(HOST) As we swing into the last month of election season, commentator Vic Henningsen recommends re-reading a two-hundred-year-old letter.
(HENNINGSEN) In late September 1796 an item appeared in the Philadelphia Daily Advertiser addressed “To the PEOPLE of the United States.” Readers took a deep breath when they saw the author’s name. Reprinted under a variety of titles, it finally got one that stuck: “Washington’s Farewell Address”.
It wasn’t really an “address” or even an article, but a letter from the first president announcing his retirement. Americans now had to go on without the man who embodied both the Revolution and the nation they had struggled to create. Re-reading it tells us a great deal about the U.S. at the time and has surprising relevance for Americans today.
Many people think that this is where Washington warned Americans against “entangling alliances”, but in fact that was Jefferson five years later. Washington addressed both the international tensions of the day and the fact that partisan politics were so divisive they threatened to sink the republic.
The root issue was America’s position in the war between England and France, a foreign policy question which ignited tremendous partisan strife between the newly emerging political parties. The Federalists, loosely grouped around Alexander Hamilton, believed that the U.S. should favor its largest trading partner, Great Britain. Jeffersonian Republicans argued for sticking with our old ally, France, now a republic supposedly modeling itself on American ideals.
Washington offered advice that was and is strikingly tough-minded. In essence he said: nations do not have permanent friends – they have permanent interests. National interest – not affection and certainly not ideology – must determine foreign policy. Neither a call for isolationism nor a demand for wholesale export of American ideals, this was practical advice from a man who was above all realistic.
He was similarly crisp on political behavior. Though he despised the factional disputes of the day, Washington was less concerned with lamenting the situation than with advising his fellow citizens to keep the “spirit of party” under control. “A fire not to be quenched,” he wrote, “it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” When party animosity runs unchecked; when personal or group self-interest is placed above the good of all, he warned, “Liberty . . . is little more than a name.”
In his Farewell Address, Washington identified the central tension of a democratic republic: forces of fragmentation would always exist in America, but so would a national capacity for reconciling self-interest and mutual obligation – as long, he wrote, as Americans remembered that “The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
Pragmatism abroad; collaboration and mutual respect at home. We could do worse in these troubled times than return to Washington’s words, if only to understand just how far-sighted he was.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.