Newmann: Echoes of the past
“The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know.” — Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States
On September 19, 1796, the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser published George Washington’s Farewell Address. Unlike his contemporary counterparts, who now address the nation with televised speeches, Washington addressed the nation in a letter to the paper. The letter was then widely reprinted in other papers throughout the fledgling nation.
To lead off his address, Washington, after serving two terms, said that he would not seek a third term but would “return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn.”
He tells the nation that its success is based on common goals. He says, “The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts — of common dangers, sufferings and successes.”
The concept of regional and sectional unity is of utmost importance to him. “Your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other,” he writes.
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He also warns of the dangers of regionalism: “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” And he later adds that, “to the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable.”
He goes on to cite a major aspect which he believes could jeopardize the nascent nation: putting loyalty to political parties over allegiance to the common good.
Of the undue partisanship, he warns about putting “in place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction.”
He says that such factions may “become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Somewhat presciently he adds that “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.”
He also takes aim at further perils that partisanship can create: “It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
He councils each branch of government “to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres” and urges them to avoid “the exercise of powers of one department to encroach upon another.” And he adds that any form of encroachment “tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create … a real despotism.”
Washington also believed that America’s relative isolation made the country ideal for staying out of any foreign entanglements — and he admonished against such entanglements. But he writes that “taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”
So here we are, two and a quarter centuries after Washington’s address. All those years ago, the “Father” of our country had some pretty prophetic thoughts. And some profound warnings.
But thoughts and warnings are only valid if we remember them.
And all too often our memories falter.
Tom Newmann splits his time between Edwards and Queenstown, New Zealand. He has been going winter-to-winter since 1986. He was also a journalist in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian for quite a few years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.