In 1796, George Washington did something that virtually no world leader had ever done before…he stepped down from a high office. This act alone was enough to influence history and set the two term precedent that has been observed by all but one executive since Washington’s tenure. Washington’s retirement was more than merely the act of a man walking away from the prestige and duties of the presidency. It was an opportunity for the first leader of our country to leave behind one last piece of advice to his fellow people that could guide them for centuries to come.
Washington published his Farewell Address on September 19th, not as a review and celebration of his achievements as president, but rather as “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.” When George Washington bid farewell to his public life, he left with a speech that still applies to the United States today. At the heart of his parting words is a goal: that in order to remain free and independent citizens of our own nation we must be politically united, a problem: a warning against too closely binding ourselves together politically with other nations, and a solution: we may only preserve our nation through religion and morality.
In order to secure the United States, we must preserve the political unity that held the country together at the time of Washington’s retirement. This is seemingly impossible in today’s political climate, but it was practically standard during Washington’s presidential tenure. The United States was a more or less homogeneous country in those days. Issues that trigger the basest passions in a human being, such as race and religion, were less prevalent in those days because eighteenth century Americans were more-or-less the same in every way.
“With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
This is not the current political landscape of the United States. Today, an enemy of the United States who seeks to loosen our bonds can exploit any number of hot button issues ranging from immigration to Islamic jihad to turn us against each other. Among the examples used by the first president to advocate political unity, none can be used to describe the diverse nation that we know today. Not all Americans share the Christian beliefs that Washington alluded to in the statement above. Eighteenth century Americans could only squabble over the minute differences between separate denominations of Christianity. The biases held by a Methodist against a Presbyterian can be easily overlooked once both parties admit that both of their communities are inspired by the same event; Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection.
Religion is a far more complicated matter in twenty-first century America. The obvious example, and perhaps the most pressing, is the divide between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Contemporary Americans have been consistently divided over the Muslim faith since September 11, 2001, when an enemy that was blatantly Islamic attacked our country and sparked multiple wars in the time between then and the present across the Middle East. The differences between these three religions, not mention the differences brought forth by atheists and those who follow the ideologies of the Far East, have created a country that is more liable to be separated by religion than the one inhabited by our fore-fathers. Similarly, the United States has not fought a unifying war since the 1940’s. Whether it be Vietnam or the current conflicts in the Middle East, the United States have not “fought and triumphed together” in the way the revolutionaries did in a very long time.
The habits of the people, as well, are in no way currently the same as the others because of the diverse religions and heritages that make up our melting pot nation. Italian,Persian, Latin, Asian, German, and a thousand other cultures have combined to transform a nation from one that was almost exclusively Anglican at the outset of the American Republic to political representation changes out of necessity as the people change and diversify. As a country matures, its politics begin to evolve with it. Soon, the issues between different groups become too impending to ignore and the people must find personalized representation. Parties emerge from these disputes and drive the interested people even further apart. Parties, which Washington famously opposed throughout his political life, quickly become interested only in the issues and ideas of those who support the party instead of the well being of the country in general.
Americans soon lose our willingness and ability to cooperate in favor of seeking the demise of the opposite party. The unity of the populace is paramount to the preservation of the United States. This is so important that Washington begs us to consider whether or not a person would possibly be able to divide the country before trusting them. Washington explains that there will be those from within and outside of the United States who will exploit the differences between the people and try to convince you that only one side can ever be right, and that terrible misfortunes will befall you if you grant power to the opposite party. The parties soon radicalize until only the loudest and most frenzied minorities take control and begin to warp the national perception of what their party hopes to gain.
The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Green Peace, and many other unrepresentative minorities make the most fuss over their preferred cause and separate the American people further away from each other than ever. It is no longer special to be a citizen of the United States once it is no longer united.
“…it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned;”
It should be the principle cause of every American to make themselves enlightened and to push away the base fears which can be used by the demagogues to subvert the people and prey on the nation as a whole. No true patriot can turn a blind eye to the overt attacks performed by an enemy of the American republic.
Among the ways to remain unified among ourselves is the preservation of our American identity, which can be lost by becoming too closely bound to another solemn nation. The interest of certain parties in the affairs of other nations can help what Washington called “a small but artful minority of the community” to influence American policy towards the world. Consider two examples of this; one old and the other new. In 1800 the two-party system became reality during the presidential rematch between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
One point of contention between the two was whether the country should more closely align itself to England, as Adams preferred, or France, as Jefferson wanted. The issue spilled into the political arena as the presidential race heated up and spurred citizens to choose sides between Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. The cooperation of the American people that was observed by Washington and cited earlier in this paper began to be less than perfect as the people began aligning themselves to one political party against another.
A similar situation can be seen today in the United States’ involvement in the Middle East. The reestablishment of Israel in 1947 and the subsequent battle of ideals between their allies in the Republican party and the members of the Democratic party who vocally support Palestine’s legitimacy has driven the parties apart in recent years. The more military-minded support Israel because of its strategic friendship in the Middle East. These people soon become attached to this friendship and vehemently defend it to the point that they soon become ruled by their passion instead of their reason. The same is true for their foils on the other side of the aisle.
Washington also warns against the implementation of permanent alliances or perpetual wars with another country. This, he cautions, can make the United States slaves to foreign interest. “The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” It seems as though the best way to preserve the independence and autonomy of the United States is to avoid too much intimate interaction with other nations. Permanent alliances, such as the one the United States entered into to join the United Nations as the remnants of both world wars, have a way of embroiling America into unnecessary confrontations such as the Gulf War.
