It has become fashionable to see our founding fathers as retrograde relics of an oppressive era. Academics and journalists seldom refer to them without mentioning their presumed racism and sexism, and their statues came under attack three years ago in many parts of the country. Yet one cannot study their actual words without having to entertain a different view. Partly because of their social position, they had grown up with the time to educate themselves, and they had used it. They knew quite a lot about the politics of Greece and Rome. They had believed in British institutions, and had reacted with shock to find that those institutions could lead to tyranny. Twice, in 1776 and in 1787, they had decided to create new forms of government and they thought very carefully about how to make them work. Most important of all, they understood the relationship between politics and human nature. My text today is a much-neglected document, the Farewell Address that George Washington published on September 17, 1796, when he announced that he would decline a third term as president, thus ensuring that the nation and his successors would not regard the presidency as a lifetime job. The one part of the speech that most people know about today is his warning not to enter into long-term alliances with foreign nations. That was however only one of a series of warnings to his countrymen--a gift which no other president has even tried to repeat. As it turns out, he identified the greatest dangers facing the new nation both in the 19th century and in the 21st.
Washington began his tour d'horizon with some remarks about national unity. "The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it 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," he said. He called upon the country to reject "whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning 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. For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles." Washington spent a paragraph discussing the economic interdependence of the North, South, East and West, but then moved on to political and military matters. The different parts of the country "must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rivalships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and imbitter. Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other." Daniel Webster was probably thinking of that passage 34 years later when he concluded his famous "reply to Hayne" with the words, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" Webster's generation--the last actually to remember Washington alive--kept the union together for another thirty years, but its successors needed a great war to preserve it. Washington did not stop there. "In contemplating the causes which may disturb our union it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations--Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western-- whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You can not 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 affection." Large sections of our country have completely given in to that impulse today.
Washington also insisted that liberty and authority went together. "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 at any time 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. 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." Government at the mercy of "the alternate triumphs of different parties" would "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." Washington knew that the "spirit of party" was "inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind," yet called upon the citizenry "to discourage and restrain it." He also called upon the different branches of the government to respect one another's authority, a chilling council today, when struggles among Congress, the executive branch and the courts dominate the news.
Washington then took another stance that has become unfamiliar to twentieth century Americans. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," he said, "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. . . .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 himself was an observant but hardly devout Episcopalian who avoided taking communion, but he believed religion necessary to public order. Yet it was not sufficient. "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," he added. Today education itself has become factional and politicized.
Washington also called upon his countrymen to be virtuous in their dealings towards other nations, and to exclude "inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others. . . .The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave." The government must not "adopt through passion what reason would reject."
The founders never forgot the downfall of previous great nations and knew too much history to believe they had a magic recipe for eternal national life. "In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend," he said, "I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish--that they will control the usual current of the passions or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations." The factional spirit increased under his successor John Adams, and Adams's Federalists and Jefferson's rival Republicans identified more and more with the British and the French in their new world war. Jefferson however shared many of Washington's views, although Washington did not live to see Jefferson echo them in his inaugural in 1801, proclaiming, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." Thus did the nation survive its first political crisis. And in 1865, the principle of national unity prevailed over regional loyalty.
Today the country is deeply divided not only by geography, but by race and gender, and political passions have made rational discussion of almost any major issue almost impossible. The authority of reason has come under attack from both sides, and religion has become more of a divisive element than a restraining one. Among many the founders' involvement with slavery outweighs any of their insights and achievements. We may finally be leaving their legacy behind.