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October 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor
by John Avlon
Two hundred and nine autumns ago, George Washington's farewell address appeared in newspapers through the nation. The first president had worked extensively and in secret on the document with his treasury secretary and sometime speechwriter Alexander Hamilton. "The goal," explained Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, "was to create a timeless document that would elevate Americans above the partisan sniping that had disfigured public life."
This statement of national principle from the first founding father was treated as a sacred civic text for many years, recited from memory by public school children and read aloud in Congress on Washington's Birthday. In recent decades, however, it has faded from prominence as students memorize the far shorter and more poetic Gettysburg Address.
But in forgetting the parting advice of George Washington we risk cutting ourselves off from his enduring wisdom. A re-reading of Washington's farewell address reveals its startling relevance to our country today.
It offers a wake up call on how far we have strayed from his original vision on matters of foreign policy and fiscal responsibility. But nowhere is Washington's voice more resonant than in his blistering attack on the dangers of hyper-partisan politics.
The Rush Limbaughs of the world often try to pretend that there is nothing more American than high-pitched, no holds barred ideological battle. But Washington makes it clear that he perceived no greater danger to the American experiment than a demagogue who "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another." That sounds a lot like the parasites of partisan politics who dominate the airwaves and closed door counsels today.
Washington belonged to no political party as a matter of principle and warned specifically against those who "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."
Washington was enough of a realist to recognize that the rise of political parties was inevitable, so he tried to remind future generations that "the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it." After all, Washington wrote, "the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism."
Washington's prescient concern was that political parties would divide themselves along geographic lines, specifically North versus South. These fault lines erupted in the Civil War six decades later and live on in so-called Red State, Blue State divide.
But in a larger and more contemporary sense, the founding father was opposed to what Theodore Roosevelt later called "hyphenated-Americans." Washington applauded the positive possibilities of immigration by lauding "citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country" while cautioning that "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." In other words, we're all Americans first, other allegiances come a distant second.
This clear sense of national interest extended to foreign policy as well. Washington's instinctive moderation -- "Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest" -- was balanced by a clear-eyed realism: "it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
This is Washington warning against entangling alliances, saying that "facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."
While the pose of America as Rick in Casablanca may no longer be a practical reality, Washington's 18th century perspective was born of centuries of accumulated wisdom. We are perhaps inevitably susceptible to entangling alliances and foreign influences today, but accordingly, we are uncomfortably closer to being an empire rather than a republic.
Washington's worry about entangling alliances was rooted in a concern that we would lose control of our nation's destiny through unreasonable debt to others.
This instinct away from debt logically extended to the infant nation's fiscal policy, toward which he encouraged us to avoid "the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."
This sense of generational fiscal responsibility is absent from today's policies, as is the hard wisdom of an executive on how to get out of debt. "It is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant."
Washington understood that that's the way the ledger works -- you have to be able to pay for what you spend, or saddle future generations with your debt.
Somebody warned us
Over the accelerated pace of the past decades we have lost sight of George Washington's intended guidance for future generations. This is not without consequence.
As one great admirer of the farewell address, the former governor Angus King (Independent - Maine), recently wrote me, As we begin to reap the whirlwind of our current practices, we can't say nobody warned us."
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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