Forward thinking: George Washington’s Farewell Address deserves rereading

George Washington, Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, March 1797

The date was Sept. 19 . . . the year was 1796.

Our nation’s newspapers carried the publication of President George Washington’s Farewell Address. It announced Washington’s intention to retire from public life after his second term.

For many decades, the Farewell Address was required reading in grade schools across America and was commonly invoked in public discourse.

More recently, the address has all but faded into obscurity, which is most unfortunate. It is a treasure of wisdom from the one man who did the most to create our country. He knew as well as any one of the Founding Fathers what it would take to establish a democratic – republican form of government.

After all, it was Washington who led the nation through the War of Independence, oversaw the drafting of the Constitution, and served as its first president. Equally important, Washington directed his “Farewell Address” to the American people and strongly encouraged them to “review his advice frequently.”

If you are at all familiar with the Farewell Address, it is best known for warnings about political parties and entangling alliances during the nation’s early years, plus an array of other subjects. Examples included the powers of the federal government, obeying the Constitution, being sensible in public spending, accepting the necessity of taxes, and cultivating peace with other nations insofar as this was possible.

However, close scrutiny of his recommendations reveals both wisdom and deep philosophical beliefs. We must not forget that when the address was first published, the United States was an infant nation, surrounded by European superpowers. His recommendations were intended to buy time for our country to mature . . . to get our feet under us.

If that is the case, and I believe that it is, what can we gain today from reading his “Farewell Address”? The answer lies in something Washington knew very well – something that hasn’t changed since 1796: Human Nature.

Washington believed strongly in the depravity of mankind. He identified a “love of power . . . which predominates in the human heart.“ In his eyes, man could be “ambitious and unprincipled,” but even worse, he is “designing” — in other words, deceitful and scheming. He knew that man often hides his depravity under the veneer of virtue and love of country. Washington described men as “cunning” and called for the American people to guard against “the imposters of pretended patriotism.”

If man is corrupt, it only follows that nations are as well. Washington believed that nations not only seek their own interest, but often trample over the rights of other nations. This is why he warned us about the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” and counseled that “there can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.”

In other words, Washington warned us that America’s opponents, both foreign and domestic, would pose as its advocates — they would use deception in their efforts to promote an alternative agenda. Specially, he called on Americans to suspect the motives and patriotism of their fellow citizens who:

  • Reject the national government. “Distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken (the union’s) bands.”
  • Promote narrow interest at the expense of the nation’s interest as a whole: “Parties are often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.”
  • Undermine religion and morality: “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism. Who should labor to subvert these great pillars (religion and morality)?”

These were the hallmarks of America’s domestic adversaries: a rejection of the authority of the national government and the role of religion in society, and an obsession with narrow interest.

During Washington’s time, narrow interest often centered on geographical affiliations. Today, they often center on one’s racial or ethnic background or Income level. Divisions along these lines have led to a toxic identity politics that demotes national identity while elevating lesser sub-identities to the detriment of national unity. I seriously doubt if Washington could have fathomed this sort of identity-based division. Yet, he warned that narrowly-defined views in general would negate the national interest if pursued without compromise.

Not only was man corrupt, but he was also frail and prone to error. Washington argued that some citizens might believe they are serving America’s best interest while actually undermining it. He described these citizens as “deluded . . . tools and dupes” under “infatuation” — the very victims of those who practiced deception.

These two observations — the depravity and frailty of man — form Washington’s first core message that America has real enemies, both foreign and domestic, some of whom are unaware of their pernicious effects on the country.

While Washington founded a nation based on humanity’s highest ideals — liberty and equality — he believed that America must reject naïve idealism about human nature, and not put too much faith in the good will of other countries.

A second core message focused on how America might survive in a world full of treachery. He unashamedly promoted America’s interest above that of other nations, referring to it 21 times in his address. Critics today will often point out that this emphasis on the national interest as being devoid of morality — as if virtue and patriotism were mutually exclusive. After all, didn’t Washington decry the tendency of nations to pursue their own interest at the expense of the rights of other nations?

While it is true that interest is often derived from selfish motives, Washington argued this need not always be the case. It is possible to promote one’s interest with respect for other nation’s interests and in support of a greater moral cause. After all, he advised the American people to “observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” He hoped America would conduct itself “as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

Washington believed a nation could pursue its interest legitimately, under the restraint of justice and morality, while also being prepared for war. In addition, promoting American strength and prosperity, he believed, would ultimately prove the viability of a republican government to the world and give America “the glory of recommending it to . . . every nation which is yet a stranger to it.

It would increase liberty’s appeal to a global audience and therefore benefit mankind.

This message serves as an antidote to those who dispute the morality of national self-interest or believe America is obligated to pursue the well-being of other lands and peoples over its own.

The father of our country envisioned an America that was prosperous, generous, and in command of its own destiny. He foresaw a “free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation” giving “to mankind the magnanimous and novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”  He hoped our country would one day live up to its highest ideals and conduct its affairs in an exceptionally just way.

To secure this future, however, Washington counseled Americans to reject the dreamy idealism about foreign nations and their intentions — an idealism that those dedicated to liberty and equality can find enticing.

He also warned us to be vigilant against both overt and covert enemies in our midst, and he trusted the American people — not just their representatives or bureaucrats — with this vigilance.

His message speaks not only to us, but to all men and women who desire to establish and perpetuate a republic:

Do not be naive about human nature, for your adversaries (whether foreign or domestic, intentional or unintentional) will often appear as your friends.

Only with this in mind can an aspiring republic do what it has every right to do and ought to do:

Advance its own interest and, therefore, those of men and woemn everywhere who desire liberty.

In this chaotic time of uncertainty and division, whatever form or likeness it may take, we would do well to set apart Washington’s advice, as he hoped, for our “frequent review.” The option would appear to be “tribalism” and “disunity.”

Until next time . . .

–By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *