September 12, 1996

September 12, 1996 | Commentary on

ED091296a: What Would George Washington Say?

Imagine picking up your morning newspaper and reading the headline: "President To Resign; Issues Solemn Warnings To Nation."

This startling news greeted readers of Philadelphia's largest newspaper on the morning of Sept. 19, 1796, when George Washington unexpectedly announced his retirement from the presidency of the United States. The nation would have been happy to see him continue.

But our first president wanted to set an example for his successors, and as he left public life he offered the nation a document that is one of the greatest in American history. On its 200th anniversary, Washington's Farewell Address -- although remembered primarily for its advice on foreign affairs -- gives us much insight into how he might view America in the 1990s.

In it, Washington warned us of the dangers of Big Government. He told us to watch out for the tendency of government to encroach on individual freedoms and consolidate its power. What American can say this warning has not been justified by subsequent events? "A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position," Washington said. We could add: Any doubt that might be left can be put to rest by assessing the size and reach of the U.S. government in 1996.

Our only defense against an over-reaching, tyrannical government, Washington insisted, is the Constitution's strict limits on government power. Washington said that unless these limits were carefully adhered to -- that is, unless the federal government exercised only those functions specifically delegated to it by the Constitution and by the authority of the people, and no more -- the nation would become vulnerable to "cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men."

Could Americans' distrust of their elected representatives, their sense that government has overextended its proper authority, and that average citizens no longer have enough say in matters that affect them, be the result of disregarding Washington's warning?

Washington warned of "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party" and the notorious problem of faction. By this he didn't mean what me mean by "parties," but instead what we call "special-interest groups" pushing their own single-issue agendas at the expense of wider, more serious concerns having to do with the common good. He called partisan spirit "a fire not to be quenched; it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume."

How many times in recent decades have Americans watched in despair as partisanship overshadowed principle in the nation's capital; as one special interest in Congress prevented another from passing a good law? Washington believed fundamental change in a free government comes about not through clever strategies, "hot button" issues or attack ads but by honest deliberation, patient persuasion, and a willingness to put principle above self-interest.

In his Farewell Address, Washington also told Americans that while their Constitution creates a framework for good government, it could only work if the people govern themselves rightly. In the absence of governmental restraints, the people would have to restrain their own passions and prejudices. Washington meant to encourage religion and morality as "indispensable supports" for political prosperity. He cautioned Americans never to expect virtue from their elected representatives if they were not moral, virtuous people themselves.

Two centuries later social scientists are just discovering what Washington always knew: that religious belief and moral education are the surest social inoculation against crime, drug abuse, illegitimacy and practically every other social ill one can name.

By ignoring much of Washington's advice, America has moved far down the path he said had "hitherto marked the Destiny of Nations." Today our government is virtually unlimited and out of control; politics is dominated by base factionalism and personal invective; our culture is adrift from the breakup of community and the family; we increasingly question our national purpose and role in the world.

Amidst these seemingly intractable problems, Americans would do well to look to the father of their country -- and the Farewell Address -- for guidance. His "counsels of an old and affectionate friend," as he called them, are as true in 1996 as they were in 1796.

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