Sunday, January 29, 2017

Washington's Forgotten Wisdom

The scripture of America's civil religion is broad and weighty. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are the three earliest and most foundational pieces. Over the course of our republic's history. additions have been made. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King. It's a rich tapestry, indeed. One of the most important pieces, I would argue, is the Farewell Address of President George Washington, which was released to the nation on September 19, 1796.

Of all the gifts that George Washington gave to the United States of America, perhaps his greatest was the spectacle of a head of state voluntarily walking away from power. He actually did it twice. The first time was in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, when full political power was there for him to take and he was pressed by many to seize his opportunity. He choose instead to resign his commission and go back to Mount Vernon. The second was at the end of his second presidential term. Being the first President of the United States, Washington knew that everything he did set a major precedent for future Presidents to follow. Rather than die in office, which would have established a tradition that Presidents should retain their office as long as possible, he choose to step down after two terms. This established a tradition that was followed until President Franklin Roosevelt sought a third term in 1940.

As he departed the stage of public life, however, Washington desired to leave the people a final testament and words of advice for the future. Using a draft originally prepared by James Madison when he had first contemplated stepping down in 1792, Washington asked Alexander Hamilton to help him create an appropriate message to the American people, The result was the Farewell Address.

I think it's healthy, if a little unsettling, to read through Washington's Farewell Address and see how well we have followed his sage advice on several key matters. Though he lacked the refined education and natural genius of men like Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, Washington perhaps stood above them all in his pure common sense and ability to get to the heart of a matter. On five fundamental issues, Washington told posterity what he thought should be done. Let's take a look at them, one by one.

Washington Advised America to Avoid Political Parties
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographic discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
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.
It is clear that we have utterly failed to heed President Washington's warnings when it comes to political parties. Indeed, it can be seen in retrospect that this warning came too late, for already in Washington's first term the followers of Thomas Jefferson and the followers of Alexander Hamilton were arraying themselves into political parties (the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, respectively). Aside from the short interregnum known as the Era of Good Feelings in the time of President James Monroe, America has been divided into a two-party system pretty much ever since. First the division was between Democrats and Whigs, then between Democrats and Republicans, a split which persists to this day.

The spirit of party is, indeed, a cancer at the heart of our society. There have been times when partisan bitterness has been set aside in pursuit of larger national goals, such as battling the forces of global fascism during the Second World War or, less firmly, during the struggle against Communism in the time of the Cold War. On some particular issues, too, Democrats and Republicans have been known to work together, such as ensuring funding for the Apollo Program. Generally, though, the spirit of partisan rancor makes sure that our office-holders seem more focused on thwarting the opposing party than working together for the good of the country.

An childish example of this could be seen in the chatter regarding the decision of the International Olympic Committee as to where to hold the 2016 Summer Olympics. Of the four finalists, Chicago was the only American city. It seems obvious to me that all Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, should have rallied around Chicago's bid in the hopes that an American city would have the honor of hosting the Olympics. But because Chicago is the home of then-President Barack Obama, many Republicans derided the city's Olympic bid and openly gloated when it failed.

We live in an age when the members of the two parties stridently and proudly refuse to compromise with one another, which has been a major factor into getting us into our current troubles. There is no doing away with political parties, which are firmly established as part of our constellation of political institutions and which have many advantages that Washington seems not to have considered. But there is no denying that we should listen more carefully to Washington's warnings on this subject and remember the need to place the common good ahead of party advantage.

Washington Advised America to Avoid Becoming Entangling in Foreign Affairs
[N]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. . . The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.
That we have failed to follow Washington's advice in this area of policy is the most obvious thing in the world. The United States is so entangled in the affairs of foreign nations in the early 21st Century that it would be impossible for us to extricate ourselves from them even if we wanted to. We have treaties of mutual defense with the other 27 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with Japan, with South Korea, with the Philippines, and with Australia, legally binding us to come to their defense if they are attacked. We have de facto mutual defense agreements with Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, New Zealand, and other nations as well. The world is lined with legal tripwires, any one of which could commit the United States to war.

Washington did express a willingness for the country to enter into "temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." I expect he would have had no problem with allying with Britain, Russia, and France against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan and he might have agreed that NATO was necessary during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union. But the modern network of interlocking permanent alliances with literally dozens of other countries would have shocked and dismayed him. Far from remaining aloof from foreign affairs, the country he helped establish now intervenes so intently around the world that our hands are tied into almost everything that happens on the surface of the planet.

The world is far different in 2017 than it was in 1796. Perhaps Washington would see the circumstances in which our nation now finds itself and conclude that our modern system of alliances is now necessary. Personally, I felt that NATO's purpose essentially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it may now be needed again in view of the resurgence of Russian territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe. In any case, we would do well to consider whether our present alliances are truly in the best interests of our nation. The territorial integrity of our nation cannot be compromised by any conceivable combination of enemies. Why, therefore, do we remain so deeply involved in the affairs of other countries?

Washington Advised America to Avoid a Overbearing National 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 exertion 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. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate.
Of all the warnings Washington gave us, this one is perhaps the most egregiously ignored. As I type this blog entry, the national debt of the United States is approaching $20 trillion. This is not even counting the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security, which add up to more than $40 trillion. This is a truly unspeakable amount of money. Meanwhile, we are not even close to balancing our budget, much less beginning to pay this debt off in any meaningful time frame. We are doing exactly what Washington warned us against, "throwing upon prosperity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."

Every year, hundreds of billions of dollars goes to simply servicing the interest on the debt already accumulated by the federal government, every penny of which is money that might otherwise be spent on other things. And since the debt continues to increase year after year, the percentage of the annual budget that goes to interest payments steadily increases. Eventually it will swallow up everything else.

It is sickening and shameful. When I look into the eyes of my two beautiful daughters, it pains me to think that their generation will bear the burden for the excesses of mine. Washington would be disgusted with us, just as we should be disgusted with ourselves.

Washington Advised America to Maintain a Sense of Public Morality
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, 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. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? 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.
A quick glance through the popular culture of our time can tell you that there is little sense of morality left alive in the American spirit. Those who assert that the average American is simply not as polite or decent as he used to be are, frankly, quite right. Our once robust religious institutions have withered away like plants without water. We live in an age of consumerism, when indulging in materialism is seen as normal and the idea of stoic self-denial has long been forgotten. Those we now hold in highest esteem are not the heroes who sacrifice to help others or the scientists who unlock the mysteries of the natural world. Instead, we celebrate entertainment celebrities who treat other human beings like dirt and indulge in every form of materialistic perversity. The man currently living in the White House is, sadly, the ultimate culmination of this aspect of social decay.

Washington's favorable words on religion, incidentally, should not be taken to suggest that the wall of separation between church and state should be torn down. He was talking about society in general and not government in particular. Despite his obviously ironclad belief in God and constant reminders to himself and others that "Providence" governs human affairs, Washington does not seem to have been a devout believer. One can pour through his papers and not find a single reference to Jesus Christ.

But I do believe that Washington would look upon modern America and fairly ask, "Where is your moral center?"

Washington intended his Farewell Address not only for the people alive when he left office. He intended for the millions of Americans yet unborn in his time. He intended it for us. I'm glad you're reading my blog, but since you're already on the Internet anyway, why not read the Farewell Address in its entirety right now?

Do it.

1 comment:

  1. Here's another good Washington quote: "America is open to not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions."