The Wisdom of George Washington

by Diana Schaub (member of the Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society)

Have we deviated from the sound principles of his Farewell Address?

The world’s most generous prize money is attached not to the Nobel Prize but to the Mo Ibrahim Prize, awarded for good governance in Africa, as determined by a very simple test: a democratically elected leader who actually leaves office at the end of his term. The winner receives five million dollars plus two hundred thousand dollars a year for life. The 53 African nations yielded one claimant in 2011, but none for the two years previous. The precedent set by George Washington has not been easy to establish elsewhere, prize money or not.

George Washington is justly famous for his retirements: his republican refusal of perpetual power on two all-important occasions, first when he resigned supreme military authority in 1783 and then again when he relinquished presidential authority in 1796. Although he went willingly, it can’t be said that he went quietly. Not, of course, that he made any sort of fuss and bother—that was not his style—but he did on both occasions take the opportunity to speak to his fellow citizens about the perils ahead. This impulse to extend his guiding presence over the generations indicates, I think, how difficult it actually was for the most competent man on the stage to exit of his own accord and turn the nation’s performance over to an ensemble cast.

“Silence in Me Would Be a Crime”

In Washington’s first valedictory, the “Circular to the States,” the General had noted that there were some who might object to his even offering political counsel for the future, viewing it as an act of arrogant presumption, “stepping out of the proper line of . . . duty.” Washington responded by saying, “silence in me would be a crime.” Why a crime? —because although the war had been won, it was yet to be determined, according to Washington, “whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse.” (We speak today of the Arab “Spring”—a hopeful metaphor, but also misleading since political life is not regular like the seasons. Washington was aware that what follows the revolution counts most and there are never any guarantees of what that might be.)

In view of what he called “the present Crisis,” Washington was convinced it was not only permissible but also incumbent on him to set forth his thoughts on government, which he proceeded to do by describing four “Pillars” that were needed to support “the glorious Fabrick of our Independency and National Character.”

Three years later, Washington was distressed both by the state of the Union and by his countrymen’s disregard of his parting words. In a letter to John Jay, Washington lamented that “my sentiments and opinions . . .  have been neglected, tho’ given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner.” Of course, as it turned out, the Circular of 1783 was not his last legacy. After serving two terms as president under the new Constitution, Washington had a chance to compose another Farewell Address, now with higher expectations of finding a receptive and lasting audience.

Like the Circular, the Farewell Address was never delivered as a speech; it was, from the first, a written document, intended to be read not heard, pondered not applauded. Its audience and mode of distribution, however, were strikingly different from the Circular’s. The Circular was directed to the respective governors of the states. It bore the salutation “Sir” and called upon “your Excellency” to communicate the contents to “your Legislature.” The “Citizens of America” were mentioned, but always in the third person as “they.”

By contrast, the Farewell was published via the popular medium of the newspapers. It was an open letter, bearing the salutation “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens.” The second-person “you” now embraced the people, rather than the functionaries of the states. By the close of the Farewell, even the gap between “I,” George Washington, and “you,” my fellow citizens, was de-emphasized, as Washington shifted increasingly to the first-person plural possessive: as in “our country,” “our interest,” “our foreign relations,” “our destiny,” culminating in the evocative closing reference to “our mutual cares, labours, and dangers.”

By the way, this salutation, “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens,” is unique in Washington’s writings. Throughout his presidency, each Annual Message had been addressed to “Fellow-citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.” So, too, the First Inaugural, although the Second Inaugural was addressed more broadly to “Fellow-citizens.” The Farewell takes this a step further. The addition of the word “Friends” sounds a new, more intimate note—a note that develops into one of the speech’s recurring motifs. Whereas the formal voice of the Circular had been actuated by duty—remember, “silence would be a crime”—the warmer voice of the Farewell is prompted by love. As Washington himself puts it, his counsels are those of “an old and affectionate friend.”

The Counsel of an Affectionate and Parting Friend

So what did the nation’s “parting friend” offer as his last legacy for our “solemn contemplation” and “frequent review”? The 50 paragraphs of the address are carefully structured. The primary divisions are an opening section of 6 paragraphs which constitutes the resignation proper, a central section of 36 paragraphs which delineates Washington’s maxims and warnings, and a concluding section of 8 paragraphs which measures Washington’s own administration against his expressed principles and solicits pardon for any shortcomings.

The language of the opening section, with its ostentatious modesty, is now alien to us. Our self-trumpeting politicians would never dream of drawing attention, as Washington does, to his “very fallible judgment” or “the inferiority of my qualifications.” For himself, Washington claims only “good intentions.” Of course, maybe it’s easier to appear humble when one’s actions have spoken as irrefutably as Washington’s have. The great man in the infant republic effaces himself, and deflects the credit onto his fellow citizens.  “If benefits have resulted to our country from these services,” Washington insists, “let it always be remembered to your praise,” since “the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts.”

The converse of Washington’s humility is his gratitude; he leaves office deeply indebted to “my beloved country.” He closes the opening section with a prayer—a carefully itemized prayer—hoping that the nation will be blessed with the favor of Heaven, perpetual Union, fidelity to the Constitution, the wise Administration of government, and a completion of national Happiness that will inspire the worldwide spread of liberty.

Having given his notice, Washington declares “Here, perhaps, I ought to stop.” The attention of the reader is riveted both by the style of this statement (short, punchy sentences being a rarity in Washington’s writing) and its implication. What could move George Washington to go beyond the bounds of propriety? Two things—“solicitude” and “apprehension”—urge him forward to present counsels that he regards as “all important.” Interestingly, he begins by declaring that the love of liberty is secure in American hearts. Unlike Tocqueville, who some decades later did worry that Americans might sacrifice liberty because of their overweening attachment to equality, Washington’s fears took a different direction. He takes liberty as a given and shows its relation to three areas of concerns: the Union, the Constitution, and the conduct of Government.

The Union comes first. As “a main Pillar” of independence, the “continuance of the Union” ought to be “a primary object of Patriotic desire.” Washington says that the nation “has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American . . . must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” The only two words in the Address to appear in all capital letters are “Union” and “American.” It becomes clear why the date line of the Farewell Address specified the location simply as “United States” rather than the usual Philadelphia or Mt. Vernon. Washington may be retiring to Mt. Vernon but he does so as an American not a Virginian.

For Washington, patriotism is a matter of “sympathy,” but not only sympathy. He supplements the cordial attachment of North and South, East and West, with “the most commanding motives,” namely those of immediate commercial interest. He shows how regional interdependence generates “an indissoluble community of interest as one Nation.” This appeal to Union, compounded of both sense and sensibility, culminates in Washington’s first warning against sectionalism and the “designing men” who would capitalize on geographic differences to divide and alienate affections rather than bridge them. Washington admits that political fraternity on such a large scale is an experiment, but as such, “’Tis well worth a fair and full experiment.” We are authorized to “distrust the patriotism” of the parochial naysayers.

The Pillars of Liberty     

From Union it is but a short step to the Constitution, for the Constitution furthers “an intimate Union.” Washington’s main point in this sub-section is that “true Liberty” entails duties upon citizens. He delivers a lesson in democratic theory: “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, ‘till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all.” The warning here is not just against disobedience to law (of the sort displayed during the Whiskey Rebellion), but more fundamentally against faction, which for Washington means “all combinations and Associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, controul, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the Constituted authorities.”

Publius may have argued in Federalist No. 10 that the solution to the mischiefs caused by faction is to multiply the number of factions and pit them against one another, but Washington seems to have serious reservations about the wisdom of interest group politics, seeing it as an invitation to “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men . . . to subvert the Power of the People.” Along with resisting factious appeals, the people must resist also “the spirit of innovation,” particularly innovations in constitutional principles that would “impair the energy of the system.” Washington links the security of liberty to government of sufficient vigor. Although the Constitution has a provision for amendment, Washington wants to give the existing document the benefit of “time and habit.”

Washington repeats his warning against “the Spirit of Party” three times, first in the section on Union (§§9-15), next in the section on the Constitution (§§16-18), and then most comprehensively at the beginning of the section on good government (§§19-41), where he admits the naturalness of partisanship, but indicates that his object is “by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.”

Having made explicit his theme of public opinion, Washington enquires into the proper grounding and shaping of that opinion, declaring that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Calling these the “great Pillars of human happiness,” Washington makes the case for political as well as pious attention to them. Interestingly, he concludes that the way to foster religion and morality is through education. The first positive command or prescription of the Address states: “Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” Washington envisions no conflict between religion, morality, and enlightenment.

The next rule of conduct is to “cherish public credit”—there follows sound advice on debt and taxation. Although “the execution of these maxims” belongs to the elected representatives, Washington points out that “it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate.” Indeed, it should “facilitate to them the performance of their duty” through “a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining Revenue.”

Finally, there is a lengthy treatment of foreign policy that begins with the injunction to “observe good faith and justice towards all Nations” and includes Washington’s well-known advice to steer clear of “permanent Alliances,” or as Jefferson (more famously) phrased it, “entangling alliances.” Before we dismiss this advice as obsolete—suited to a young and vulnerable America rather than a superpower America—it should be said that Washington was not recommending isolationism. His message was a timeless one about the conditions for national freedom of action and the limits of fraternal feeling. Domestically, we ought to cultivate bonds of affection, but internationally, it is a mistake to act on the basis of sympathy or gratitude, or to expect other nations to do so. The more sober formula Washington offers is that we act as “our interest guided by our justice shall Counsel.”

Washington closes the Farewell Address by anticipating a retreat beyond even his retreat to Mt. Vernon, namely his journey toward the “Mansions of rest.” The line is said to have brought tears to the eyes of his readers. Four decades later, a young Abraham Lincoln delivered a remarkable speech that revisited Washington’s theme of “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” The Lyceum Address closed by imagining a sort of second coming of Washington. Lincoln’s closing hopes for the nation can still serve as our own: “that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington.”

This Op-ed was published on the Hoover Intuition.  Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Kenyon College and holds an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. She has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Program on Constitutional Government at Harvard University (1994–95). In 2001, she was the recipient of the Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters; in 2004, she was appointed to the President’s Council on Bioethics. She is the author of Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” (1995), along with a number of book chapters and articles in the fields of political philosophy and American political thought. She is a reviewer and essayist for a variety of publications, including National Affairs, the New Criterion, the Claremont Review of Books, the American Interest, and the New Atlantis.

Letters to the editor

Let’s Not Forget About Property Rights

The right to private property and the ability to enforce contracts hardly exist in any African country. Thus it is no surprise that leaders cling to their office after the expiration of their elected term. The office is the surest, and for the person in question, probably the only place, to accumulate wealth in their country. This is a point we may want to consider when we breech the contracts with investors, such as bondholders in a company, seize their property, and demonize them as greedy for protesting.

—Willis Cook

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