Washington Fears for His Country’s Future
[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 beseeched 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.
I snuck this one in just before midnight, so it is still February 22 here in California no matter what the heading says in your browser.JVW (6e49ce) — 2/22/2017 @ 11:28 pm
President Trump is the only President since President Washington to have his cabinet approval delayed this long.mg (31009b) — 2/23/2017 @ 3:04 am
The party atmosphere that Washington feared might have torn the country apart. Except for what happened in 1801.
To my mind, not enough is made of Adams’ acquiescence to Jefferson taking power. At the time, the two men despised each other, and there had never been a peaceable transfer of power of this sort. Yes, Adams did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration, but he didn’t oppose it either; he just went home.Kevin M (25bbee) — 2/23/2017 @ 3:46 am
The Democrats are patently unwilling to transfer power. They have allowed the forms to be followed, but the real power is still in their control and they are doing everything they can to maintain it. Their biggest fear is that Trump might not fail, and come 2018, they lose a dozen senate seats.Kevin M (25bbee) — 2/23/2017 @ 3:48 am
The voters need to man up and 86 all rinos in 2018.mg (31009b) — 2/23/2017 @ 3:53 am
Bringing up Trump in a thread about George Washington is like bringing up Xaviera Hollander in a thread about Mother Teresa.
Trump’s good appointments sailed through. Bad appointment were delayed (or scotched altogether) and delayed other good one (such as Sessions’ so he could vote for DeVoss). The fault is Trump’s because he couldn’t organize an orgy in a w_____house. He is sh!t-stirrer, not a leader who can line people up and get things done, especially from a Palm Beach golf course or a victory rally in North Carolina.nk (dbc370) — 2/23/2017 @ 4:03 am
Great post, JVW.DRJ (15874d) — 2/23/2017 @ 6:26 am
Ditto. Sorry for the detour.nk (dbc370) — 2/23/2017 @ 6:28 am
And it was our war with the revolutionary power, France and the xyz affair, that first tested our unity, read the great turning for a flavor, which compares our fledgling republic with that power and the autocracy of catherine, another perspective is seen in georgiana with the classically liberal whigs which the duchess was allied with, versus the Tory Edmund burkenarciso (d1f714) — 2/23/2017 @ 6:57 am
One story about Washington I like is that he put on his general’s uniform and personally led the troops mustered to quash the Whiskey Rebellion. That ended it, right there. Nobody was going to shoot at George Washington.nk (dbc370) — 2/23/2017 @ 7:31 am
JVW (6e49ce) — 2/22/2017 @ 11:28 pm
The browser doesn’t change what the Patterico web page shows, and Patterico is on Pacific time. Althouse, in Wisconsin, is on central time.
There’s a clock – put there by the operating system, not the browser – but where would you see the date?Sammy Finkelman (b32091) — 2/23/2017 @ 8:14 am
R.I.P. Alan Colmes, leftist radio show host and Fox News pest who, during the Obama administration, coined the phrase “What about Buuuuuuuuusssh???”Icy (6d96b7) — 2/23/2017 @ 8:28 am
Had “Hamilton” been released as an audio history (the Whiskey Rebellion, Quasi War and Adams/Jefferson election of 1800) and not performed as a play with a de facto ban on white actors, it would be well received amongst 95% of the populace in the vein of the Schoolhouse Rock series. Most would assume Eminem or a stylistic descendant (one singer has the nasal intonation based on the lyrics-only Youtube videos my daughter has been listening to) would have that checkbox checked had it been audio or cartoon.urbanleftbehind (5eecdb) — 2/23/2017 @ 8:39 am
The browser doesn’t change what the Patterico web page shows, and Patterico is on Pacific time.
Oh, good to know. I wanted to make sure to get the post in on his birthday.JVW (6e49ce) — 2/23/2017 @ 9:05 am
One story about Washington I like is that he put on his general’s uniform and personally led the troops mustered to quash the Whiskey Rebellion. That ended it, right there. Nobody was going to shoot at George Washington.
I almost wrote about that, but thought instead to cover the Farewell Address. Maybe next year I’ll relate that story. It’s one of my favorite too, even though it was about crushing a tax revolt.JVW (6e49ce) — 2/23/2017 @ 9:07 am
Our nation has been deeply divided at many points. The Civil War, of course, but also during the Revolution when loyalties were divided between England and America, and the years of division between political parties. Being divided may not be so bad if we use it as a starting place for ideas.DRJ (15874d) — 2/23/2017 @ 9:33 am
@12. C’mon, Icy, the man had to live with ‘ferret face’ in life as it was. Labelling him a ‘pest’ in passing seems a tad harsh.DCSCA (797bc0) — 2/23/2017 @ 10:50 am
Fast forward to the present day, and the Democrat Party’s refusal to cede power, opting instead for insurrection and not-so-cold civil war.
Reduced to their weakest state in a generation, Democratic Party leaders will gather in two cities this weekend to plot strategy and select a new national chairman with the daunting task of rebuilding the party’s depleted organization. But senior Democratic officials concede that the blueprint has already been chosen for them — by an incensed army of liberals demanding no less than total war against President Trump.
“Total war” seems to me to be pretty close to threatening violent action against Trump and his administration. I guess that when the inevitable shots are fired at Trump, the Dems will realize their rhetoric was uncivil and dial it back, just like with that “targeting” of Palin’s.Kevin M (25bbee) — 2/23/2017 @ 1:53 pm
The existential threats we now face are of a different nature than those of Washington’s time.
Rapidly, we are losing (if it isn’t already lost) what it is to be “American.” This is the actual argument of the day.
Equality of opportunity, or guarantees of outcomes? Coming together as a melting pot, or holding on to identity through DNA or national origin? Picking carefully among international injustices, or attempting to save everyone? Believers in an Abrahamic God greater than ourselves, or must we rely and count upon man’s ability to think and act well?
Washington’s vision of America was brilliant. He’d last about as long today as Gen. Flynn did in service to DJT.Ed from SFV (3400a5) — 2/23/2017 @ 3:09 pm
Yeah. Rumor has it George was a royalist in bed with the British interests
He swore that blood letting was good for the gout.papertiger (c8116c) — 2/23/2017 @ 6:06 pm
“He built and launched our ship of state
And brought it safe to harbor.
He wore no beard upon his chin
Thanks to his faithful barber.
And so, my dears, his grateful land
In robes of glory clad him.
George Washington was a gentleman;
I’m glad his parents had him.”
— Ogden Nash, “Washington’s Birthday Eve”Rich Rostrom (d2c6fd) — 2/23/2017 @ 6:11 pm
“George Washington’s Expense Account” sums up the mind set of our first CIC quite well.
Tally-ho!DCSCA (797bc0) — 2/23/2017 @ 8:25 pm