So far, 2020 has been a dystopian nightmare from George Washington’s perspective. He was once “first in war, first in peace, and first in the minds of his countrymen,” as Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee eulogized him. But now statues of Washington are being toppled, damaged and defaced.
Our first president, who paid careful attention to setting precedents that might allow America not to only survive, but to “live long and prosper,” would find such acts nearly a mirror image of his hopes for what could make our experiment in liberty last. How do we know? Just look at his emphatic warnings to do everything possible to avoid the violence of faction in his 1796 farewell address in contrast to the violence of faction that has played out on our city streets.
Washington offered “sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.” In particular, he insisted that we keep “indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest.”
One of the expedients of party to acquire influence … is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s]. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
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 … to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by the common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
Liberty … is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction … and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyments of the rights of person and property.
Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party … in [governments] 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 … is itself a frightful despotism … 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.
[Faction] is a spirit not to be encouraged … 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.
Politicians and partisans seem to have forgotten Washington’s warning of how strongly factions undermine “the benign influence of good laws under a free government,” to the point where the country faces threats that could steamroll that possibility. But we would benefit from recourse to the higher standard he called us to:
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.
And that standard is of monumental importance, because, as Washington said elsewhere, “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”
Many have abandoned even the pretense of following the principles of the man our capital is named for. Many are embracing rather than rejecting the fatal disunity of factions, putting liberty in extreme peril. The violent and often vicious factions we see on many of our streets shows it most clearly.
But it is not clear the political parties are much better. For instance, that the Democratic convention’s blame-a-thon of relentless attacks and accusations against President Donald Trump and endless promises of something for nothing could be wrapped up with Joe Biden’s promise that his party will provide unity reveals far more about cognitive dissonance than about fealty to principle.
Instead of overlooking his insights in pursuit of factional advantages to force others to do our will rather than their own, we need to find a way to make Washington’s assertion over two centuries ago – that “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment” – true again today.