A Father’s Advice

by Matthew Spalding

Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, George Washington’s Farewell Address remains one of the greatest documents of our history. The first president left his nation an enduring legacy of advice and counsel. His Address has four clear messages for America today—each of which Washington thought necessary for the survival of self-government.

1. Respect the Constitution.

Washington warns that government tends to encroach on freedom and consolidate power: "A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position." The federal government’s assault on private property is just one example of this today.

The Constitution structures government to prevent "encroachments," yet makes it energetic enough to defend our liberties and rights. The Constitution is our strongest check against tyranny and the best guardian of our freedom. Washington reminds us that it deserves our support and fidelity.

Ignoring the Constitution, he warns, allows "cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men" to take power illegitimately by force or fraud. Americans must guard against the "the spirit of innovation" that desires to circumvent or ignore the principles of our Constitution—the spirit that now dominates in our courts, legal system and law schools.

2. Beware the Politics of Passion.

Washington warns of "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party" and the problem of factionalism. But the political parties of today have virtually no connection with those of 1796: what they called parties we call "interest groups."

Washington was concerned about the excessive political passions that overpower reason and bring out the worst aspects of popular government. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be passion in politics, or that those with passionate opinions should withdraw from political discourse. It means that political passions, like all passions, should be moderated by better motives: "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."

While partisanship is rooted in human nature, it should not come to dominate our politics to the exclusion of our reason. Washington reminds us that fundamental change in a free government is not by clever strategies, "hot button" issues or attack ads but by principled deliberation and persuasion.

3. Encourage Religion and Morality.

The Constitution creates the framework for good government. But it only works if the people themselves are capable of self-government.

Public virtue cannot be expected in a climate of private vice, nor will individual morality flourish in the absence of civic responsibility. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," Washington tells us, "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."

Two centuries later social scientists are just discovering what Washington always knew. Religion is the bedrock of morality and morality is the foundation of a good society. The best way to reduce crime, illegitimacy and fatherlessness is to encourage moral character and responsibility.

4. Preserve Independence.

The Farewell Address is best remembered for its advice concerning foreign affairs. In a statement often cited as isolationist, Washington recommends commercial relations with other nations but minimal political connections. (The infamous warning against "entangling alliances," often wrongly attributed to the Farewell Address, is actually in the 1801 Inaugural Address of Thomas Jefferson.)

America should pursue a long-term course of defying external threats and choosing peace or war as its own "interest guided by our justice shall Counsel." Rather than a passive condition of detachment he described an active policy of national independence as necessary for America to determine its own fate.

As we navigate through a post-Cold War world, we should not allow temporary alliances and narrow interests to prevent us from pursuing our long-term national purpose—security and prosperity, with justice.

Washington also sternly warns against the wiles of foreign influence in our politics. "The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness," he tells us, "is in some degree a slave." We should heed this concern as we learn more about foreign money—the modern root of foreign influence—ending up in domestic campaign coffers.

By ignoring his four points of advice, America has moved far down the path that Washington feared. Today our government is virtually unlimited and out of control; dominated by base factionalism and personal invective. Our culture suffers from the breakup of community and the family. We question our national purpose and role in the world.

Amidst these seemingly intractable problems, Americans would do well to look to the Father of their Country—and the Farewell Address—for guidance. His "counsels of an old and affectionate friend" are as true today as they were in 1796.

Matthew Spalding is an Adjunct Fellow of the Claremont Institute and co-author of A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington’s Farewell Address and the American Character (Rowman & Littlefield).

All pages copyright © 1997 The Claremont Institute

Click here for the full text of George Washington's farewell address.

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