How Political Parties Used the Memory of George Washington, 1799-1854
Seroka, Lauren E.
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In his famous Farewell Address, George Washington warned the nation against political parties: "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension ... is itself a frightful despotism." Despite his clear warning in 1796, political parties developed, became, and remained a key component of the American political landscape. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, politicians engaged in fierce party politics and adopted campaign techniques, such as parades, public speaking tours, and bribery to bolster their party's candidates and platforms. Parties also frequently adopted patriotic symbols to signal to the male electorate that they were truly American. Ironically, one of the symbols that political parties adopted was the man who disapproved of parties—George Washington. Over the course of a half-century, the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Democrats, National Republicans, and Whigs used the memory of George Washington to attack their political rivals, promote their political agendas and presidential candidates, and symbolize their dedication to stabilizing and preserving the Union. The ways in which parties used Washington's memory varied because parties molded his memory in order to reflect society's changing needs, desires, and anxieties. Not all parties remembered Washington to the same extent; the Federalists and Whigs used the memory of Washington more extensively than other parties because they lacked strong leadership in the nineteenth century. The Democratic-Republicans could not claim Washington when he was alive and they adopted Thomas Jefferson as a symbol and point of comparison for their party. The National Republicans did not adopt Washington because they wanted to distance themselves from the Federalists and struggled to adapt to the changing political culture. Like the Democratic-Republicans, the Democrats had another party symbol, Andrew Jackson, that competed with the party's use of Washington as a partisan symbol. Even if they did not use Washington's memory often, however, they all recognized the power of using this political and cultural memory to further their political goals. Despite the fact that the party's use of Washington's memory was a strategic political tool, the comparisons and contrasts between Washington and the candidates did not determine the outcome of the election. This study is limited to how political parties at the national level remembered Washington. Political parties at the state and local levels also used his memory for political reasons, but the study at the national level reveals how anxieties and feelings were shared across state and local boundaries. These commonalities are important to find in a time when the nation had sectionalist tendencies and Americans had strong allegiances to their states and regions. George Washington was a unifying symbol that Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, northerners, southerners, westerners, and easterners adopted. But in order to understand the ways Washington was remembered and how parties took advantage of this memory, it is necessary to examine how and why Washington became the man that was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the heart of his countrymen."