Once upon a time, the nation had a leader who really was a uniter. Despite never using those words himself, he was elected to two terms as president. "Father of Our Country" almost seems too tame a phrase to describe George Washington; historians agree that without him, there never would have been a United States of America. In fact, a popular toast of Revolutionary War times was "To George Washington -- the man who unites all hearts."
Now, more than 200 years later, our leaders routinely tell us they want to bring the country together -- to be uniters, not dividers -- but they just as routinely disappoint us on those promises. Maybe it's because they not only have to lead all the people, but they also have to lead their own political party. And too often, it seems, the needs of the party overrule the need to unite the country.
I've been thinking about unity a lot these past few years -- especially after getting a brief taste of what it felt like just after 9/11. It seems that the media and the politicians have us citizens spun into living in a world where the nation is split between the red and the blue states, and where we can't even really talk with our neighbors about a slew of tough issues. This bothers me because in my very own family, I have all kinds of Republicans and Democrats. So am I supposed to disown the more politically confused among them? Should I accuse some of them of being unpatriotic over Thanksgiving dinner? No, I refuse to follow some of our current political leaders; love and respect prevent me from hating them for what they believe.
I am not, however, blind to the differences among the members of my own family -- or among the members of this extended family of citizens we all belong to. I just like to think there are more things that unite us than divide us. I like to think we are Americans first, and Democrats and Republicans (or Greens or Independents) second. I know, by now you're thinking, "Geez, what a poor, naive bastard." But bear with me for a minute. After all, I believe I have the Father of Our Country on my side.
George Washington knew party politics were going to be a fact of American life: "This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind," he wrote. Still, he railed against the very idea of parties. He saw people bleed to form this union, so he couldn't understand any impulse to divide it.
Now historians might laugh that parts of Washington's philosophies were too idealistic -- after all, how was a young nation to work out its problems without a vigorous debate made up of competing parties? And history has also proven the republic to be incredibly resilient. Parties may roil the seas, but even the worst storms could never wreck the ship of state (although we came close during the Civil War).
Still, I can't help but wonder if this new century might not present us with our toughest challenges yet. Economic engagements are replacing military engagements (although we still have those, too), and places like China and the European Union are poised to give us a run for our money. Civilization's discontents appear to be prepared to terrorize us for years to come. The world is moving faster than ever, and the issues get more complex all the time. So my question is whether our political parties -- increasingly engaged in what appears to be a death struggle -- will be able to provide us with the wisdom and courage to face the toughest issues.
I keep waiting for someone to emerge -- a person above reproach, respected by all -- who can tell all the members of these warring tribes to shut up, quit fighting and get back to work. But alas, we are all political animals -- even members of the Supreme Court have been revealed as having chosen sides. There is no authority figure respected by all to hand out such reprimands.
So that leaves me with history. We divine moral wisdom from Biblical texts that are thousands of years old, so why not seek out some political advice from our Founding Fathers? George Washington is perfect: He never belonged to a political party; more important (in these times, at least) no one can question his patriotism. (Although if he were alive today, I can already see the attack book title: Valley Forge: It Wasn't Really That Cold.)
With all the attention properly paid to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, another great American document has slipped too deeply into the mists of time: Washington's Farewell Address. Joseph Ellis's excellent book Founding Brothers has reclaimed it. But if you read the document itself (and you can find the full text via any search engine on the Internet), you'll see that the Address offers some important messages for today.
Looking back on 1796, Washington leaving office after two terms was just as important an event as the Battle of Lexington, the ratification of the Constitution or any of the other better-remembered events of that era. By stepping down on his own, he established the regular transfer of power -- one of the central innovations of the American experiment. A lesser man may have decided he liked the power and appointed himself president for life -- a title known in Europe as "king."
But Washington saw where the republic was headed, with the differences of opinion already forming between the North and the South, the Federalists and the Republicans. So he wanted to leave a message behind, sharing his thoughts on issues as varied -- and amazingly relevant today -- as the media, the role of religion in public life, deficits, taxes and free trade. Turns out George Washington was a bit of a policy wonk.
But how the document was written is part of the story, too. James Madison penned the first draft in 1792. (Washington had hoped to serve only one term.) In 1796, he asked for Alexander Hamilton to dust it off and update it. So it's the product of three giants of the era - in effect, Washington hired perhaps the two best speechwriters the nation has ever produced. (The Address, however, was never delivered as an oration; its 6,000-plus words were reprinted in newspapers across the infant nation.)
It's also worth noting that Madison and Hamilton were in opposing political camps - sort of like hiring Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley to collaborate on a national address. The talking points of Washington's Farewell Address, in other words, derived from perhaps the nation's first truly bipartisan effort.
"I may even flatter myself that [the Address] may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good," Washington wrote, hoping that it "may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriots."
Washington wanted us to refer back to his advice every now and then. And now seems like a pretty good time to let his thoughts "recur to moderate the fury of party spirit." What follows, then, are excerpts from Washington's Farewell Address -- in the glorious style of Revolutionary War-era prose -- along with some notes on their relevance.
The Spin Machine
Washington foresaw that party members would spin the truth -- even lie -- to score political points. Not surprisingly, the man who couldn't tell a lie didn't have much use for those who could:
"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."
The best way to inoculate yourself against such misinformation is to avoid rewarding the behavior. When faced with spin, Washington urges, citizens should be "indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts... 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."
