George Washington’s political message from the past: America, end your bickering!

Posted on 08-10-2016 by

George Washington, writing in 1783, sends us this political message:

My fellow Americans. Quit all this damned* divisiveness! Stop being so malicious and mean-spirited!

Washington’s words?

Not exactly.

But there’s a little talked about letter that says something close thereto. It’s known as Washington’s Circular Letter to the States.

As the Revolutionary War wound down, Washington authored his Letter as a:

lengthy valedictory statement about the problems facing the newborn country.

This description is from Ron Chernow’s biography, Washington: A Life. Chernow goes on to say that:

... Washington emerged emphatically from behind his pose of military neutrality and advised the citizenry in an almost fatherly tone.

So what fatherly advice did the “Father of our Country” have for us?

Unity ... Please! 

In his Letter, Washington lists four things that are “essential to the well being ... [and] the existence of the United States as an Independent Power.” The first three:

1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head.

2dly. A Sacred regard to Public Justice.

3dly. The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment ....

The fourth one, through the lens of today’s political malice, is an utter failure. Washington advises:

4thly. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.

Forget our local prejudices and policies?

Nah!

Make mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity?

Uhhhhhh, no!

Sacrifice our individual advantages to the interest of the community?

C’mon! Is he serious?  

The Politics of Division

Washington, if alive today, would easily diagnose our demon – it’s factions, a danger trumpeted by Madison in the Federalist Papers. In our Republic’s early years, the demon reared its ugly head between Federalists (Team Hamilton) and Republicans (Team Jefferson). Here’s what Washington, in his Farewell Address, had to say about the factions-demon:

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.

This warning came in 1796, thirteen years after Washington’s Circular Letter. By the end of his presidency, Washington’s plea for unity had been dashed.

Still Hope for Us? 

But Washington had not given up hope. In his Farewell, Washington also said:

Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. 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 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.**

More than two hundred years later, we’re still holding out hope for unity.

 

*My apologies to General Washington, who abhorred profanity.

**However, Washington blunted these high ideals with his next sentence: 

But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest.

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