The reaction of the modern reader to George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address might well be amazement coupled with awe. And justifiably so — as Washington’s remarks has proven to be not only eloquent, but startlingly prescient, regarding the challenges that the American constitution and American Democracy would likely face during its immediate, post-revolutioin future, as well as its far-flung future, which includes the political turbulence of the present day.
The sensitive reader would also, no doubt, reach the conclusion that America would be in a far stronger and much more authentically democratic state had Washington’s perceptive Farewell Address been taken heed of by those who followed in his footsteps. Foremost among the many important assertions made by Washington in the Farewell Address is the concept that American principles and the tenants which inform the American government are cultural traditions that tie together very different geographical, political, and economic concerns.
Therefore, according to Washington, the greatest threat to America lies in the erosion or perversion of the cultural ties which bind these disparate parts together. this cultural association is, of course, a tradition of liberty and individual pursuit of happiness which is directly expressed in the democratic form of government itself.
However,beyond laws and government institutions there must be a shared allegiance in hallowing the principles behind the laws because the laws, even the constitution itself, Washington warns, may be susceptible to manipulation and self-interest: “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. ” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 225) Washington’s emphasis on the need for Americans to cherish and revere their liberty and their democratic institutions cannot possibly be overstated.
It is the primary thrust behind nearly all of his admonishments and advice to the nation in his Farewell Address. The core of his belief was in the principles rather than the institutions of laws of the American democracy and he urged all Americans to share this important reverence and vision: “you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immoveable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 219).
The unity of reverence for democratic traditions and democratic institutions ties directly to Washington’s emphasis on preserving the wholeness of of and mutual sustenance of the various states of the Union. In a particularly prescient observation, Washington mentions the tensions and also mutual benefits that exist between the geographically apportioned states of the Union, foreshadowing through intensely optimistic language, the American Civil War that would take place more than a century later:
“The North, in an unrestrained, intercourse with the South protected by the equal Laws of a common government, finds in the productions of the latter, great additional resources of Maratime and commercial enterprise and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South in the same Intercourse, benefitting by the Agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand. (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 220)
His comments which follow upon this statement stress the urgency of preventing geographical identities or grievances to disrupt the unity of the nation. He warns: “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” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 223) which is, of course, precisely what occurred during the events leading up to the American Civil War.
Washington’s vision of unity extended beyond geographical realms to the realms of the merely political. In noting that the same kind of “local” or even personal interests that threatened geographical division within the Union, could also manifest themselves within the government itself, based in political parties and the aspirations of those who controlled them. Washington warns that “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention,” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p.
227) presents a very real threat to American democracy not only for its obvious divisive capacities, but because of the fact that when people become deeply and openly divided, “The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 227) which leads to Autocracy and the complete overthrowing of American Democracy.
Because the unity of American society depends so intensely upon the integrity of democratic traditions and beliefs and not merely laws or legislation, Washington’s concept of the public as the nation’s most important “trust” rests, also, on the notion of cultivating the public with an eye toward enabling, rather the obstructing, the will of the people. In this acknowledgment, issues of war and peace, economic issues, and cultural issues all play pivotal roles in maintaining the traditions of American democracy.
Washington notes that “One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expence by cultivating peace,” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 230) or, in other words, enabling a widespread feeling of participation and accomplishment to be held by the nation which embraces prosperity and peace. For Washington, prosperity and peace remained deeply intertwined and hoped-for states: one follows the other.
This belief, among Washington’s many observations and admonishments, infuses Washington’s Farewell Address with an uncanny historical prescience which seems almost chillingly appropriate to present era of global politics. Warfare and conflict should be avoided and the avoidance of such catastrophes is enabled by “good faith and justice towards all Nations” and by America setting an example for the world: “a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. ” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p.
231) In fact, more than an eerie premonition about the contemporary global-political situation, Washington’s views on global affairs seem almost too lofty, too idealistic to be taken at face-value by a contemporary observer. However, Washington’s observations do not, to my mind, cloak a deeper, perhaps more cynical vision. Rather, the ideas and concepts expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address seem to speak of an era when such “loftiness” of ideals and such idealism and faith were not viewed as weaknesses, but as the accouterments of the most powerful and most decisive of minds.
The cumulative impact of reading Washington’s Farewell Address and refraining from “spinning” the words to mean something less-incisive, less idealistic, or less passionate, is one of grim admiration and perhaps a bit of wistfulness for the time when national leaders believed deeply enough inn the principles of American democracy to hold these as the highest of ideals: above personal ambition, above global supremacy, above military might, and even above the institutions of government itself.
In final analysis, there is no doubt that America would be stronger, more prosperous nation had Washington’s brilliant observations and advice been heeded in earnest by the successive generations of law-makers and public officials. One can, of course, easily imagine counterpoints to most of Washington’s ideas; these counter-ideas have, in fact, directly infused and directed American domestic and foreign policy for the better part of the past ten years.
To describe them point by point would require a voluminous amount of reflection, annotation, and writing. As easy as it is to imagine counter-arguments to Washington’s vision as it is expressed in his Farewell Address, it is equally easy to imagine an America which did follow the precepts laid out by Washington.
A nation which, by simply adhering to the idea that democratic ideals are more important adn more crucial to individual liberty than the apparatus of government or the leaders who are supposed to serve government, Washington offered an almost spiritual vision of American democracy which, in the light of contemporary experience, seems to have — despite its urgency, wisdom, prescience, and eloquence — has fallen on deaf ears. Reference Fitzpatrick, J. C. (Ed. ). (1931). The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Vol. 35). Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office.
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