Washington’s Words

On February 22, 1732 (February 11, 1731 under the old calendar), the man who would become the greatest American of all-time was born.  That man was George Washington.  In his life, he became the man who held our ragtag army together against the British and eventually would lead them to victory though he would lose more battles than won, he would help create a central government that would unite all the independent states into a nation with a national identity, and he would rise to the top to be that nation’s first elected President under the new Constitution… and would set the precedent for all those who held that office after him.  When one says today that they are an American, they usually pay Washington homage for being the man that made it all happen.  In history, he is the one man that we see as being indispensable.  Without him, our path… our own future… would have been drastically different.  Starting in 1775, the weight of the world came to rest upon his shoulders, and it would not lift again until 1796 when he decided to not run for a third term as President and officially retired.  As he retired, Washington issued a Farewell Address to his beloved country that he had always been in service to.  And while reading this document, one cannot help but wonder what Mr. Washington would think of the very country he helped to create.

There is probably no doubt that Mr. Washington would be highly impressed as to the nation we have become.  During his time as President, our nation only consisted of the area of the original 13-colonies and lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River… a small fraction of what it is today.  In 2012, our nation is 3.79 million square miles and has a population around 312-million people… and with those people, one of the most ethnically diverse in the world.  We have become a beacon of democracy and freedom around the world.  Our nation, though not always agreeable, has managed to stay together… to form that more perfect union that another famous President, Abraham Lincoln, once said.  Even in Washington’s times, each region had its own wants and needs, and they threaten to tear this nation apart at the seems at times.  Even at its worst times, when it nearly did break the union, it was somehow saved and brought back together.  And despite the political turbulence that we now find ourselves in, we still remain as that one nation that started off rather small.  Now, we are an economic powerhouse… the big guy in the world.  Though Washington did issue some words of caution, he would probably be very pleased.

“Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.”

In Washington’s Farewell Address to his countrymen, he gave us some guidelines on how to proceed in the future.  These guidelines have become lost in time and aren’t usually taken into consideration by future Presidents.  Our history would look a little different if they had.  Yes, there is no way Washington could have known about the world we live in today, so changes and adaptations were always going to be needed.  But in the core of it all, there is a lining that maybe we should still be paying attention to.

“Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”

We look at a map of our nation today, and we see political differences.  We see blue states and red states.  We argue over what it means to be an American and who is an American.  We subjugate minorities to the will of the majority still.  We seek moral guidance from religion though we can’t agree on which religion we should be looking at.  The quote above, though, from Washington’s speech negates all discussions in this realm.  We see each other as liberal or conservative, Christian or Jewish or Muslim or any other religion, gay or straight or bisexual, man or woman, northerner or southerner or midwesterner or westerner.  But we tend to forget, except in the most patriotic of moments, that we are all Americans united under freedom, democracy, and the same common law.  We share a heritage that is rich and diverse.  We are of one people in our country, and we should do a better job of remembering that.  Washington and the rest of our Founding Fathers knew that there would be difference of opinions.  That is why they set forth to protect those rights.  But we should not let those differences undo our national identity.

“While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rival ships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter.”

Washington warned our nation of becoming involved in international or foreign wars.  He wanted the United States to be one and of itself and not become bogged down in wars that had no interest to us.  And yet, over time, we have found ourselves doing just that.  We created the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the second Gulf War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) under false pretenses designed to serve a political agenda.  World War I could be argued since we were not directly attacked.  Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Panama, and many other countries also come to mind in our history.  But Washington, could not have imagined all the possibilities.  In my firm belief, there are times when we, as the superpower of the world, must get involved in an overseas conflict.  The best example of this is to prevent genocide.  We can’t just sit within our nation and proclaim democracy and freedom for all.  We have to show the world what that means and that everyone has the same rights of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” as our Declaration of Independence says.  And we must also move to defend ourselves when our shores are attacked.  In those darkest of times, we must move towards war until a desired peace can be reestablished.  Our first inclination should not be war but should be peace.  Only in the most dire of situations should a declaration of war be considered.

