Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
The idea for this guest blog came from Anonymously Yours, who has been around at Jonathan Turley’s Blog, for at least as long as I have. We have had an E Mail relationship, offline for many years. He sent me the link that I’ll be basically using and I think his judgment was on the money. The topic is George Washington’s Farewell Address, how prescient our First President was and how much good advice he gave that we should heed today, after the passage of 218 years.
Like every other American child what I learned about George Washington came from school and little else. When I started learning about him and the revolutionary war, it was common when speaking about him to call him “The Father of Our Country”. As the years passed this description has seemingly fallen out of consciousness and we usually only see him referenced wearing a white wig and a tri-corn hat on President’s Day selling cars. Certainly too, as my education progressed through High School and College, the view of Washington as one of our Founding Father’s was diminished as compared to his more glamorous and brilliant cohort among the Founding Fathers, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison. It is easy to see why this change came about. When you think of Washington, most would see the famous portrait I’ve used as a picture above. The portrait shows a prim-mouthed, rather dour man with a wig. History has given us certain personal details like his famous wooden false teeth. History has also supplied a childish, hagiographic mythology that he never told a lie and threw a coin across the Potomac. There is even some debate about his competence as a General. Indeed, the traitor Benedict Arnold is considered by many to be the best military mind on our side during the Revolution.
So when AY sent me his E Mail, I was at first skeptical about the project until I read the link. While in some sense I knew about his Farewell Address in the back of my mind, rereading it and the commentary on it caused me to rethink George Washington. As I see now he was a great man, in a true sense and he at least gave this country a good start. He also made a contribution regarding how he felt this country should comport itself that is relevant today, although certainly not heeded. Let’s explore Washington’s message and see what wisdom we can draw from it today, or should have drawn in the ensuing 218 years since it was written.
I’m not going into George Washington’s biography, so many are familiar with it, but you can reacquaint yourself at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington When reading it though I found this which intrigued me:
“Washington was the only prominent Founding Father to arrange in his will for the manumission of all his slaves following his death. He privately opposed slavery as an institution which he viewed as economically unsound and morally indefensible. He also regarded the divisiveness of his countrymen’s feelings about slavery as a potentially mortal threat to the unity of the nation.”
“By 1794, as he contemplated retirement, Washington began organizing his affairs so that in his will he could free all the slaves whom he owned outright. As historian Gordon S. Wood writes in his review of Joseph Ellis‘ biography of Washington, “He did this in the teeth of opposition from his relatives, his neighbors, and perhaps even Martha. It was a courageous act, and one of his greatest legacies.” At the time of Washington’s death in 1799, 317 slaves lived at Mount Vernon: 123 were owned by Washington himself, 154 were held by his wife as “dower slaves”, and 40 others were rented from a neighbor. Washington’s will provided for all of his slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow, but she chose to free them about 12 months after his death. The will also provided for the training of the younger former-slaves in useful skills and for the creation of an old-age pension fund for the older ones.”
Though others differ, I’ve always been of the opinion that to judge any historical figure, it should be done in the context of their time. Yes Washington owned slaves and yes he derived economic benefit from it, but in the context of his time and of his being in Virginia’s landed class, he stands out regarding slavery. This in itself clashes with what has become the traditional depiction of Washington as a rather stolid thinker. While certainly not as outwardly erudite as Jefferson and Franklin, he too was a child of the enlightenment in his outlook.
To read the text of George Washington’s farewell address follow this link: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Washington%27s_Farewell_Address . While it is always profitable to read the original I am going to deal with a summary of it, since the arcane language and the ritualistic political needs of a retiring President, could cause many to struggle through it and would force me to write a lot more than is appropriate for this blog. Please feel free to read it though and apprise me of any misinterpretations I might make.
“George Washington’s Farewell Address is a letter written by the first American President, George Washington, to “The People of the United States”. Washington wrote the letter near the end of his second term as President, before his retirement to his home Mount Vernon. Originally published in David Claypole’s American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796 under the title “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States,” the letter was almost immediately reprinted in newspapers across the country and later in a pamphlet form. The work was later named a “Farewell Address,” as it was Washington’s valedictory after 20 years of service to the new nation. It is a classic statement of republicanism, warning Americans of the political dangers they can and must avoid if they are to remain true to their values.
