Advice for the Ages
George Washington in his second and final four year term as as the first President of a newly constituted United States of America on September 19, 1796 gave his farewell address to his fellow citizens. Many in the Nation were distraught at the thought of his leaving the highest office of the land and wanted him to run again, but Washington knew that for the Nation to continue its march to the beat of Liberty a self imposed term limit was necessary. None the less, he bequeathed to his fellow citizens, in this his Farewell Address, sage advice concerning a variety of issues concerning the politics of the New Nation.
One of his greatest concerns to which he spoke was the tendency of political parties to be born of factions within a Nation . His words echo true today as we see the intransigent political buffoonery with which the halls of our government are afflicted. Washington said on that September day, "All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to snake the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.“
Washington having witnessed the heated deliberations that created the Constitution of the United Sates understood completely the danger of allowing regional, policy or ideological factions to become the predominant drivers of political thought in the new Nation. He goes on in his Farewell Address to instruct the People of these dangers.
"However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying. afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”
Washington understood that it is the spirit of human nature for People to bind together in self interested factions in order to gain advantage. But he warns that to give in to this spirit risks the public Liberty. We see this every day as news of intransigent political hacks refusing to solve the pressing problems of the day permeates the airwaves.
“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It 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. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
Perhaps Washington was already seeing the effect of the organization of factions into parties in his own time. His words are cautionary toward the practice. His address foretells the the excess party partisanship and subsequent despotism of the likes of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) in his Farewell Speech. The political parties of today fight over the bones of the Liberty of the American People.
“There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose; and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume. It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those intrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.”
Because we have allowed the almost eradication of religious thought in the public sphere we tend to think of the founders of the United States as somehow devoid of religion when it came to their fellow citizens and politics. Washington, for one, had strong thoughts on the importance of religion to the perpetuation of the Nation and expressed them in his Farewell Address.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness–these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Washington would have abhorred the idea of a Nation indebted to the tune of of seventeen and a half trillion dollars with no sound measures to pay it off. As he said in the excerpt from his Farewell Address below the public credit is something to be cherished.
“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives; but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate.”
In His Farewell Address George Washington set a course for the citizens of the new Nation of the United States that if followed would have prevented many of the follies of modern American government. His address in its entirety is a blueprint for national governance with utmost respect for the Liberty of the Citizens of the United States of America. It should be read before the start of every new Congress and should be required reading for every high school student.
Start a conversation using these share links: