In the long history of the United States, only one president, George Washington, did not represent a political party.

The Constitution that Washington helped draft in 1787, the Constitution our government still operates under today, makes no mention of political parties, and it clearly did not anticipate them. As originally ratified, the United States Constitution declared that the second-place vote getter in the presidential election would serve as vice president. It was not until 1804, with the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, that this changed.

Political parties as we know them today began to take shape while Washington was in office. By 1793 or 1794 there was an emerging split between two distinct visions for the future of the country. Groups calling themselves Democratic Republican Societies began to appear in cities around the nation. They would form the nucleus of a formal, concerted opposition party, something that frightened many people, including Washington. 

Forming Parties

Washington and His Cabinet, from left to right: George Washington, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph. Published by Currier & Ives, c. 1876. Library of Congress.

Washington and His Cabinet, from left to right: George Washington, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph. Published by Currier & Ives, c. 1876. Library of Congress.

Only after Great Britain and revolutionary France went to war in 1793 did the Democratic Republican party really begin to form itself as a true opposition party in American politics, against what would become known as the Federalist Party. Some ongoing debates over domestic issues, like the creation of a national bank and other economic policies, became intertwined with divisive foreign-policy questions, such as whether the United States should enter the war on the side of the French Republic.

Explore the political rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton

Washington's Role

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1798, MVLA, H-4/A-B, Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1798, MVLA, H-4/A-B, Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904.

Washington remained above the fray; he wanted to be a president of all the American citizens. The most important reason was he believed unity, not division, was necessary for a democratic republic to survive. Washington believed that political parties would divide and destroy the young United States.

His thought, in what became known as the Farewell Address in 1796, is clear: "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.

Throughout his political life, and until his death in 1799, George Washington was confident that the country could and should function without the existence of political parties.

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