would likely have suffered the fate of early
efforts. The members of the founding generation were remarkable because they
combined an audacious vision with a practical, clear-eyed assessment of why
popular government had always failed in the past. Understanding the source of
past failures, they fashioned path-breaking innovations that were essential
to making our system of government by the people the most enduring in history.
They well understood, however, that their innovative ideas were necessary but
insufficient. In their view, the government they founded would also require
wise citizens who were not only informed about the issues of the day, but who
also understood the pitfalls of popular government and did their part to avoid
The Common Interest is based on a careful reading of the Founders' vision and
an earnest attempt to heed their guidance.
The Problem of Faction: The Central Problem of Popular Government
The Founders' agreed that a leading explanation for popular government's abysmal
track record was its vulnerability to what they called the "problem of
faction." Once the ultimate power resided in the people, it had always
proved too tempting to engage the political process in ways that would advance
one's narrow self interest at others' expense. Those with similar interests
inevitably banded together to vie with groups that had competing interests.
The resulting contention had always resulted in unjust policies and instability
that eventually led to all popular governments' collapse.
James Madison, in particular, studied the history of democracies' failures
extensively and the problems of America's own early experiments. He captured
a central conclusion he drew from that study in the opening lines of Federalist
No. 10, the most famous and influential of the 85 Federalist essays. Madison
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none
deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control
the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself
so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their
propensity to this dangerous vice.
George Washington was equally convinced that the problem of faction was the
primary weakness of government by the people. On September 17, 1796, he announced
that he would not seek a third term as president and thereby became the only
leader of a successful revolution in history to voluntarily lay down power.
Knowing the attention his historic announcement would garner, he went on in
his Farewell Address to warn that the "Spirit of Party":
...exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled,
controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in
its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination
of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to
party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the
most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
More the 200 years later, we see a rising tide of special interest influence,
with the number of professional lobbyists in Washington D.C. more than doubling
in the last ten years to now exceed 34,000. We hear our political system described
as a "culture war" in which faithful conservatives and secular liberals
contend with one another. In our day the founding generation's assessment that
our greatest vulnerability lay in our susceptability to faction seems painfully
accurate. The need for citizens to understand and address that vulnerability
is more accute than ever.
A Two-Fold Solution: The New Structure for Popular Government and Wise
The Founders agreed that soley relying on people's willingness to resist factions
and nobly put the broad public interest ahead their narrow self interest was
naive. More than any other Founder, Madison labored to erect defenses against
factionalism through the structure of government. In Federalist No. 10, he turned
centuries of conventional wisdom about popular government on its head by arguing
that a large republic would be more enduring than a small one. Previously, the
assumption had been that the only hope for avoiding the crippling effects of
faction was to have a republic small enough that the similarity of people's
interests would reduce the diviergent interests that are the source of factionalism.
Madison argued, however, that the diversity of interests within the broad sphere
of the United States would actually protect against the evils of factionalism.
Particularly if combined with a structure of divided government with checks
and balances, Madison argued that the diversity of interests in a large American
republic would make it difficult for one faction or another to gain enough power
to pursue their narrow self interests at everyone else's expense. Measures that
had wide popular support because they were in the broad public interest, he
suggested, would be the only measures with good prospects for prevailing.
Just a few years after helping to persuade the country to ratify the Constitution,
Madison become more convinced than ever that these constitutional structures,
while necessary, were insufficient protection against factionalism. In particular,
he started to recognize that the system he, more than anyone, had designed had
some unique vulnerabilities to faction. Since the system was, by design, so
complicated, it was easy for common citizens to feel that it was impossible
for them to effectively participate and influence it. To the extent that common
citizens checked out, they surrendered the ground to narrow factions, making
it easier to impose their self interest on others. Accordingly, he began concerted
efforts to educate citizens to this danger and to mobilize them to excercise
their responsibilities for protecting the system against it. In 1791, four years
after writing Federalist No. 10, Madison published an article in a national
newspaper in which he argued to the American people that it would need to be:
…the patriotic study of all, to maintain
the various authorities established by our complicated system, each in its
respective constitutional sphere; and to erect over the whole,
one paramount Empire of reason, benevolence and brotherly affection.[emphasis
Madison continued to argue throughout his career that citizens' informed reason
combined with their brotherly affection, the opposite of factional contention,
was an essential compliment to our structural protections. Five years after
Madison's 1791 appeal to citizens, the problems of factionalism were continuing
to grow more dire, leading to Washington's warning in his 1796 Farewell Address
that, "The common & continual mischiefs of the Spirit of Party are
sufficient to make it the interest and duty of wise People to discourage and
The Common Interest: An Effort to Heed the Founders' Warnings
In an era when Washington D.C. and the 50 state capitals seem insistent on
having partisan and special interest food fights rather than mature and respectful
deliberation about practical solutions in the broad public interest, the need
for wise citizen participation is more important than ever. The Common Interest's
track record of legislative accomplishment after only three years of existence
and with no outside funding is confirmation of the Founders' wisdom. Just as
they had hoped, when we inform ourselves about practical solutions in the common
interest and organize in sensible ways, we can prevail over the excesses of
partisan and special interest politics.