The first draft was originally prepared in 1792 with the help of James Madison, as Washington prepared to retire following a single term in office. However, he set aside the letter and ran for a second term after the rancor between his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, convinced him that the growing divisions between the newly formed Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, along with the current state of foreign affairs, would rip the country apart in the absence of his leadership.
Four years later, as his second term came to a close, Washington revisited the letter and with the help of Alexander Hamilton prepared a revision of the original draft to announce his intention to decline a third term in office. He also reflects on the emerging issues of the American political landscape in 1796, expresses his support for the government eight years after the adoption of the Constitution, defends his administration’s record, and gives valedictory advice to the American people.
The letter was written by Washington after years of exhaustion due to his advanced age, years of service to his country, the duties of the presidency, and increased attacks by his political opponents. It was published almost two months before the Electoral College cast their votes in the 1796 presidential election.”
I note that while Madison assisted Washington in the first draft it was Hamilton who helped him write the second. This was no doubt because Washington and Jefferson had become leaders of different factions, later to solidify as political parties. It was no doubt felt by him that he must deal with the rancor that had developed between Hamilton and Jefferson and he felt Hamilton’s views superior to Jefferson’s. The differences between Jefferson’s philosophy and Hamilton’s could be summarized by saying Jefferson believed in a smaller Federal government, with power shared with the individual States, while Hamilton believed in a centralized Federal Government in effect molding the States into a single entity. These two links give a rough idea where these men were coming from. I caution the reader to understand that the philosophical issues between the two were much more complex than presented, but that in itself would take up its own blog. Nevertheless, it seems to me that those differences are analogous to today’s in the sense we are still arguing over Federal vs. State power and in truth the real argument is similarly between people of an elite class, who differ on how the masses should be ruled. With this context then let’s look at what future advice and predictions George Washington made.
“At the time, the thought of the United States without George Washington as its president caused concern among many Americans. Jefferson, who disagreed with many of the president’s policies and would later lead the Democratic-Republicans in opposition to many Federalist policies, joined his political rival Hamilton, the leader of the Federalists. He convinced the president to delay his retirement and serve a second term, fearing that without his leadership the nation would be torn apart. Washington most likely referred to this when he told the American people that he had wanted to retire before the last election, but was convinced by people “entitled to my confidence” that it was his duty to serve a second term.
Understanding these concerns, Washington sought to convince the American people that his service was no longer necessary by, once again, as he had in his first inaugural address, telling them that he truly believed he was never qualified to be president and, if he accomplished anything during his presidency, it was as a result of their support and efforts to help the country survive and prosper. Despite his confidence that the country would survive without his leadership, Washington used the majority of the letter to offer advice as a “parting friend” on what he believed were the greatest threats to the survival of the nation.”
A quality that must be underscored about Washington is that the man could have been King by almost unanimous acclaim and he rejected it. While cynically I know many in politics say they’re not running for office for themselves, but for the people, while having the psyche of power hungry sociopaths, it has always seemed to me that the proof of Washington’s sincerity was that he could have held office for life, such was the esteem in which he was held, but chose not too and even had to be cajoled into running for a second term. How many in politics after him do you think had the same reticence about seeking power?
“Washington begins his warnings to the American people by trying to convince them that their independence, peace at home and abroad, safety, prosperity, and liberty are all dependent upon the unity between the states. As a result he warns them that the union of states, created by the Constitution, will come under the most frequent and focused attacks by foreign and domestic enemies of the country. Washington warns the American people to be suspicious and look down upon anyone who seeks to abandon the Union, to secede a portion of the country from the rest, or seeks to weaken the bonds that hold the constitutional union together. To promote the strength of the Union, he urges the people to place their identity as Americans above their identities as members of a state, city, or region, and focus their efforts and affection on the country above all other local interests. Washington further asks the people to look beyond any slight differences between them in religion, manners, habits, and political principles, and place their independence and liberty above all else. He wants everyone to be united.
Washington continues to express his support of the Union by giving some examples of how he believes the country, its regions, and its people are already benefiting from the unity they currently share. He then looks to the future by sharing his belief that the combined effort, and resources of its people will protect the country from foreign attack, and allow them to avoid wars between neighboring nations that often happen due to rivalries, and competing relations with foreign nations. He argues that the security provided by the Union will also allow the United States to avoid the creation of an overgrown military establishment, which he sees as one of the greatest threats to liberty, especially the republican liberty that the United States has created.”
