On Party Spirit

by William Hazlitt

Party spirit is one of the profoundnesses of Satan, or, in modern language, one of the dexterous equivoques and contrivances of our self-love, to prove that we, and those who agree with us, combine all that is excellent and praiseworthy in our own persons (as in a ring-fence), and that all the vices and deformity of human nature take refuge with those who differ from us. It is extending and fortifying the principle of theamour-propre, by calling to its aid the esprit de corps, and screening and surrounding our favourite propensities and obstinate caprices in the hollow squares or dense phalanxes of sects and parties. This is a happy mode of pampering our self-complacency, and persuading ourselves that we, and those that side with us, are ‘the salt of the earth’; of giving vent to the morbid humours of our pride, envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, those natural secretions of the human heart, under the pretext of self-defence, the public safety, or a voice from heaven, as it may happen; and of heaping every excellence into one scale, and throwing all the obloquy and contempt into the other, in virtue of a nickname, a watchword of party, a badge, the colour of a ribbon, the cut of a dress. We thus desolate the globe, or tear a country in pieces, to show that we are the only people fit to live in it; and fancy ourselves angels, while we are playing the devil. In this manner the Huron devours the Iroquois, because he is an Iroquois; and the Iroquois the Huron, for a similar reason: neither suspects that he does it because he himself is a savage, and no better than a wild beast; and is convinced in his own breast that the difference of man and tribe makes a total difference in the case. The Papist persecutes the Protestant, the Protestant persecutes the Papist in his turn; and each fancies that he has a plenary right to do so, while he keeps in view only the offensive epithet which ‘cuts the common link of brotherhood between them.’ The Church of England ill-treated the Dissenters, and the Dissenters, when they had the opportunity, did not spare the Church of England. The Whig calls the Tory a knave, the Tory compliments the Whig with the same title, and each thinks the abuse sticks to the party-name, and has nothing to do with himself or the generic name ofman. On the contrary, it cuts both ways; but while the Whigs say ‘The Tory is a knave, because he is a Tory,’ this is as much as to say, ‘I cannot be a knave, because I am a Whig’; and by exaggerating the profligacy of his opponent, he imagines he is laying the sure foundation, and raising the lofty superstructure, of his own praises. But if he says, which is the truth, ‘The Tory is not a rascal, because he is a Tory, but because human nature in power, and with the temptation, is a rascal,’ then this would imply that the seeds of depravity are sown in his own bosom, and might shoot out into full growth and luxuriance if he got into place, and this he does not wish to develop till he does get into place.

We may be intolerant even in advocating the cause of toleration, and so bent on making proselytes to freethinking as to allow no one to think freely but ourselves. The most boundless liberality in appearance may amount in reality to the most monstrous ostracism of opinion—not condemning this or that tenet, or standing up for this or that sect or party, but in a supercilious superiority to all sects and parties alike, and proscribing in one sweeping clause, all arts, sciences, opinions, and pursuits but our own. Till the time of Locke and Toland a general toleration was never dreamt of: it was thought right on all hands to punish and discountenance heretics and schismatics, but each party alternately claimed to be true Christians and Orthodox believers. Daniel De Foe, who spent his whole life, and wasted his strength, in asserting the right of the Dissenters to a Toleration (and got nothing for his pains but the pillory), was scandalised at the proposal of the general principle, and was equally strenuous in excluding Quakers, Anabaptists, Socinians, Sceptics, and all who did not agree in theessentials of Christianity—that is, who did not agree with him—from the benefit of such an indulgence to tender consciences. We wonder at the cruelties formerly practised upon the Jews: is there anything wonderful in it? They were at that time the only people to make a butt and a bugbear of, to set up as a mark of indignity, and as a foil to our self-love, for the feræ naturæ principle that is within us, and always craving its prey to run down, to worry and make sport of at discretion, and without mercy—the unvarying uniformity and implicit faith of the Catholic Church had imposed silence, and put a curb on our jarring dissensions, heartburnings, and ill-blood, so that we had no pretence for quarrelling among ourselves for the glory of God or the salvation of men:—aJordanus Bruno, an Atheist or sorcerer, once in a way, would hardly suffice to stay the stomach of our theological rancour; we therefore fell with might and main upon the Jews as a forlorn hope in this dearth of objects of spite or zeal; or when the whole of Europe was reconciled to the bosom of holy Mother Church, went to the Holy Land in search of a difference of opinion, and a ground of mortal offence: but no sooner was there a division of the Christian World, than Papist fell on Protestants or Schismatics, and Schismatics upon one another, with the same loving fury as they had before fallen upon Turks and Jews. The disposition is always there, like a muzzled mastiff; the pretext only is wanting; and this is furnished by a name, which, as soon as it is affixed to different sects or parties, gives us a licence, we think, to let loose upon them all our malevolence, domineering humour, love of power, and wanton mischief, as if they were of different species. The sentiment of the pious English Bishop was good, who, on seeing a criminal led to execution, exclaimed, ‘There goes my wicked self!’

If we look at common patriotism, it will furnish an illustration of party spirit. One would think by an Englishman’s hatred of the French, and his readiness to die fighting with and for his countrymen, that all the nation were united as one man, in heart and hand—and so they are in war-time and as an exercise of their loyalty and courage: but let the crisis be over, and they cool wonderfully; begin to feel the distinctions of English, Irish, and Scotch; fall out among themselves upon some minor distinction; the same hand that was eager to shed the blood of a Frenchman, will not give a crust of bread or a cup of cold water to a fellow countryman in distress; and the heroes who defended the ‘wooden walls of old England’ are left to expose their wounds and crippled limbs to gain a pittance from the passengers, or to perish of hunger, cold, and neglect, in our highways. Such is the effect of our boasted nationality: it is active, fierce in doing mischief; dormantly lukewarm in doing good. We may also see why the greatest stress is laid on trifles in religion, and why the most violent animosities arise out of the smallest differences, either in this or in politics.

In the first place, it would never do to establish our superiority over others by the acquisition of greater virtues, or by discarding our vices; but it is charming to do this by merely repeating a different formula of prayer, turning to the east instead of the west. He should fight boldly for such a distinction, who is persuaded it will furnish him a passport to the other world, and entitle him to look down on the rest of his fellows as given over to perdition. Secondly, we often hate those most with whom we have only a slight shade of difference, whether in politics or religion; because as the whole is a contest for precedence and infallibility, we find it more difficult to draw the line of distinction where so many points are conceded, and are staggered in our conviction by the arguments of those whom we cannot despise as totally and incorrigibly in the wrong. The High Church party in Queen Anne’s time were disposed to sacrifice the Low Church and Dissenters to the Papists, because they were more galled by their arguments and disconcerted with their pretensions. In private life the reverse of the foregoing holds good: that is, trades and professions present a direct contrast to sects and parties. A conformity in sentiment strengthens our party and opinion, but those who have a similarity of pursuit, are rivals in interest; and hence the old maxim, that two of a trade can never agree.

Monadnock Valley Press > Hazlitt