Before I went to sleep last night — a night that, among other things, resulted in the loss of my wife’s job (she is/was Senator Feingold’s foreign policy adviser) — I happened to read Jill Lepore’s review of yet another new biography of America’s first president, George Washington. In it, she cites briefly from Washington’s renowned Farewell Address from 1796. Given that last night’s election results now mark the third election in a row that Americans have kicked a political party out of power (and we only have two, so . . .), I thought Washington’s two-century-old warnings to us seemed particularly prescient.
A central part of Washington’s legacy to us was his willingness to step away from power precisely at the point when he was most poised to consolidate it. Yet he also made sure in his farewell address to sound a few alarm bells, and urge us into “solemn contemplation, and to recommend to (our) frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of (our) felicity as a people.”
In particular, Washington cautioned us to be aware of the growing trend in which “one of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
“All obstructions to the execution of the laws,” Washington continued, “all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”
It is remarkable to think that when Washington was delivering these warnings, our country was just five years removed from the ratification of the Constitution. Yet it would make sense that his core caution then would have grown to become exponentially more relevant, and destructive, now: “However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, 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.”
America, where to from here?