[guest post by JVW]
It’s been a (mini-)mini-tradition for me to write a post about the Indispensable American, George Washington, on the anniversary of his birthday each year. Here is my post from 2015, and here is last year’s offering.
This year finds our country to be rather disunited, a fate that the great man himself would recognize. Washington, who led the country through a long and arduous war for independence, a conflict that seemed to be ever on the verge of failure as the Continental Army suffered defeat and desertion, had finally seen his countrymen to an improbable victory. In the aftermath, he played a crucial role (one largely behind the scenes) in helping draft and submit for ratification a constitution, the work of which took place at a convention that may not have been — strictly speaking — legal according to the Articles of Confederation adopted nearly ten years earlier. So esteemed by his colleagues was the general that the office of executive was more or less designed with the assumption that Washington would be the first to serve in that capacity.
But establishing a government is always a more complicated venture than designing one, and despite having the Father of His Country as its leader the United States found itself drifting into factionalism, what Washington himself referred to as “the spirit of party.” Federalists, led by figures such as Vice-President John Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, generally desired a centralized government to pay off war debts and negotiate trading pacts on behalf of all the colonies, and a rapproachement with Great Britain. Democrat-Republicans, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison, were distrustful of national banking and trade policies and took a far more benign and even admiring view of the Jacobin revolution in France. Despite Washington’s firm resolve to remain above party and his general success in doing so during his first Presidential term, by his second term the Jeffersonian faction was complaining (not unreasonably) that the Hamiltonian faction had the chief executive’s ear.
So when it came time for Washington, who flatly refused to consider a third term (and indeed, had to be talked into serving even a second term by the wily Hamilton), to announce his plans to step down and return to Mount Vernon for good, there were certain ideas that the American Cincinnatus wanted to convey to his fellow countrymen. In his magnificent book about Washington’s Presidency, Patriarch, historian Richard Norton Smith sets the scene:
At first glance, there was nothing about the issue of the American Daily Advertiser on September 19 to set it apart. On the front page was the usual diet of advertisements and commercial notices. Only on turning the page did readers find any hint of the unusual:
To the PEOPLE of the United States
Friends and fellow citizens:
What followed confirmed the President’s fears of Hamiltonian prolixity, as the final text of this, the most important public message of Washington’s life, filled an entire page of [David] Claypoole’s gazette and part of another.
As Smith notes, historians generally agree that the first ten paragraphs of his address were taken from a draft that Madison had prepared for Washington had he chosen to step down four years earlier, while most of the rest of Washington’s Farewell Address had been written by his protege, the Federalist Hamilton. We should therefore see it as entirely fitting that Washington’s final major prouncement was a compendium of ideas brought to him partly by one of the most ardent Democratic-Republicans and partly by a staunch Federalist. Regarding the latter part of the address, when Washington discusses his hopes for the still new nation, Smith suggests that “Hamilton coined what Washington had mined during twenty years of public advocacy,” and declares that the address “ranks as a statement of American purpose alongside Jefferson’s Declaration and Lincoln’s new birth of freedom proclaimed at Gettysburg.”
The Farewell Address (when capitalized, it can only refer to Washington’s) is fairly well-known and oft-cited (sometimes quite erroneously) to prove this point or that. For instance, Richard Brookhiser reminds us, Washington never warned against “entangling alliances” (those words are from Jefferson), he instead disdained “permanent alliances.” He warned against attempts to undermine “the unity of government,” but in the very same paragraph (likely written by Hamilton) was quick to remind us that government is only worthwhile insofar as it helps to secure peace, safety, prosperity, and, most importantly, liberty. He begged that we “cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment” to the union, and implored us to be vigilant in “watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and 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.” In that regard, Washington sadly foresaw the future cultural divisions between North and South, industrial and agrarian, coastal and interior, urban and non-urban. He implored us 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,” with postmodernism, historical revisionism, and racial/ethnic grievances not yet being in vogue at Harvard or Yale in those days.
To the modern conservative, Washington’s belief in a beneficial national government — “a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence” — may strike us as archaic or naive. Yet Washington operated in an era in which three major world powers (England, France, and Spain) still had colonies in North America, and he understood the importance of the new nation presenting a united front in order to avoid being gradually subsumed piecemeal back into Europe. As he saw John Adams, his successor in the White House, drift deeply into partisan acrimony not only with the Democratic-Republicans like Jefferson but also with Federalist rivals such as Hamilton, Washington fretted that the great American experience was perilously close to coming to naught, collapsing underneath its own rivalries and contradictions.
This post isn’t to dismiss the acrimony of today as something deeply ingrained throughout our earliest history, nor is it an attempt to suggest that just because the United States eventually managed to rise to the level of the world’s greatest power (albeit after a bitter civil war which began some sixty years after Washington’s death) that our current mess will prove to be a passing fancy in our inexorable domination of the Twenty-first Century. But knowing that the Greatest of All Americans went to his Eternal Reward wondering if this nation could really make a go of it should at least give heart to pessimistic conservatives everywhere that we ever thus remain in good company.