Washington’s Farewell Address: avoiding foreign entanglements

In part 3 of our series on Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, we continue our close reading, picking up near the middle of this long text. So far, Washington has explained why he feels the nation is stable enough for him to safely resign the office of president, and he has urged Americans to remember these things:

—the government they live under is their own creation;

—there will be many groups, foreign and domestic, who have no faith in that representative democracy Americans have created, and they will try to tear it down. Only dedication to the principles of liberty that found our government will save the American people from disaster;

—regional in-fighting will be the death of the United States. Every region must remember its dependence on the other regions, and turn to the federal government to resolve disputes.

Now Washington turns to other threats, in a section that is eerily prophetic of our own troubled political environment today, and a proof that Washington’s Address is pertinent and valuable to us today:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.  The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result 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.”

—This is the part of the Address that most people remember (the idea, if not the actual words). Here Washington is warning against political factions, and he equates the formation of political parties with inevitable dissension. This definition of what can happen when partisanship runs rampant must sound familiar to us today: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension… leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual [who] turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.” When the political process grinds to a halt because one or more political parties refuses to work with others, only a charismatic individual can take the lead, and this kind of cult of personality is antithetical to democracy.

“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another. There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

—Political factions or parties “[serve] always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Again, so familiar to us today, at a time of great partisan conflict.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

—Washington says that religious belief is critically important to upholding democracy because without belief in God and the consequent devotion to goodness that it brings, we cannot perform the duties of a just government. But he never goes on to say that therefore we must have a state religion, or that anyone seeking office must be a member of a religion. And his call for “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” seems more a call for higher education—colleges—than churches.

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

—This is a great passage, in which Washington says if we carry out the duties of government with good faith and justice, joining our sense of personal morality to a demand for political justice, we will be a free, enlightened, and someday soon a great nation. Democracy is, at this point, “too novel”, as no other nation enjoys the system of representative democracy that the U.S. does. It will be hard to maintain this very high level of personal and public morality, but the rewards are incalculable. Is it impossible? Are humans just too flawed? This was the common argument against the U.S. experiment, but Washington has faith that Americans can carry it off.

“In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”

—We must have clear heads: you can’t think clearly if you aren’t objective. You can’t just hate a certain nation and love another, overlooking evidence to the contrary, because this leads to bad foreign policy and leads Americans themselves to sell out their country’s interest to promote the interests of their favorites. Washington is thinking of the France-Britain debate in the U.S. at the time, with many Americans passionately hating the British who enslaved us and unconditionally loving the French who Britain were at war with, and other Americans passionately hating the French and loving powerful, familiar Britain. Each faction wanted the U.S. to form a lasting, binding, political alliance with its favored nation, mostly just to hurt its hated nation. But Washington says that U.S. government policy, domestic or foreign, cannot be about making one or the other foreign nation happy, or making the U.S. appealing to one or the other. We have to do what is objectively right and objectively best for us. Loving or hating other nations is just another form of dangerous partisanship.

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

—For now, while we are weak and Europe is strong, and while our political interests are so different from theirs, let’s have economic relations and trading partners, but keep it economic. No political alliances. It’s hard to do that now, when we’re weak, and other nations ignore our neutrality and impress our sailors and put garrisons on our western lands, but as we grow stronger they will start to back off, and we will be feared and respected and left alone without ever having to make an agreement with anyone. We won’t have to buy peace—we’ll command it.

That’s basically the end of the section people know about. Next time, we’ll read the gracious conclusion of the Address, and allow our Founder to express his love and concern for us once again. For he was concerned about us, he was addressing us; Washington so often says he’s talking about the nation in 1796 so that the nation that develops later will have the best counsel. We will hear what he has to tell us once more.

Next time: the conclusion

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