Our Civic Ritual of Freedom
A Timely Message for the People of the United States
President Obama’s farewell address, following a precedent started by George Washington in 1796, inspired me to learn more about the first president’s message. What I discovered is particularly relevant to our political moment.
Having served as president for the first eight years of the young nation, George Washington’s concern centered on the safety of the Constitution and survivability of the eight-year-old United States. With the aid of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington composed a “Farewell Address”, his political testament “to the People of the United States”, designed to inspire and guide future generations as well to point to potential threats to the republic.
Prior generations of Americans recognized the powerful counsel of our first president at another time of great peril. In 1862, citizen’s recognizing the relevance of Washington’s warning about the fatal tendencies of republican governments. With the Constitution endangered by civil war, citizens of Philadelphia petitioned Congress that “the Farewell Address of Washington be read aloud on the morning of that day (Washington’s Birthday)in one or the other of the Houses of Congress.” Both houses agreed and assembled in the House of Representatives’ chamber on February 22, 1862. Washington’s Farewell Address has been read yearly by members of congress ever since.
Unfortunately, the threats to our nation and the counsel provided by the founding fathers have not been heeded by these same political representatives.
Now, 244 years into our great experiment in self-government, our nation politically divided, we must pay attention to Washington’s forward-thinking counsel.
Washington wished to
“ …control the current of the passions….moderate the fury of party spirit..to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue (and) to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” .
This article will highlight in Washington’s own words sections of the 32- page Farewell Address that are particularly relevant to our circumstances; the challenge of passions, factions and parties, the need for national unity, the election and presidency of Donald Trump, the threat of the Trump presidency to the Constitution and our government, and the mischief of foreign intrigue. We conclude with thoughts about ways private citizens like yourself can respond to the threats facing our nation.
The challenge of parties, faction and passions
Washington and Madison were particularly concerned with factions-groups of people that manipulate the government for their ideologic and personal benefit. Over the past few decades, political parties, ideological factions and special interests have committed themselves to block legitimate legislation unless it served their own interests. Rather than seeking solutions to the challenges facing the nation, they often resorted to eliciting people’s raw emotions, making compromise nearly impossible.
Washington warns “against the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” He recognizes that this spirit …
"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".
He goes on to warn us that …
"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."
The need for national unity to maintain independence and to protect our liberty.
Americans are politically divided. We are challenged by regionalism and partisanship like no other time in recent American history. The 2016 national election, the 2018 midterms, the impeachment of President Trump by the House of Representatives and the acquittal in the Senate highlight the many divisions that separate Americans, while ignoring the remarkable achievement of our democratic government. Washington considered the unity of government as …
"a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize."
He foresaw that
… from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed,
Washington call on us to
indignantly frown(ing) upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States
The result of the 2016 election, a symptom of the extreme political polarization, are the outcome of a process feared by our founding fathers and symptom of the vulnerability of the Constitution they authored. Washington’s warnings, unheeded by our legislators, helps understand how Donald Trump, an outsider, became the nominee of a the Republican Party, and with the enthusiastic support of tens of millions of Americans, elected the 45th president of the United States.The government has been gridlocked for decades due to influence by special interest groups and rigid ideologic doctrine, while at the same time, the government is increasingly unresponsive to the needs of the citizens. Is it not surprising that many Americans, having lost trust in government, chose a “strong man” as our president.
Washington warned about small factions and the parties they influence. For him, they were the “fatal tendency” of the republican government.
In particular he was concerned that factions
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.
Washington predicts that while factions may at times “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.
The expectations of the Trump presidency and its potential impact on our liberties
Washington’s counsel is particularly relevant to our current political reality as we are about to embark on the third year of the Trump presidency. With congress now divided, Democrats controlling the House and the Republicans the Senate, and the composition of the Supreme Court has changed drastically. The constitutional checks and balances designed to limit the threat to our democracy are likely to test our liberties like no other time in our nation’s history. As an author of the US Constitution, Washington recognized the importance of checks and balances among the various federal branches of government. 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…
He calls upon
"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 powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism."
The mischief of foreign intrigue
The continued revelations about Russian intervention in the election process and the revelations about Ukraine are particularly worrisome. Such disclosures are likely a harbinger of more foreign influence and corruption.
It (mischiefs of 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. It 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.
The citizens of Philadelphia in particular and the United States more generally can once again lead the way to maintain the incredible blessings of the Constitution while safeguarding our political liberties. We can and must heed the warnings of our first president. But how?
Voting in federal elections must be supplemented by active citizenship. We must join together to solve problems impacting the nation. We must work to unite our diverse regions and ideologies. We must educate ourselves to counter the excitation of passions by politicians and other factional representatives. We must hold political parties accountable by engaging them. Using the tools of active citizenship, we must hold political parties accountable to the will of the people. And we must take to the streets to petition the government when it doesn’t.
In the near future, I will publish more specific actions for addressing the threats facing our nation.
With your help, with your encouragement, with your dedication to a nation blessed by history, we will get the ball rolling February 22nd with a public reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address.
The dangers of partisanship in Donald Trump’s America. By Matthew Dennis Wash. Post Jan. 23, 2020
What We Can Learn From 'Washington's Farewell' NPR January 8, 2017
The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations by John Avlon
John Avlon talks about the importance of Washington’s Farewell. National Constitution Center