On September 19, 1796, two-hundred-and-twenty-two years ago today, a Philadelphia newspaper, the American Daily Advertiser, published George Washington’s Farewell Address. Since then it has remained one of the most important documents in American history.
The revolutionary era began with the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence announcing the ideas and ideals that unite us. It ended with Washington’s somber assessment of the forces that were likely to pull us apart.
The Farewell Address is best known for admonitions against alliances and advice to avoid the wars between Britain and France. But those well-known foreign policy pronouncements actually come at the end of an essay that is primarily about domestic dangers.
Washington reminds his fellow citizens that the union is essential to our security and prosperity and then laments the likelihood that the union will fail. He worries that we will lose our national unity when we see ourselves, first and foremost, as members of groups, sections and parties. We will be petty, prone to prejudice, and easily convinced that others, elsewhere in the nation, have advantages we don’t enjoy. Sectionalism and political parties will divide us.
And those partisan divisions, Washington warns will, “distract the public councils,” “enfeeble the public administration,” agitate “the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms,” kindle “the animosity of one part against another,” and occasionally foment “riot and insurrection.”
A two-party system offers little protection. “The alternate dominion of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension…is itself a frightful despotism.”
Washington admits that since people will gravitate toward others who share similar backgrounds, ideas or interests, and since parties and factions will always exist, perhaps a political system that allows their competition will provide some “checks upon government” and “keep alive the spirit of liberty.” Perhaps.
But, Washington goes on to observe, that while we have more than enough partisanship “for every salutary purpose,” there is a constant “danger of excess.” Partisanship can energize a community, but “it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
Whenever the flames of partisanship get too high, we leave ourselves open to two threats. Foreigners may exacerbate our divisions in order to weaken us or draw us into unnecessary conflicts. And “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled” leaders may play upon our differences in order to “usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
George Washington’s Farewell Address contains remarkably modern commentary. Cunning, ambitious and unprincipled politicians abound. And we live in a deeply divided nation: divided by party, by unequal incomes, by regional differences, by disparate definitions of truth, and by a host of resentments about past injustices, current discriminations, and the rapid pace of social and demographic change.
We are witnessing foreign intervention in our democracy that goes way beyond anything the French ambassador ever did during Washington’s presidency. Yet the heat from our partisanship is so intense, and so distracting, that we are unable to have reasonable national deliberations about Russian meddling and the new vulnerabilities of the digital age.
Activist Democrats expect evidence justifying impeachment from the same investigation that the president and his surrogates dismiss as a hoax and a witch hunt. Caught in the middle, professional intelligence officers, who uniformly agree that we face a serious threat, find their analysis disparaged, exaggerated or ignored. Internal political division keeps the door to foreign interference open—precisely the formula that Washington feared.
In America today, moderation is punished by an electoral system that enhances partisan difference. Expertise is suspect, and independent institutions that were once looked to for objective information and commentary (including newspapers like this one, and universities like my own) are no longer trusted. Leaders like George Washington who resist partisanship, model integrity and convincingly call for national unity are hard to find.
Today, we still admire Jefferson’s lofty language in the Declaration of Independence. But we need to balance those political principles with Washington’s practical advice. In the age of Donald Trump, there is a real danger that we will allow ourselves to become, or remain, so deeply divided that we endanger our liberties and weaken our defenses in a dangerous world. Now, more than ever, we need to take George Washington’s warnings to heart.
This essay was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 19, 2018