George Washington’s Wisdom
April is an historic month for the office of President of the United States . On April 6, 1789, Congress met for the first time and proclaimed George Washington had been elected President unanimously. On April 30th , he was inaugurated. During the next eight years he was to gain priceless insights concerning the government of a free people. By the time he left office in 1797, he had become a treasure of political wisdom.
If anyone ever wants to know how the Founders would address the problems of today, which are not much different than the ones Washington faced, he just needs to consult Washington ‘s Farewell Address, delivered on Constitution Day, September 17, 1796, as he was preparing to leave office. No political document gives such clear direction to a nation in trouble, than does this message.
We ask the questions and President Washington gives the answers in these excerpts from his Farewell Address. (punctuation is updated)
Question: Of all the labels used in the country to magnify people’s differences in politics, religion, ethnicity, life styles, occupations, etc., what should be the most important unifying factor of all?
- “The name of American which belongs to you in your national capacity must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation …. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes… Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the Union of the whole.”
- “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affections.”
- “To the efficacy and permanency of your Union , a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict between the p,arts, can be an adequate substitute.”
Question: What is the problem of giving political and legal power to political parties, unions, and other combinations of people?
- “…all combinations and associations… with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive… 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] to make 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 councils and modified by mutual interests.”
- “However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely… 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….”
- “Let me now… warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party…. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists… in all governments… 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… is itself a frightening despotism.”
- “But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result [from wars between parties] 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.”
Question: What actually will happen to our government if run by competing parties?
- “…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.”
- “It [party spirit] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.”
- “It [party spirit] agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
- “It [party spirit] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”
- “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…. But… it is a spirit not to be encouraged… there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.”
Question: If changes need to be made in the government, how should it be done?
- “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… it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
- “It is important likewise that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted 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 power of all the departments in one and thus to create…a real despotism.”
Question: What will be the result if basic constitutional principles are changed or rejected in the future?
- “…the preservation of your government and the permanency of your present happy state… [makes it] requisite… that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles…. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.”
- “in all the changes to which you may be invited, remember… that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution… [and] that facility in changes upon the credit of mere hypotheses and opinion exposes [you] to perpetual change….”
Question: Is Civil Disobedience a method to be used by freedom-loving people to bring about change?
- “The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the constitution which… exists–till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people is sacredly.obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
Question: Above all else, what would you consider the absolute foundation of liberty?
- “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.”
- “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?”
Question: Can morality be maintained without religion? Or by those of refined education?
- “And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever… the influence of refined education… reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
- “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends… to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”
- “Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
Question: How does public debt effect liberty and freedom?
- “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 disbursement 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 may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Question: Our foreign relations are a mess. What shall we do now?
- “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct.”
- “It will be worthy of a free, enlightened and… great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence…. Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?”
- “Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”
- “Likewise a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concession to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt … to injure the nation making the concessions by …exciting jealousy, ill will and [a] disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.”
- “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
Question: Should Americans seek commercial relations with other nations?
- “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce but forcing nothing; establishing with powers so disposed, in order to give to trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support… conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances… will permit, but temporary and liable to be… abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate.”
- “…it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept… that by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of… being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.”
- “There can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate, upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure [and] which a just pride ought to discard.”
Perhaps this speech should be the next document read in the halls of Congress.