George Washington announced his permanent retreat from the world 220 years ago today. His “Farewell Address,” first drafted by Madison and later amended and expanded by Hamilton, was printed in nearly every newspaper in America and read widely throughout Europe.
Tinged by the dark, sober thought that he “must soon be to the mansions of rest,” it contains a penetrating analysis highly relevant to our domestic affairs today, and it remains superior to most comparable documents produced since. He offers his parting words as a “disinterested” onlooker, an “old and affectionate friend” who, without flattery, deals frankly with his countrymen, as is becoming of free citizens.
Washington foresaw that America would become “at no distant period, a great nation.” This would occur partly because North and South, East, and West would eventually become more homogenous on account of internal commerce, and because American commerce would spread throughout the globe. He also saw clearly that other nations would imitate and even adopt America’s constitutional order — if America proved that political liberty could coexist with order and unity.
For Washington, preserving America’s long-term interests required grasping certain permanent problems suffered by republics. Being aware of such problems prevents one from indulging in visionary hopes of total transformation. Such awareness moderates the imagination, staves off fanaticism, and elevates prudence, which can distinguish between the possible and impossible.
Among Washington’s main themes was the conflict between the unity of the public mind and the public’s tendency toward “parties,” or “factions” (terms that he, like many of the Founders, often used interchangeably). By “party” or “faction,” Washington meant the union of individuals who desire to rule without consideration for the lasting common good; a party is often made up of “a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.”
Without unity of public mind, he argues, prosperity and security are impossible. However, the “natural” passions found in all human beings create parties, which make demands upon citizens’ loyalties and subvert patriotism. The public, in other words, tends in two contrary directions.
Unity means that citizens must first and foremost consider themselves to be Americans, as opposed to members of a party or faction, whether geographical, ideological, or based on some other criteria, such as identity, today. This sort of unity is a prerequisite to prosperity, which may be achieved when a people believe in common ideals, common interests, and, therefore, possess common affections.
The alternative is domination by the spirit of party, which guides citizens in the opposite direction. Rule by this spirit is a special problem of republican government. In fact, it is a republic’s “worst enemy.” In a monarchy, parties can provide a check on power and serve a good; in a republic, parties have few salutary effects.
Parties are not mere aberrations, Washington said. Rather, their cause “is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” In other words, our passionate attachment to particular parties distorts our judgment and obscures consideration of the nation’s long-term interests. Once these natural passions are energized and flattered, a predictable pattern emerges.
First, the rule of one party will inevitably give birth to counter parties. These will alternate in their domination of one another. This alternation of rule will be animated by the spirit of “revenge,” creating permanent “hatreds” and “jealousies” among parties. Citizens may cease to look upon one another as fellow citizens. Now motivated by hatreds, parties desire total domination and eventually become fanatical.
Parties of factions like the disarreaed parties of scoundrels,cads and fiends running loose in our nations Capital