Earlier in the Address, Washington argued for adequate checks and balances (before the Supreme Court even existed), so that no entity could run roughshod over another. The Founding Fathers worried about the tyranny of the majority a lot, and Washington drove home the point they were trying to make by envisioning a country in which one faction gains the upper hand: "[Parties] 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."
Of course the point of politics is to win and run the show. But I think there's a difference in the way people view that struggle. Some see it as war; I like to think of it as a sport. In athletics, you compete, somebody wins and somebody loses, and then you all go out for a beer afterwards. In war, the goal is total domination. The politics of personal destruction, with which we are all too familiar, suggests that too many of our leaders regard politics as war. Washington wouldn't like that -- because if one side does succeed, one-party rule is the result.
With only the bloody history of Europe as a guide, Washington imagined the dark eventuality of one-party tyrannies. In so doing, he seems to have predicted the states that came to be dominated by one party, as happened well over a century later in Germany and Russia:
"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. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism."
Washington disliked parties altogether; if they must be allowed to operate, it seems he preferred that they remain in what we call gridlock. To avoid despotism today, politicians should take to heart the sports analogy. Politics is the art of accommodation, and by respecting your opponents and including their input on big decisions or legislation -- those "wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests" that Washington mentioned -- the excesses of party politics can be curbed.
The young United States struggled with debt, making Washington all too aware of the need for fiscal restraint -- a quaint notion that seems to have gone out of style in the city that now bears his name.
"As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit," he wrote. "One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace."
Wars, Washington knew firsthand, are expensive. And he took seriously the responsibility that comes with creating debts, adding that the government should not be "ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."
Washington wouldn't win many votes for stating the obvious about taxes, either. No, we like the illusion that we can have a massive federal bureaucracy -- with the world's best military and endless entitlements at home -- without paying for any of it right now. So just in case our politicians somehow forgot, Washington reminds them that "it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that toward 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 set the nation on a course of strict neutrality. In fact, you could say he was a bit of an isolationist. As they say, it takes a man who has seen war to embrace peace. Washington regarded peacemaking as a practical matter and as an imperative from a higher power.
"Observe good faith and justice towards all nations," he urged. "Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct."
And if he had a voice in the debate (if you can even use that word) that occurred as the nation prepared for our current war, he might have been among those brave few who counseled patience.
"The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy," he wrote. "The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject."
Finally, Washington had something to say about America's moral values: "Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?"
It's a rhetorical question, of course. Washington answers it by saying that a nation "always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence" would reap great rewards. Perhaps he would amend the phrase that every politician ends every speech with. Yes, God will bless America, but only, Washington argues, as long as America is just and benevolent.
Obviously, political parties are central pieces of our political puzzle, and much good has come to us through them. Washington knew that would be the case, but he worried, as I do, that the partisan bickering could get so bad as to do serious damage to the nation. As he (or Madison or Hamilton) so eloquently put it, we are dealing with "a fire not to be quenched" which "demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."
I keep wondering if I'm just worrying too much. Since our government has survived all these kinds of challenges before, perhaps we shouldn't worry about a little sniping here and there. It's the central theme of a compelling story David von Drehle wrote recently for the Washington Post. In "Origin of the Species," he traces the evolution of the parties, pointing out that bitterness is nothing new, and that in the past there have even been actual gunfights among political leaders.
"In the long view," von Drehle writes, "it's a pretty good thing we have going here. Partisan invective aside, our system is strong enough to be relatively stable, yet weak enough not to do the sort of catastrophic damage we've seen from tyrannies around the world."
I hope he's right, because I see it a bit differently. In recent decades a factor has come into prominence that has changed, I think, our country's entire political equation: money. As bad as partisan bickering was when Hamilton fell in a duel with Aaron Burr, at least they were arguing about principles (and, in Burr's case, wounded pride). Today, it's harder to know where principles end and the interests of the corporations and individuals funding our candidates begin. It's projected that this presidential race may end up costing $1 billion after all is said and done. People who spend that kind of money usually want something in return.
Let me be specific: While we are distracted by partisan-stoked issues like gay marriage and while we are scared by terrorism, massive tax cuts have been passed into law, creating deficits for as far as the spreadsheet can add. Polluters write legislation -- in secret -- that regulate their own industries. Money is borrowed from our children to buy pills for Grandma and Grandpa -- but upon closer inspection, it's a giant windfall for drug companies. A report on the 9/11 attacks is carefully crafted so no party is blamed for any shortcomings, and, in fact, no public official has ever lost his or her job over the failure to detect the plot. And by wielding the flag as a bludgeon, one party is beaten into submission so the nation can invade another country for, as it turned out later, no traditionally valid reason.
The parties are too weak to cause any damage? I guess it's debatable, but I say the power of money is eroding our union.
I don't think politicians will change, even if they read the Address and accept Washington's ear-boxing as justified. No, his words will have the most impact on everyday Americans. He's reminding us of things we already know but are forgetting in this fog of political war. His advice is really about how to be a good citizen. He urges us not to buy the partisan line, to think for ourselves, to elect leaders who put the country before their party.
George Washington is still relevant. As every gear in the machine of politics seems designed to divide us, his words offer a simple antidote. Let the fires of your convictions burn, but not too hot. Argue your point of view, but respect your opponent. Always remember that under all those opinions is a fellow American, bound to you by spilled blood and a shared allegiance to an idea -- freedom -- that trumps all else.
"It is of infinite moment," Washington wrote, as he pondered the fate of his offspring, "that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness."
Publication date: 08/19/04