Washington foresaw the possibilities of the Civil War and warned the people that sectionalism could tear this country asunder. As a Virginian land owner he knew the feelings of his class and how their resentment and support of slavery could easily provoke a Civil War. Moreover, being a Virginian he knew that his neighbors of his class were far more loyal to their State, than their newborn country. His was a plea for national unity and identification that still rings strong today in our era of factious regionalism.
“Washington goes on to state his support for the new constitutional government, calling it an improvement upon the nation’s original attempt in the Articles of Confederation, and reminds the people that although it is the right of the people to alter the government to meet their needs, it should only be done through constitutional amendments. He reinforces this belief by arguing that violent takeovers by the government should be avoided at all costs and that it is in fact the duty of every member of the republic to follow the constitution, and submit to the laws of the constitutional government until it is constitutionally amended by the majority of the American people.
Washington warns the people that political factions who seek to obstruct the execution of the laws created by the government, or prevent the constitutional branches from enacting the powers provided them by the constitution may claim to be working in the interest of answering popular demands or solving pressing problems, but their true intentions are to take the power from the people and place it in the hands of unjust men.
Despite Washington’s call to only change the Constitution through amendments, he warns the American people that groups seeking to overthrow the government may seek to pass constitutional amendments to weaken the government to a point where it is unable to defend itself from political factions, enforce its laws, and protect the people’s rights and property. As a result he urges them to give the government time to realize its full potential, and only amend the constitution after thorough time and thought have proven that it is truly necessary instead of simply making changes based upon opinions and hypotheses of the moment.”
George Washington warned us about the dangers to the Republic of political factions seeking to obstruct the execution of laws, or preventing the three branches from exercising their Constitutional duties. In this current era of heightened factionalism, with the country seemingly at a standstill from the gridlock in the Congress, his words are prescient. He was able to foresee more than two hundred years ago where the threats to our Constitutional System would from. When he talks of only amending the Constitution after thorough consideration, it seems as if he could conceive the dark wormhole we were led to via Prohibition. He was in effect pleading with the American people of his time and of future generations to give this grand experiment that was the Constitution time to ripen and mature.
“While Washington accepts the fact that it is natural for people to organize and operate within groups like political parties, he also argues that every government has recognized political parties as an enemy and has sought to repress them because of their tendency to seek more power than other groups and take revenge on political opponents.
Moreover, Washington makes the case that “the alternate domination” of one party over another and coinciding efforts to exact revenge upon their opponents have led to horrible atrocities, and “is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” From Washington’s perspective and judgment, the tendency of political parties toward permanent despotism is because they eventually and “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”
Washington goes on to acknowledge the fact that parties are sometimes beneficial in promoting liberty in monarchies, but argues that political parties must be restrained in a popularly elected government because of their tendency to distract the government from their duties, create unfounded jealousies among groups and regions, raise false alarms amongst the people, promote riots and insurrection, and provide foreign nations and interests access to the government where they can impose their will upon the country.”
Allow me to put my own spin on Washington’s hostility towards the idea of political parties. To my mind he understood that we humans tend to have all sorts of philosophical/political takes on the world. Given that he knew that it was necessary for there to be factions who had differing views of how their elected government should operate. Being a man of the world and a leader of men, I assume that he also had insight into what motivates human beings. Lust for power, personal ego and greed motivate most humans who would seek to lead others. These propensities exist no matter where a given potential leader resides on the political spectrum. The noblest of political ideas espoused by narcissists who run for office become corrupted. This is true of all areas of the political spectrum. Washington knew that political factions were necessary, but he feared the consequences of those factions being controlled by those who would use them for their own self-aggrandizing ends. Sound familiar today?
“Washington continues his defense of the Constitution by stating his belief that the system of checks and balances and separation of powers within it are important means of preventing a single person or group from seizing control of the country, and advises the American people that if they believe it is necessary to modify the powers granted to the government through the Constitution it should be done through constitutional amendments instead of through force. This statement takes on added significance from a man who commanded the armies of British colonists who waged an armed rebellion against the British Government, during the American Revolution, and helped build a plan for a new government against the wishes of the acting Articles of Confederation government during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The French Revolution, which had fallen into a Reign of Terror during Washington’s second term, may have helped shape Washington’s opinion that while armed rebellions may sometimes result in good, they most often lead to the fall of free governments.”