“No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced.”

Along the lines of warning future Americans from becoming involved in foreign wars, Washington also went on to tell us that we shouldn’t become entangled in foreign alliances.  And yet today, we find ourselves as part of NATO and the United Nations among many others.  There were treaties of peace and treaties of trade, but this one aspect of becoming part of a foreign alliance was something our country held onto until our involvement in World War I, and even then, President Wilson’s order to General Pershing was to keep a separate military from those of Europe.  After the war, we went back to our isolationist ways as the nations of the world attempted to create an organization to stop all future wars… the League of Nations, which would ultimately fail.  The United Nations would come as a result of World War II, and by this time, as one of the superpowers of the world, we knew that isolationism could no longer be practiced.  As the leading voice for democracy and freedom, we had to be front and center to make sure this new international body succeeded.   Again, there is no way Washington could have known about the world we live in today or the evil that we have faced.  But yet, we should still mind his words carefully.  We should not jump into international conflicts or foreign wars until the situation absolute necessitates us to.

“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. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.”

It is upon this very topic… one that we all take part in… that I bring up last.  In it, Washington puts for the case against the formation of political parties.  It is something that fell apart right away as the Federalist and Republican (not what we think of as the current Republican Party which didn’t form until the 1850s) parties.  The Whig party would come about decades later, as well as the current Democrat Party (which formed from the old Republican Party) and the new Republican Party.  You’d also see the rise of other political parties such as the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party and even the Reform Party among many others.  Again, when we look at a map of the United States today, we tend to see Democrat (blue) and Republican (red) states, and it has become increasingly evident over the years that the only goal either party has is making the other party look bad instead of working together and doing what is right for the people that elected them.  John Adams (who was our Second President) agreed with Washington on this point.  Adams said that “political parties would be the downfall of American politics.”  Seems as though both are right though one would tend to think that the formation of political parties was inevitable.  People who believed along the same lines of thoughts were bound to group themselves together.  But in that process, we forgot that absolute truth should be the thing that wins out.  How can we be a good democracy if the people that are forming our government are misinformed?  Though Washington and the Founding Fathers were scared of the average American being able to elect the President (hence the Electoral College), it is the way in which we do things nowadays.  How can we be expected to make proper voting decisions if all sides are working to misinform the populace about another side?  How are we to determine what is right and what is wrong?  Politics has never been clean, but any more, it has become so muddled that we can’t even sort it out without a lot of time and a lot of effort.  “We, the people,” should be demanding more of our elected officials on this front.  And we should step up our game, too, by not allowing ourselves to fall victim to believing and supporting one party over another as it has been proven that they both use the same misleading tactics.

Our nation today, and even the world of today, is very different than it was in Washington’s time.  We have set out from the example he created and have done our best.  At times, we have succeeded and at others, we have blundered enormously.  Our path has not always been clear and not always calm, but I do think that Mr. Washington would smile at the nation we have helped to build… one that he helped to create… though he would be reminding us all of the lines in his Farewell Address (far more than the ones I’ve brought up in this piece).  He is the greatest of all Americans… something we are all measured up to, and yet, something none of can hope to achieve.  He is the embodiment of what it means to be an American.  There are no others greater than him for he was the Father of our country.  He devoted himself to a set of ideals that formed a new nation.  George Washington would end up passing away on December 14, 1799.  Not only a nation, but an entire world, would mourn at his passing.  At his official funeral here in the United States, Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee would eulogize Washington by saying he was “first in war — first in peace — and first in the hearts of his countrymen […] Such was the man America has lost — such was the man for whom our nation mourns.”

Text of Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from Washington’s Farewell Address.


One Response to Washington’s Words

  1. Will Roth says:

    Excellent commentary, ideals we have strayed from, but somehow must get back to if we are going to keep the freedoms the forefathers enunciated.

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