The North Star National
March 5, 2010
Our first president had some excellent advice in his farewell address to the nation, which he delivered via newspaper publication in September 1796.
The entire speech remains worth reading today. Some of his points were specific to a time when the United States was young and fragile–the Constitution was less than a decade old, after all–but much of his wisdom continues to hold value.
It doesn’t hold value simply because he’s George Washington, Super-President of Historical Myth and Noble Chopper of the Cherry Tree and Crosser of the Delaware. (Even Washington was not a perfect human being. A great one, yes, but great does not equal perfect.)
No, it holds value because we can look around today and see that he was right. His concerns have been validated by our collective mistakes over the years.
While I encourage everyone to read the entire thing, there are four points I’d like to highlight: his recommendation to adhere to the Constitution, his warnings against breaking up into political parties, the necessity of morals, and his thoughts on the accumulation of debt.
But first, these words of inspiration: “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts—of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
Washington reminds us that despite our differences, we all share common ground that should not be forgotten.
Regarding the Constitution, he wrote, “Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. 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, until 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.”
So follow the rules, politicians. If you don’t like the rules, there’s a process in place to amend them.
The next paragraph elaborates on this point, and brings us to the warning against political parties:
“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.
“They serve to 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 councils and modified by mutual interests.
“However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then 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.”
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Can you imagine any “unprincipled men” who’d want to “subvert the power of the people”? Perish the thought.
Later, Washington included this paragraph: “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.”
Alternating dominion of factions–Republicans, Democrats, Republicans, Democrats (check). Seeking security in the absolute power of an individual–please see the most enthusiastic supporters of Barack Obama or Sarah Palin who believe one or the other can make nearly everything all better (check). Ruins of liberty–a work in progress since the onset of government-growing progressivism (but not nearly complete, thank goodness.)
This Washington fellow seems to have known what he was talking about.
And here’s a little bit that should annoy atheists: He said that religion and morality are “indispensable” for our “political prosperity.”
Washington wrote, “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.”
I do believe it’s possible for an atheist to have values (see the writings of Ayn Rand.) But I don’t believe it’s possible for a free society to thrive in the absence of values, and that’s what we should all take from this point, regardless of our differing religious positions.
Finally, there’s the subject of debt.
“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Read that last bit again. On this point, we have failed miserably.
Our representatives in all three branches of government need to heed Washington’s words.
You want to know what really makes George Washington cool?–what sets him apart from the modern D.C. crowd?
This man could have been king if he wanted it. He predates the constitutional amendment that limits presidential terms, and if he wanted a third term, he could have had it. He could have reigned as a powerful president until his death.
But he chose not to. He limited his power, by his own free will.
That’s how you set an example. Let’s make sure we pay attention.