On September 19, 1796, readers of the American Daily Advertiser were greeted with perhaps the most famous letter in American history. That letter was titled The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States.
It was immediately reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. Within days, all Americans had read the letter — a letter now known simply as “Washington’s Farewell Address.”
The letter was remarkable for its time, not simply for the ideals and principles it conveyed, but mostly because of the news it conveyed.
George Washington warrants our honor and gratitude
As far as those living in North America at that time were concerned, George Washington was their most important and significant public figure. Without Washington, they wouldn’t have a country.
Though many today disregard, downplay, or ignore Washington’s significance, no one at that time doubted or questioned the irrefutable fact that George Washington was indispensable to the birth, survival, and success of the United States of America.
And now he was retiring.
And this time, it was clear he meant it.
The United States of America without George Washington at the helm?
It was unthinkable.
Fortunately for the people of the United States, though George Washington the man retired in 1797 and passed into eternity in 1799, “George Washington” the example and inspiration survived.
Indeed, for most of America’s history, the American people — regardless of race, color, gender, economic status, political persuasion, background, or any other such consideration — honored the memory and legacy of Washington.
Not so much today.
Over the years, the memory of George Washington has dimmed for myriad reasons, not the least of which include America’s awareness of the sins of our past (and present) particularly with respect to racial justice as well as the increased diversity in our population.
It’s not my intent to engage in over-the-top hagiography. I agree we should recognize the sins and shortcomings of our past — and learn from them.
What’s more, I agree we must acknowledge that our historical figures are flawed — including those we may admire. Therefore, I’m not saying we should worship Washington. I’m saying we should honor him and still listen to him.
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And those who have a healthy level of emotional, spiritual, and mental health should be able to celebrate the good while also recognizing, acknowledging, and learning from the bad.
Without this kind of nuanced and emotionally intelligent thinking, we will doom ourselves to a never-ending cycle of shame, guilt, strife, and disunity.
George Washington’s warning can save us — if we’ll listen
Entire books have been written outlining George Washington’s numerous accomplishments and contributions to America. With this article, I merely want to highlight one important contribution — a warning.
A warning that we must heed before it’s too late.
In his Farewell Address (which both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton helped craft), Washington lays out what he regards as the greatest challenges to America’s prosperity or even survival.
Perhaps no concern worried Washington more than the growing factionalism that gripped the country, pitting American against American. It was this concern to which he devoted a significant portion of his address.
After declaring his intention to retire and expressing praise and gratitude to the American people, Washington declared:
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. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing 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.
Note that Washington cites “unity” as “a main pillar” for the people’s “real independence” as well as their “tranquility at home,” “peace abroad,” “safety,” “prosperity,” and “liberty.” All of those blessings depended, in Washington’s mind, on a strong, perpetual unity in the American people.
You may be an American who has a hard time getting past the sins and flaws of Washington and our Founding Fathers. But if you value the things Washington cites — independence, tranquility, peace, safety, prosperity, and liberty — then it’s in your best interests to confront and consider Washington’s wisdom.
If our independence, tranquility, peace, safety, prosperity, and liberty all depend on unity, then it stands to reason that hatred, polarization, and disunity threaten those very things.
And sadly, we aren’t very united today.
On the contrary, we as Americans are increasingly polarized.
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Our political discourse is characterized more today by contempt and scorn than by civility or patriotism.
If this continues, we will not survive.
Are we willing to heed Washington’s wisdom?
In his Farewell Address, Washington lays out several choices and commitments we can make to keep our nation united and strong. Here are just four:
1. Commit to Patriotism
Choose to value, love, and honor your country. To put it simply, be patriotic.
In Washington’s words:
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.
Being patriotic doesn’t mean that you consider your nation perfect or always right. It doesn’t mean that you will always agree with the government, nor does it mean you won’t engage in peaceful protest. But it does mean that you will “concentrate your affections” in the country and manifest a “just pride of patriotism” in your nation.
2. Commit to the Constitution and the National Union
Closely related to the first point, Washington emphasized repeatedly that regional and sectional interests should not be allowed to pull apart the Union. As he put it:
To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support.
If he were alive today, he would tell Americans to drop any talk of secession or pulling apart.
He most certainly would have opposed the secession of the southern states in 1860–61. Washington was staunchly pro-Union and saw himself as an American first. And he did relay to a friend his fear that a North-South split may occur over slavery. Prophetic, you might say.
Washington reportedly told an English friend: “I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” John Benard wrote of this conversation he allegedly had with Washington in 1798 in his book Retrospections of America, 1797–1811. According to Benard, the retired President “said soberly that if the South were ever to try to divide the nation over the issue of slavery, he would ‘move and be of the northern’ part.”
This conversation is consistent with Washington’s voluminous writings in which he strongly endorsed the Constitution and Union. It’s also consistent with his actions, as President, when he put down the Whiskey Rebellion.
Washington would undoubtedly remind us today that we’re in this together. And we’re stronger together than we are apart.
3. “Discourage and Restrain” Political Parties and Factions
We come to perhaps the warning that needs our most urgent attention. Let’s let the father of our country speak in his own words:
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical 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.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
There’s very little I can add. We are living in the “disorders and the miseries” and the “mischiefs” Washington explicitly warned us about — all because of the increased factionalism of our society.
Shame on us.
Those of us living in the United States of America should consider ourselves Americans before we are Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or anything of the sort. We certainly should put our country above personalities or political celebrities.
4. We Need “Religion and Morality”
Since we are imperfect people living in a challenging and imperfect world, we need (in the words of the Apostle Paul) “faith, hope, and love.” And in the words of George Washington, we need “religion and 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.
There you have it, my fellow Americans!
The ball is now in our court.
Each generation of Americans must decide:
Will we heed the wisdom of our nation’s father?
These words of wisdom from our nation’s indispensable founder — the man who made the United States possible — are what we need to get us through this time of confusion, division, and uncertainty.
In sharing this, I’m not saying Washington was perfect or that he didn’t sometimes fall short of his own standards. I’m not minimizing the sins of the founding era. Slavery was a pretty big sin. But I am saying that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
We can recognize the sins in our nation’s past, but we must also recognize the good in our nation’s past. And we must recognize the wisdom of great leaders like George Washington.
The father of our country told us what we need to do in order to survive and thrive as a nation. Do we have the humility, the wisdom, and the courage to listen?