Time and again in our country’s history we have seen those “separation of powers eroded” and one branch reigning supreme. While it has been a condition common off and on in our country’s history, the downward slope began during the “Cold War”. At the end of WWII the OSS which had guided intelligence operations through the war was morphed, against Harry Truman’s better judgment into the CIA. As the “Cold War” progressed into the 50’s the dictum that only Congress can approve of making war via a declaration became undermined by the CIA operating independently to destabilize countries like Iran and Greece. Truman continued this escalation of Executive power by getting involved in the Korean War under the guise of a “police action”. As the years passed each new President stretched the limits of Executive authority. This is not to say that the other Branches haven’t had their turn. SCOTUS selected the winner of the 2000 Presidential campaign although there was much doubt that Bush really won the contest. The Court also redefined “free speech” to include Corporations and by making campaign contributions unlimited handed the country over to its most wealthy. Today we see the spectacle of a President elected by a healthy plurality, hampered at every turn by a Congress that wants to ensure that nothing gets done. Please understand too that I don’t see this as simply the fault of the Republicans. Harry Reid by refusing to do anything about the filibuster in effect continues to change the constitutionally mandated voting pattern in the Senate from a simple majority of 51, to an unconstitutional 60.
While Washington was very supportive of religion as a moral compass for humans, he was not unaware of its potentially problematic nature:
“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
– Letter to Edward Newenham (20 October 1792)
Today we would credit Washington as being fiscally conservative as the following passage shows. However, within that “conservatism” was the recognition that most debt comes from the military and war making; in this the General abjures both. He also acknowledges that taxation is necessary, but onerous.
“Washington provides strong support for a balanced federal budget, arguing that the nation’s credit is an important source of strength and security. He urges the American people to preserve the national credit by avoiding war, avoiding unnecessary borrowing, and paying off any national debt accumulated in times of war as quickly as possible in times of peace so that future generations do not have to take on the financial burdens that others have taken on themselves. Despite his warnings to avoid taking on debt, Washington does state his belief that sometimes it is necessary to spend money to prevent dangers or wars that will in the end cost more if not properly prepared for. At these times, argues Washington, it is necessary, although unpleasant, for the people to cooperate by paying taxes created to cover these precautionary expenses.
Washington makes an extended allusion, possibly in reference to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania which he led a national army to put down, on how important it is for the government to be careful in choosing the items that will be taxed, but he also reminds the American people that no matter how hard the government tries there will never be a tax which is not inconvenient, unpleasant, or seemingly an insult to those who must pay it.”
Washington spends a good deal of words talking about foreign policy. While he encouraged trading with all nations and dealing with them fairly, he did not believe in America entangling itself with the affairs of other nations, nor aligning itself with alliances, since he felt these might lead to war, in the self interest of a foreign nation.
“Washington dedicates a large part of his farewell address to discussing foreign relations, and the dangers of permanent alliances between the United States and foreign nations. This issue had taken special prominence in American politics during conflict between France and Britain, known as the French Revolutionary Wars, and the efforts of the Federalists to join sides with Britain and the efforts of the Democratic-Republicans to convince Washington to honor the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, which established the Franco-American alliance, and aid France. Washington had avoided American involvement in the conflict by issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, which in turn led to the Neutrality Act of 1794. He clearly tries to further explain his approach to foreign policy and alliances in this portion of the address.
Once again making reference to proper behavior based upon religious doctrine and morality, Washington advocates a policy of good faith and justice towards all nations, and urges the American people to avoid long-term friendly relations or rivalries with any nation. He argues these attachments and animosity toward nations will only cloud the government’s judgment in its foreign policy. Washington argues that longstanding poor relations will only lead to unnecessary wars due to a tendency to blow minor offenses out of proportion when committed by nations viewed as enemies of the United States. He continues this argument by claiming that alliances are likely to draw the United States into wars which have no justification and no benefit to the country beyond simply defending the favored nation. Washington continues his warning on alliances by claiming that they often lead to poor relations with nations who feel that they are not being treated as well as America’s allies, and threaten to influence the American government into making decisions based upon the will of their allies instead of the will of the American people.”
While I do not fully agree with all of Washington’s vision, re-reading this after more than 50 years I came away much more impressed with Washington that I previously had been. While Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison might have been more charismatic individuals, with dazzling intellectual accomplishments, Washington was certainly no slouch. Beyond that though he may well have been the least egotistical of the Founding Fathers and he saved this country by refusing to replace a King George, with a Kung George the First. I’m impressed. How about you?
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger