On Washington's birthday

  • 19 February 2018
  • NormanL
Happy birthday, Mr. President

"President's Day" is a federal holiday that masks the underlying reason the day is marked on the calendar: George Washington's birthday.

This most consequential of Americans left in our care a system of government that, for all its faults (both real and imagined), remains the most effective means of defending, and advancing, human liberty.

On this day, we take a look at Washington's farewell address. Delivered in 1796, it stands as one of the most important, and perceptive, presidential messages ever delivered. The following passage is particularly worth re-reading in light of the partisan rancor that has engulfed the nation in recent years:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

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.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Washington's warnings against political parties were rooted in the English parliamentary experience, as well as the growing divisions within his own administration over the proper role and course of government.

While it is far too late for us to put the party genie back in its bottle, we can still look on parties, and their needed to stoke division for its own sake, with Washingtonian distrust. Partisanship has its purpose, and it can be used to steer policy effectively between competing ends. 

But only when free peoples, exercizing their best, informed judgement, exercize their authority to determine the nation's course. It is not easy to stay informed, particularly in a world where news travels faster than reason. It is hard work, and sometimes even a little dangerous, to stand for one's principles against the whip and bark of the majority.

It is also essential for the defense of liberty.  Its fate rests not in a party manifesto, or clever talking points, but in you.