Hyper-partisanship. Excessive debt. Foreign influence in our elections. We didn’t see that coming . . . but maybe we should have.
George Washington, the father of our nation, penned his cautionary Farewell Address in 1796. The President not only addressed his political intention not to seek re-election, (thus establishing the precedent of a two-term presidency) but also shared his political beliefs and philosophy with the hope they would continue to guide the nation he loved.
Washington’s Farewell Address was well accepted by the public and, in his day, was more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence. Although today you might be hard pressed to find people who have read it, his fatherly advice and warning deserves our attention.
Washington had carried the presidency clothed with an important trust. With a feeling of responsibility and love for the people, and with no personal motive to bias his counsel, he made recommendations that he felt were important to the permanent happiness of the American people. He expressed his wish:
- that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence
- that your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual
- that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained
- that the administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue
- that the happiness of the people of these states, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing
Speaking on national unity he said, Unity of government . . . which constitutes you one people. . . is the main pillar . . . of your real independence, tranquility at home, peace abroad, your safety, your prosperity and your very liberty. He warned that both internal and external enemies would constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) batter the political fortress of unity. Never underestimate the value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness.
Having been elected unanimously as the president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington's presence provided a sense of focus and direction in the creation of the Constitution. He oversaw the debate and helped form the vision of a stronger union. The adoption of a Constitution, . . . 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. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian.
Spirit of Party
Washington cautioned against partisan politics. I have already intimated to you the danger of parties . . . 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. Partisan politics distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one party against another. . . The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
Religion and Morality
George Washington was raised by a devout mother and was taught out of the Bible and other religious books. Speaking of religion, he said, of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Washington believed that it would work against patriotism and private and public happiness to subvert the pillars of religion and morality and believed all should respect and cherish them. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.
Washington espoused a pay-as-you-go philosophy. 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. Washington counseled that we should, with vigorous exertions, discharge debts . . . that we might not ungenerously throw upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. Towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.
The President focused extensively, in his address, on the dangerous influence of foreign powers, Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all—religion, morality, and good policy enjoin this conduct.
Words of wisdom down through the ages—President Washington was an expert freedom fighter. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon, it’s hard to imagine why George and Martha Washington would ever leave the beauty of that place.
But despite the beauty of their Mount Vernon home and Washington’s love for farming, he was gone from Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War for eight and a half years. He never went home during the war. He served as president of the United States for eight years and only visited Mount Vernon 10 times during his presidency. When you consider that Washington died a little over two years after the end of his presidency, you begin to realize the magnitude of the selfless service he gave to build a foundation of liberty for all of us.
Washington’s Farewell Address was a visionary warning, full of durable wisdom. Americans who study this memorable message will be encouraged to be guided by principles, not interests, to avoid dependency, to be educated in what democracy takes, and to cultivate peace and justice towards all.
In the life of every father there comes a time to share what he has come to know, hoping those who follow after him will find value in the wisdom, pick up the cause, and carry on. May we find value in Washington’s wisdom, realize we all have a part to play in preserving freedom, and carry on in the cause of liberty for those yet to come.