In the history of the American presidency, only 10 presidents have delivered a “Farewell Address” before leaving office. Most said their goodbyes in a final State of the Union address to Congress. Those opting for a farewell speech often forewarned of future dangers to the republic.
In his Farewell Address, our first president, George Washington, foresaw the germination of a seed of discord that today is deeply rooted in the halls of Congress, effectively choking the smooth operation of government. So deeply rooted is it that our national security suffers the consequences.
After the American Revolution, as state delegates attempted to hammer out a Constitution, Washington came to understand men sharing a common cause still held diverse views on how to achieve it.
Delegates struggling to write a Constitution split into two opposing groups whose ideologies were only bridged by Washington’s leadership. He alone had the trust of both sides and, accordingly, was the clear choice for the presidency in 1789.
With his first term ending, Washington was pressed to run for a second, again as the only person capable of uniting the nation. But when pressed for a third term, he refused. He did so for reasons both of precedent as well as personal frustration.
For Washington, it was all-important Americans grasped the fact there could be a peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another. But he also had become very frustrated over the divisive role party politics had come to play – one coming at the price of impeding the smooth operation of government.
Washington served America well by declining a third term. Only two years later, he died. There would have been obvious concerns had he died in office, possibly creating a panic.
Washington’s Farewell Address forewarned about the dangers party politics could play in limiting America’s longevity. It was imperative all Americans viewed themselves as a cohesive unit by avoiding political parties. He identified principles to follow in guiding the nation’s growth into the future – principles including unity, patriotism and neutrality. Washington wisely recognized that the further politicians and the American people drifted away from such principles, the less likely they were to embrace the common good in protecting the nation’s interests.
The framers of the Constitution considered political parties as self-serving factions creating dissent that, ultimately, would prove detrimental to good government. Unfortunately, they failed to write provisions into the document addressing these concerns. However, by the end of Washington’s second term, the concerns had to be addressed by the outgoing president due to the obvious dangers of a nation divided into two distinct and hostile factions.
Sadly, Washington’s warning has gone unheeded by our politicians today as they engage in non-stop partisan politics, oblivious to the sound of our nation’s death knell off in the distance.
Interestingly, England’s King George III, upon hearing Washington chose only to serve two terms commented, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” It was an insightful observation by the king about man’s natural lust for power and unwillingness to voluntarily surrender it. George III recognized he who did so was a greater leader than he who was unwilling to do so.
It is difficult for some political leaders to surrender that power, as we see with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Diane Feinstein. The latter, soon after having won a sixth term in 2018, is indicating she will seek reelection in 2024 at age 91.
Party politics – “tribalism” – is, by its very nature, hypocritical. This writer witnessed tribalism at work during the Persian Gulf War in Iraq. There, an underlying act by an Iraqi did not define a crime – the victim’s tribal identity did. Thus, only if a tribe member was murdered had a crime been committed. Such hypocrisy runs rampant today among those playing identity politics in Congress, refusing to accept one standard for all.
Nowhere did this tribal political mentality receive greater play than last year’s hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. So intense was it that senators were willing to trample upon the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause to prevent one of the most qualified legal scholars in the country from so serving. While their motivation was ideological, they relentlessly used innuendo and muckraking to achieve their goal. Kavanaugh’s 50-48 approval vote in the Senate was almost entirely along straight party lines.
In 1993, despite Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s staunch liberal leanings, her qualifications, like Kavanaugh’s, were impeccable. Because conservatives recognized this, Ginsberg received a resounding 96-3 Senate confirmation vote. While that vote would have met with George Washington’s approval, the Senate’s disgraceful actions during the Kavanaugh hearings and his close vote would not have. Democratic Party politics tried every trick to deny conservatives the reality of having, for the first time in half a century, a majority sit on the US Supreme Court.
The Kavanaugh hearings were used by some Democratic senators, like New Jersey’s Cory Booker, to criticize our Founding Fathers for their racism and misogyny to justify opposition to the concept of constitutional originalism. It is always easier to examine historical events from hindsight. The Founding Fathers, reflecting the unfortunate thinking of the time, did fail to include within the ranks of all those deemed equal, blacks and women. We must remember it was a time too when the best medical minds in the country believed bloodletting actually helped a patient. But despite our founders’ short-sightedness then on equality, they collectively created a document, later amended to correct those oversights, that has withstood the test of time. It should be appreciated as such. Criticism of their flaws only feeds the dissent and disunity about which Washington forewarned – as does the emergence of “identity politics” and the idea every difference in American society today results, by definition, from discrimination.
It is a tribute to Washington that 223 years ago he foresaw what ails America today. Sadly, today’s politicians – quick to point out the flaws of our Founding Fathers – are slow to accept their strengths by heeding their sage advice.