We venerate George Washington as the “Father of Our Country,” and yet, too often, we forget the man and what he stood for. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and re-reading Washington’s Farewell Address, and I’ve been struck by the wisdom contained in that document and its continued relevance to our day. Though penned in 1789, many of its themes resonate today just as they did then, and we would do well, as a Nation, to learn and remember.
I’ve summarized a few of those themes below:
The ideal of the citizen legislator; term limits.
Washington served a second term as President reluctantly, and, when pressured to stay on for a third, firmly said, “No.” He believed in the ideal of the citizen legislator: someone whose professional occupation is not “politician,” but rather farmer, baker, teacher, or what have you, a person who undertakes to serve—temporarily—out of sense of duty rather than ambition and who returns to private life as soon as possible. In a day of career politicians, who stay in D.C. for decades and know little outside the political realm, I fear we have strayed far from that ideal and the example set by George Washington.
Until his death, Washington remained profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve in public office, not because it conveyed status or personal recognition, but because it reflected the trust of his fellow citizens, and gave him the chance to serve as best he could. He recognized in that service that his “usefulness [was] unequal to [his] zeal.” In other words, he understood his own shortcomings, even as he did his best to serve the public well. Among today’s elected officials, such humble gratitude for the opportunity to serve and an open acknowledgement of weakness and imperfection have become rare traits indeed.
The importance of unity
We must remember that Washington and the other Founders sought to unify a Nation rather than to divide it. They saw the sum as greater than the respective parts, and sought to establish not a confederation of independent states, but a unified, federal government: e pluribus unum: out of many, one. “The unity of Government,” he wrote, “is 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.”
Which is not to say that Washington or the other Founders wanted power concentrated in any single individual or political body; quite the contrary: they set up a system that divided power between the several states and the federal government and that established an elaborate system of checks and balances designed so that "ambition would counter ambition" and preserve the liberty of the people intact.
Religion and morality
Washington realized that no government—no matter how carefully constructed—could long succeed in the absence of a virtuous people. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he wrote, “Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.” He believed, further, that religion was indispensible to encourage morality: “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 believed that the People and their Government should “promote … as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” Without an enlightened populace, he reasoned, it made no sense to give public opinion political force. In a representative democracy, enlightened government requires an enlightened people.
Deficit spending; taxes
In an era when the U.S. owes China approximately one trillion dollars, we would do well to remember Washington’s stern warning that we should “cherish public credit” as an “important source of strength and security.” He admonished the Nation to “use [debt] sparingly,” to “avoid[ ] the cumulation of debt,” and to use “vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts” occasioned by war. Furthermore, he recognized the payment of government debt as the responsibility not just of elected leaders, but of the people as well: “[T]owards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; [and] to have Revenue there must be taxes.” Doubtless, Washington would have viewed our current deficit spending as reckless and dangerous, as he correctly foresaw the failure to pay off public debt as a threat to our strength and security.
The dangers of factions
Though the Farewell Address contains other themes as well, the last I’ll touch on involves something that, these days, we rarely consider: namely, the dangers of factionalism, a subject on which George Washington reserved some of his most stern warnings. He warned against “all combinations and associations” that “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 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 counsels, and modified by mutual interests.” He goes on to describe factionalism as “truly [the] worst enemy” of the people, a impulse (however prevalent) to be discouraged and restrained on account of its tendency to “agitat[e] the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindl[e] the animosity of one part against another, foment[ ] occasionally riot and insurrection.” Those warnings should resonate with anyone who spends much time reading or listening to the news these days, where countless voices—right and left—seek to divide us as a people, to raise “false alarms,” and to kindle the animosities of one group against another. As a people and as a Nation, what unites us must be greater than what divides us, and we must be, first and foremost, Americans.
That these themes still resonate in 2010 speaks to the foresight and character of George Washington. It also speaks—alas—to human nature, and reminds us that, even after 200+ years of experience with representative democracy under the Constitution, we still haven’t figured some things out. Even so, perhaps remembering the words of this great man will inspire us to do a little better.