America was also sucked into multiple conflicts throughout the Cold War by our hatred for the Soviets and the hopes of destroying their influence in Southeast Asia and Central/South America. Washington also notes that, if a war can be legitimized and earn passionate support from the people, the demagogues of the world could have an opportunity to break or ignore the laws of the United States in order to get what they want. We saw this during the Spanish-American War.
That conflict started when ambitious members of the national government used the Spanish abuse of colonial citizens and the sinking of the USS Maine to justify fighting for territory inSouth America and the Western Pacific Ocean.
“And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”
Too much love for or hate towards another country should be “alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot” because these are the types of influences that can inspire the most fear among the people and the most ambition in the parties. These base passions cause division and dissension in the American people and are a danger to the nation as a whole.
When looking at the facts mentioned above, one is compelled to ask, “What is the bestway to protect against dissension and foreign influence?” George Washington identified two practical cures for these political diseases in his Farewell Address; religion and the Constitution. Washington, a man of strong faith, asserted that the only way for America to preserve her political prosperity was for the people to remain deeply rooted in their Christian faith and to combine that with an upstanding morality. This was not, merely, a spiritual wish for the inaugural President. Rather, it was in many ways, a practical safeguard to the liberties that we Americans enjoy. Nothing, neither our criminal justice system nor the assurance that our leaders will honor our laws, matters if the United States is not a place that is ruled by a love and fear of God.
Does a solemn oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”1 hold any weight in a person’s willingness to confess the truth to the court if he does not believe in God? Will the promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”2 keep a president from assuming more power than rightfully belongs to him if a Holy terror and reverence does not exist within his soul to keep him obedient? No. If the nation should lose its morality, it will lose what makes it America. Corruption, coercion, and disingenuous testimonies will seize control over the nation and leave us with a land that is no longer fair, free, and magnanimous. We will be left with everything that is antithetical to the Founding as a whole.
Among the casualties of this upheaval will be the Constitution itself because, in the same way that a building cannot stand without a solid foundation, the Constitution must have a moral populace to defend it against those who would seek to strip away all the good that lies within to achieve their own designs.
The only way to ensure that our country will remain the most excellent example of freedom and justice in the world is to discipline ourselves to live moral and upright lives. Then, we must teach our children to do the same and to faithfully guide them through the snares that the world will lay out for them until it is time for them to raise children of their own. The preservation of the United States is an individual obligation for each citizen to perform through their own actions. A country reflects the character of its citizens. Therefore, America can be exceptional if her people are exceptional. America can only lead, can only do good in the world, if her people are willing to lead and to do good in their lives. Just as a person will be rewarded for a good life with permanent lodging in Heaven, so too will a nation be rewarded with prosperity for as long as the people are honorable.
“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature.”
This belief is no less true today than it was two hundred and twenty years ago. It is paramount that we preserve the moral fiber of our nation and not simply pass the debt of a depraved society to the next generation. In order to do this we must raise ourselves up to level of the “enlightened and independent patriot” that Washington refers to in the speech. This is a large undertaking that has crushed many who sought to achieve it. We must, however, try. In order to do so, we must play the long game. We must trust and follow the guidance provided to us by those who came before because no short-cut or easy solution will ever match what the Founders provided us with.
We must protect and preserve those words that were written by the members of the Constitutional Convention during a hot Philadelphia summer in 1787. We must open our eyes and realize that the main ingredients of the American experiment were morality, religion, and faith in the Divine Creator and memorize the recipe. We must stand firm and, even though there are different people with different ideologies, accept all religions as legitimate and welcome under the First Amendment. We must not allow our greatest strength to become a great weakness because a person who wishes to subvert our nation would use the fear of what is not familiar against us.
We must use this morality to cultivate “just and amicable feelings toward all” nations with whom we may come into contact. We must recognize that there are certain outstanding traits that make us Americans and pass those characteristics down throughout the centuries. We must strengthen those traits so that they may never be corrupted by the vices of another nation.
This may have already happened in some aspects of life, but there is always a way to restore what has been lost. There are no shortcuts, but we must begin the journey if we ever hope to find our way home.
George Washington was pulled out of retirement multiple times. He was called upononce to lead a rebellious army, once to give legitimacy to the new Constitutional Convention, and once to guide a fledgling country through its earliest days. When he was finally able to rest, after twenty years in the service of the United States, Washington left with what he described as “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend who can possibly have no motive to bias his counsel”. These final words of his tenure as president prove to be much more than what Washington led us to believe. In this speech is a goal for the United States, a warning against what may corrupt the country, and a simple solution to any problem that the country may face.
The goal was to preserve the political unity which bound the people of the colonies together to defeat the greatest superpower in the world and stay together after. In order to do that we must follow the basics of the Constitution as it has been written for us, forgive the slights which may come from those who disagree with our beliefs, and to overlook the little cracks which may be turned into great chasms by an opportunistic agitator. The problem was the ease with which the foreign and domestic enemies of the United States may prey on the divisions between us in order to gain more power for themselves. The solution was to root ourselves in the two things which have the most power to preserve and unite us as one people: morality, which may help us to understand and to respect those who we disagree with and the Constitution which is maintained, managed, and improved by every citizen of the United States as the law of our people. Rarely are “the parting words of a disinterested friend” so enlightened and significant.
- Oath taken by witnesses giving testimony in a United States court of law.
- U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 1.