Between Reagan, Bush Jr. and the soon-to-be-former-president Obama, several former commanders in chief are such big components of this year’s election that you might think they will actually be on the ballot in November. All these references have me thinking about my favorite president, George Washington, and what he would think about the current state of our union.
Luckily, I don’t have to guess. In 1796, after two long and arduous terms, Washington published his farewell address in which he described how the fledgling America could keep its hard-earned liberties in the years to come. Allow me to look at some of his major pieces of advice, and we can consider where we are as a nation today.
Let’s start with the good news. Washington called the continuance of the Union “a primary object of Patriotic desire.” We as a nation have effectively preserved our Union through the years – with a brief break from 1861 to 1865 – that provides the main pillar of strength at home and abroad to preserve our rights.
Unfortunately, this is the only point of Washington’s address that we currently maintain as a country.
The founding father continued, imploring his successors to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown Military establishments, which under any form of Government are inauspicious to liberty.”
Since World War II and the inception of the Cold War, America has maintained a very large military in response to the fear of external threats. A constant threat of attack causes the people to be more apt to give up their rights in return for supposed protection by the government, e.g. The Patriot Act. Some thinkers believe that a perpetual state of war ensures the people’s blind allegiance to their nation (see “The Report from Iron Mountain” study).
Washington also ardently warned against the formation of rivaling political parties, saying that “the alternate domination of one faction over another” is “a frightful despotism.” Today’s political climate is downright hateful, with Republicans and Democrats scowling at one another before conversations even take place: precisely what Washington had feared factions would bring.
The strict division of powers was another of Washington’s concerns. He said the nation should “inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective Constitutional spheres.” The Tenth Amendment has been all but forgotten today, however. The federal government as a whole has taken upon itself the powers relegated to the states and the people.
Believe it or not, Washington considered religion as a necessary component of a functioning union. “Religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he said, but often politicians and the public both push for spiritually objective laws and practices. The separation of church and state is never far from the political foreground.
Washington proposed that the “accumulation of debt” be avoided by “shunning occasions of expense,” as well as “vigorous exertions in time of Peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidable wars may have occasioned.” Like many modern politicians, Washington said this with future generations in mind. Of course, the national debt is climbing every second, and Washington would say we are “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Our first president was a brave man who fought against tyranny – foreign and domestic. He was an innovative thinker, the first to administer the executive branch of a brand new form of government. He was a man who lived his life among a group of national leaders who had spent long hours designing, discussing and debating the republic they created.
I say all of that to make my final point: George Washington is someone we ought to listen to.