The democratic republic of the United States was truly unique when its Constitution was ratified and amended in the late 1700s, as was the concept of an elected president. Most countries in the global political landscape had some form of an autocracy, ruled by an emperor, a king, queen or czar. None had a U.S.-styled constitution and no other citizens in the world had the protections of a Bill of Rights. I fear that too many Americans today aren’t aware of this glorious history or the wisdom of our first president, George Washington.
After having served his country for several decades, including eight as its president, Washington decided not to seek a third term in 1796. He was worn out by the pressures of the presidency and the attacks of his opponents. Before he retired to his Mt. Vernon Virginia plantation, however, he composed a “Farewell Address.” It was not delivered publicly, as many politicians might do; the 32-page Address first appeared in a newspaper in Philadelphia – where Washington resided as president – on September 19, 1796, and then in papers around the country.
According to the U.S. Senate Historical Office, Washington wanted to inspire and guide future generations of Americans, but he also “believed that the stability of the Republic was threatened by the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs.” “Washington’s principal concern was for the safety of the eight-year-old Constitution.” And he feared that political parties “carried the seeds of the nation’s destruction through petty factionalism,” as noted in the Historical Office backgrounder.
Each year on or around Washington’s birthday (February 22) his Farewell Address is read by a Senator from the well of the Senate – either a Republican or a Democrat on an alternating basis. This year the task falls to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D) next Monday, the 28th. I wonder how many of his colleagues will be paying attention, particularly on the other side of the aisle.
After the reading, Mr. Leahy will record his name and brief remarks in a leatherbound book, which will be maintained by the secretary of the Senate. I have a feeling they will echo Washington’s concerns about partisan politics.
Remember that political parties didn’t really exist in 1796 as they do today and writing styles were quite different. One sentence that I discovered in Washington’s Address was 88 words long, which may not be the longest. Still, he made his points quite well regarding the evils of “parties,” so I will simply provide a few quotes that convey his deep concerns, with highlighting by me.
“In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations – Northern and Southern – Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.”
“However combinations or associations [parties] —- may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely —- to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
“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.”
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension —- is itself a frightful 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 —- turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
“It [spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Obviously, Washington’s Address was prescient:
- Republican politicians from top to bottom have promoted former president Donald Trump’s utterly baseless “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
- This resulted in Trump supporters viciously attacking the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, in an effort to keep him in office.
- Thereafter, Republican members of U.S. House (139) and eight GOP Senators voted against certifying Joe Biden as the lawfully elected president.
- Republican-controlled states, mainly in the South and West, used the Big Lie as a pretext to enact radical voter suppression laws that make voting harder for minorities and others who typically support Democrats.
To make matters worse, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is directing an invasion of Ukraine, Trump and numerous Republicans are aiding and comforting this despot by exalting him and disparaging President Biden. This is beyond outrageous.
With these attacks on our democratic processes – and in so many other ways – I believe the Republican Party is causing the realization of Washington’s worse fears of the geographical sectionalism and political factionalism that threaten our Constitution and this republic.
Thank you for reminding us of Washington’s beginning principles and responsibilities. It is timely to remind our good Republican friends of their obvious follies and darker outcomes by supporting Trump’s mindless conversation. We have reached dangerous times with our government facing possible armed .anarchy
Thanks Ron, nice article. As you point out, President Washington was truly a unique and wise leader. To foresee the future dangers of factionalism on a new system before the fruition of history is remarkable. As we know very well today, party politics is the strategic art of divide and conquer, and it always will be. The US has long prided itself on its “two party system” as a great strength. Relatively speaking, it was better than what existed at the time and better than other democratic states that developed a myriad of parties. That, however, doesn’t mean it is perfect or that a better system cannot evolve. We have to remember that the two parties we are talking about, the Republican and the Democrat, weren’t created by or even mentioned in the Constitution.
As you have pointed out, Ron, President Washington discouraged the establishment of permanent factions or parties and promoted the idea of one unified people working for the betterment of all through serious and meaningful consultation in its newly formed institutions. Unfortunately, that was an idea far ahead of its time. Humanity, even now, is still much too immature for that. It was largely through Washingtons maturity, unifying dignity and innate ability to negotiate compromise that the Constitutional convention succeeded at all. The US Constitution is a great human accomplishment but we must strive to live up to its greatness for it to endure. I’m not sure, at this point, if that will happen. Moneyed interests are currently winning out.