by Michael Liss
On September 19, 1796, less than two months prior to the meeting of the Electors to choose the next President of the United States, George Washington stunned the country by publishing “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States”—what came to be known as Washington’s Farewell Address.
Washington was tired. The office had made him old before his time—compare the ubiquitous Gilbert Stuart “dollar-bill” paintings done in his second term to the immensely vigorous figure you see in Charles Willson Peale’s full length portrait after the Battle of Trenton. Still, the Presidency would have been his to keep, probably for life, if he had wanted. His prestige was immense, his character considered unimpeachable, and his words carried enormous weight.
“Weight” also described the text. In an era where there were no page limits, The Farewell Address just keeps on going—32 densely-handwritten pages and well over 6000 words when set in type. And as to the prose, there is just no lift, no color, no poetry. People think they remember “beware of foreign entanglements,” but even that is incorrect–the exact quote is “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
Therein lies the paradox–the famous speech that no one can accurately recall because no one can get through it. My daughter gave me a collection of 40 great American speeches. The Farewell Address is included, but with at least 80% of it “abridged.” Seems as if the editor couldn’t get through it either.
There is something oddly appropriate about this. Washington wasn’t eloquent. Monuments rarely are. At times, it seems he was barely human—he was Flexner’s Indispensable Man, transitioning from warrior-chief to an immovable stone obelisk to which the ship of state could be lashed in any storm. What people get out of the Farewell, after wading through the prolixity, is his strength and steadfastness—his primary bequest to the country. Here, he voluntarily gives up power; there, he reassures that great things have been accomplished by forming a Union; and, finally, he warns of dangers and advises on how to reduce them.
Can we stop with that—is that enough? Do we really need more from Washington, beyond seeing him as a colossus?
Yes and no. We don’t have to psychoanalyze him–he’s no Jefferson, who seemingly lived every day in contradiction. Rather, we should evaluate him as I suspect he would have preferred to be evaluated, on his conduct, on what he actually said, and on what he actually meant. And, because we live in an era where the Founders are invoked to support everyone’s pet cause, it is useful to see what the biggest of them all actually thought.
The Farewell Address might be our best guide to the true Washington. The ideas are there, albeit buried under the patriotic exhortations, the studied formality, and the peremptory tone. What you find, about the type of government he wanted, about representative democracy, about taxes, and about opposition to duly constituted authority, might very well surprise you.
Washington writes, “This government…has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
That is a breathtaking observation: It is very much of its time in advocating for a Burkean theory of representation, with (presumably better educated/more refined) elected officials authorized to use their own judgment to foster the greater good. But Washington goes beyond just respect, compliance, and acquiescence. What political theorist does the great man jump into bed with just a bit? Thomas Hobbes. Read it closely, and you hear the clank of Hobbes’s authoritarian steel in Washington’s democratic framework: once consent is given, once some freedom is swapped for protection, it is the duty of every individual to obey.
You can sense his impatience with the give-and-take aspect of being President–my guess is that he never expected it when he endorsed both the Constitutional Convention and the final product. Washington had wanted a government that would work—one with enough power to conduct the affairs of state, to tax, to allocate resources, and, since he was almost certainly going to be its leader, with a Chief Executive position with actual substantive authority. He thought that had been achieved in Philadelphia.
He only intended to serve one term: In fact, the original draft for the Farewell Address had been prepared for the 1792 Election. He discarded the idea of retiring when confronted with both an internal and external reality: things weren’t running smoothly domestically, and the world remained a dangerous place for the comparatively weak new nation. Inside his own Cabinet, he observed, with growing anger, the increasingly intense bickering between Jefferson (Secretary of State) and Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury). And, he saw the reemergence of two older debates—the first, the arguments between a stronger Federal government (Hamilton) and one more decentralized (Jefferson) and the second, Hamilton’s realpolitik of normalizing relationships with England (still the most powerful of potential enemies) and the affection that Jefferson and his republicans (small “R”) had for Revolutionary France.
These two divergent schools of thought divided men into something Washington abhorred—political parties. Hamilton led a new Federalist Party, and Jefferson what was first called the Republican Party, and later, Democratic-Republican. Washington remained officially neutral throughout his Presidency, although he leaned Federalist. Here is what the Farewell has to say about factions and parties: “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. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
That is pretty strong stuff. We have gone from Washington wanting people to “obey” to characterizing what many of us think of as part of the democratic process as including “revenge,” “horrid enormities,” and “frightful depotism,” all to result in “the ruins of public liberties.”
And taxes? You won’t be surprised to hear that they were just as popular in the 18th Century as they are today. Washington took office in the midst of a financial crisis. The nation was basically bankrupt—it had no stable currency, no reliable source of borrowing, and creditors, including some veterans of the Revolution, had not been paid. Hamilton pressed his case—the need for a central Bank, and the need for revenues—and Washington agreed. It wasn’t easy. The government’s first attempt to collect taxes, in 1791, resulted in widespread opposition that organized itself into the three-year Whiskey Rebellion. Washington requested state militias to help suppress it, and himself led troops into Pennsylvania (try to put that in a contemporary context, if you can).
Here is The Farewell Address on public credit and taxes: “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, … 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. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, 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.”
Obey, acquiesce, and pay your taxes. Warm advice from the Father of Our Country. Was Washington really a democrat (small “D”) or someone closer to an anti-monarchist aristocrat? Was the Constitution an expression and celebration of liberty, or was it merely an improved means of imposing order akin to that of Crown and Parliament, albeit through men selected through (limited) suffrage? After reading his words, you might pause to wonder what this most buttoned-up of men really felt.
Yet, towards the end of the Farewell Address he lifts the curtain, just a bit. “With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.”
I found that somewhat comforting. Perhaps that was his real intent. Protect the American Experiment—one last mission for the old General, using some of the same tactics he applied to the British—employ whatever you have at hand, and outthink, outmaneuver, and outlast the opposition.
It’s not poetry, but it seems to have worked out. Still bickering, but still here.