Say goodbye, George

On this date back in 1796 George Washington published his “Farewell Address”. It was not actually a speech but a written document, and addressed not to the political class narrowly conceived but to American generally; its full and somewhat characteristically florid 18th-century title was “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States.”

Washington could easily have secured a third term as president; there were no term limits until the mid-20th century. But he feared the precedent of a dominant figure assuming something resembling power for life, as well as being heartily sick of partisan abuse. So instead he stepped aside, creating a precedent nobody felt worthy to discard until Franklin Delano Roosevelt (with the plausible excuse of a looming world war, but still…).

The Farewell Address is remarkable in becoming an instant and enduring classic, full of statesmanlike wisdom. He cautioned his countrymen against sectional divisions, a prescient warning (and yes, Washington was a slaveowner but unlike Jefferson and many others, he freed his slaves in his will). He warned against entangling alliances, praised free trade, urged good faith and justice to all nations and particularly highlighted the danger of having divisions on foreign policy intrude on domestic politics.

He also gave a famous warning against political parties, one that I feel was misguided. It’s not just that it proved ineffective in practice; so did his caution about sectional divisions. It’s that parties are a very effective way to filter options and present reasonably coherent choices to an electorate. They are also loud, abusive and stupid. But you can’t have everything.

He also stressed a point that was not popular with my professors and I suspect would be even less so today: “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…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

You said it, George. And in the elevated tone and improving effect of his Address, he showed us what true statesmanship can be and, in the process, underlined the sorry state of public affairs today in which one cannot imagine a departing politician having anything of remotely similar calibre to say or having the grace to say it the way Washington did.

By the way, Washington had actually wanted to step down after one term, and initially drafted the Farewell Address with James Madison’s help in 1792. But he was so worried about growing animosity between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, his Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State respectively, that he went for a second term to try to keep things under control. And it was a very successful term though, as these things tend to be, also one marked by greater political rancor than the first.

His departure saw an eruption of partisan bitterness, the formation of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, a series of foreign crises that became dangerously entwined with domestic politics, and a bitterly contested election in 1800.

One wonders what calming influence Washington might have exerted from retirement had doctors not bled him to death over a throat infection in 1799. But his Farewell Address did help keep passions within limits among men who had known and deeply respected him, perhaps more so as he took on the august status that death paradoxically confers by protecting a public figure from further polemical blunders or simply remarks resented for their entanglement with current controversies.

If it does not look that way reviewing, say, the insults exchanged in 1800, imagine how little it might have taken to turn crisis into catastrophe in those troubled years. And consider especially Alexander Hamilton’s personally painful choice in 1800.

The election was thrown into the House of Representatives because of an Electoral College tie between the Democratic-Republicans top choice, Thomas Jefferson, and his appalling running mate Aaron Burr (in those days there were not separate Presidential and Vice-Presidential votes, and while one elector was meant to vote for Jefferson but not Burr it got messed up). Hamilton vigorously urged his party to vote for his bitter personal rival Jefferson rather than the egregious Burr because he would rather have a president with wrong principles than a president with none. Without a strong sense of what George would have wanted, and the Farewell Address denunciation of how partisanship embitters men and clouds their minds ringing in his ears, might Hamilton have been content to sit back and watch his rivals tear themselves apart to his country’s loss?

If we cannot produce such a document today, we can at least still read this one.