Washington: Party politics could lead to a president with absolute power
New York Post
14th January 2017
People on both sides of America’s political divide often seek to position themselves as the natural heirs to our Founding Fathers. But a new book about a landmark speech by George Washington shows that whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal, Washington might not have been on your side. John Avlon, chief of The Daily Beast, calls George Washington’s farewell address “the most famous American speech you’ve never read.
” The address was not delivered by Washington in public, but rather published in newspapers in 1796, near the end of his presidency, and announced his decision not to run for a third term. Written over five years in collaboration with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and with input by John Jay, the speech was revered for more than 100 years, much the way the Gettysburg Address is today. It was taught in schools, has been referred to by most US presidents and is still read aloud in Congress every year.
But as it’s slipped out of the public sphere over the past century, much of its wisdom has been forgotten by the public. (That said, the address has been making a small comeback. Jon Stewart spoke of it on “The Daily Show” in 2012, and the song “One Last Time” from “Hamilton” is about the writing of the speech.
) Among Washington’s most emphatic beliefs was that the strength of the burgeoning republic depended on the avoidance of warring internal factions. A supporter of political moderation, Washington — the only independent president in our history — cautioned frequently, including in his farewell address, about the dangers of choosing party and personal agenda over country. Given the fractious state of the new union, this was a major concern of our first president.
Washington was ready to retire at the end of his first term in 1792. But those around him begged him to run again, as they saw the country’s factional divide — led by bitter animosity between Hamilton, an avowed Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, champion of revolutionary France — as dire enough to split the union. “The specter of civil war was invoked to Washington by all three of his closest Cabinet confidants,” writes Avlon.
“This was not an abstract concern. “The government was divided between those who were enamored of the French Revolution and those who favored neutrality in the latest war between France and Britain. “These political fights threatened to throw the country into paroxysms of separatism and succession, encouraging armed rebellion in distant regions and even the possibility of a coup d’etat.
” Washington believed that nothing was more important to our success and survival than national unity. “The subject . .
. could inspire Washington to rare rhetorical heights,” Avlon writes. “It was nothing less than ‘the palladium of your political safety and prosperity,’ and ‘a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence.
’ In [his] view, we must transcend our tribalism to survive. ” Washington saw his job as attempting to diminish party differences and unite the sides. He once wrote to Jefferson that, “I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was if parties did exist, to reconcile them.
” In a letter to Rhode Island’s governor, he once wrote that the only way to keep independence was to “drive far away the demon of party spirit. ” Washington saw his job as attempting to diminish party differences and unite the sides. By the time of his farewell address, a weary Washington had come to understand that political parties were inevitable, noting that the spirit of them, “unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.
” But he also called the factions driven by parties a “fatal tendency” in democracies. “They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community. ” Washington’s ultimate fear for such division was that a nation torn apart with vicious hatred for our fellow Americans would be susceptible to demagoguery and authoritarianism, destroying the republic he and his fellow patriots had fought so hard to establish.
As he wrote in his speech: “The disorders and miseries which result [from factional fighting] 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. ”.
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