09/18/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

What Would George Do?

For over 30 years, I have been an instructor of American foreign policy. And for almost all of those years, I have started the term by asking students to read two documents side by side: The Declaration of Independence and George Washington's Farewell Address. The first is well known. The Farewell Address is another matter. Students have heard the title, they know the author, but not much else. A few who paid close attention in high school history or civics know that Washington said something about avoiding foreign alliances.

When those students read the Farewell Address, the whole address, they are surprised. And surprise is one of the very best things that can happen in a classroom. Students find the passages they expected to find about staying out of war and avoiding foreign entanglements but they discover that those passages come at the end of an essay that is largely about the domestic dangers that confront the new republic. Our greatest enemy, according to Washington, is not France, or Britain, or Spain. It is us. We are quite likely to lose our liberties and our democratic institutions to internal threats.

He names three: sectionalism, partisanship and debt. The first nearly destroyed the nation a hundred and fifty years ago; the other two would appear to be destroying it today.

On the subject of sectionalism Washington begins his analysis with a long litany of good reasons why all of us -- north and south, east and west -- are better off in union. Having listed all of those very good reasons, he then predicts that the union is likely to fail. Why? Because politicians will convince the public that local interests are more important than the national ones. Because parties will misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts and make us jealous of distant communities presumed to be better off than our own. We will ignore the good reasons for preserving the union because "a small but artful and enterprising minority" will sway us and because "cunning ambitious and unprincipled men" will prey upon us.

Washington does not paint a pretty picture of politics in the new republic. In a democracy where there is rule by the people, Washington's apparent assumption is that the people will often get things wrong. Sometimes they will be shortsighted; sometimes confused by fancy talk; sometimes just stupid.

Stupidity is, of course, not just a problem for democracies. Kings can be stupid too. As a matter of fact, if royal families intermarry often enough stupidity is the likely result. The errors of kings were well known to the revolutionary generation. Washington was afraid that with the American enthusiasm for democratic rule, an enthusiasm he fully shared, we might miss the fact that people in democratic societies are prone to make mistakes. And they make mistakes more often when they are organized into groups.

This brings us to political parties, the biggest threat that Washington warns his fellow citizens about. Parties "distract the public councils," "enfeeble the public administration," "agitate the community," "promote ill-founded jealousies and false alarms," kindle "animosity" and occasionally foment riot and insurrection. Other than that they are just fine.

Washington goes on to make a very interesting observation, and one of the observations that might sound like contemporary commentary. He points out that the competition between political parties is not really a check on their power; it may be an inducement to their bad behavior. "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." So if the Democrats win a big election in 2008 and the Republicans come back to retake the House of Representatives in 2010, that process of shifting power does not necessarily restrain the two political parties, it may make acts of revenge more frequent and more intense.

So why do we have parties? Why did George Washington, a life-long critic of parties, essentially become the leader of one? The answer he gives is the same one we read in the Federalist Papers, parties and partisanship are "inseparable from our nature." We humans band together, sometimes for good purpose, more often to pursue narrow interest. So what are we to do? We must try to mitigate the worst consequences of political parties. Partisanship, Washington says, is like a fire that cannot be quenched. "You have to be vigilant to prevent its bursting into flame, lest instead of warming, it should consume."

Sectionalism and partisanship, sometimes working hand in hand, will undermine support for the union and the nation's future. But there is a third threat that Washington also mentions: public debt. He explains that there are times (war and national emergency) when borrowing money is necessary to the nation's survival, but once we find ourselves in debt, there is a temptation to walk away from it. We must, he says, guard against "ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."

And how do we bear our burden? We pay taxes. "No taxes," Washington says, "can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant." They are inconvenient and unpleasant for Warren Buffett and for his secretary. No one likes taxation, with or without representation. But if there are things that government must do (and in Washington's time the list of things that government did was shorter than it is today) there must be revenue to pay the obligations taken on by the nation. Making policy decisions about where revenue will come from (decisions about taxation) are among the hardest things we ask our government to do. But it must be done. If we neglect public finance, if we fail to pay our debts, if we excite and exaggerate sectional or party differences about how public finance is to be managed, we will come to ruin.

Democracy in Washington's Farewell Address is a fragile thing. It is subject to the whims of public opinion, to the pull of parties, to the selfishness of generations, to the propensity of humans to make mistakes. And foreign policy makes everything worse. The passages in the Farewell Address about foreign affairs, the famous and familiar passages, contain warnings that European powers will take advantage of our partisan and sectional differences, distort our public discourse, and draw us into wars or conflicts we could otherwise avoid. And those wars and conflicts will almost certainly lead to borrowing and debt and burdens we will be hard pressed to repay.

Our domestic problems are serious and the world at large is a dangerous place that will exacerbate them. Is there anything we can do? Washington offers three suggestions: avoid foreign intrigues, foster morality and religion, and support education.

The warnings against alliances and the admonitions not to allow love or hate of other nations to cloud our judgment are well known. Washington's other suggestions are not. He observes, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." In a long paragraph about religion Washington never says anything that implies he is speaking about Christianity or any one of its denominations. He consistently refers to religion in general and says "that reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

Why do we need religion? Remember the problem of partisanship -- you can't stop people from forming themselves into groups. Parties and partisans will always be with us. But if some groups that we join remind us about larger purposes, or the need to care for others, or the mysteries of the soul, those groups might actually do some good. You need the principle of religious freedom to be solidly in place to make sure that religious groups do not go to war with each other, a condition that plagued European history. But if that principle is settled, religious organizations, unlike political parties, may be better positioned to remind us of our obligations to each other and to God. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, who would visit America three decades after the Farewell Address, Washington observes that democratic institutions alone will not make us good citizens. We need other kinds of association, other groups, and at least some of those groups need to be teachers of moral principle.

And finally, another kind of teaching will also help. George Washington tells his readers in the Farewell Address that they should promote, "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."

Recall when I began that I spoke about asking students to read the Declaration of Independence and the Farewell Address side by side. Those documents are the intellectual bookends of the American Revolution. You can easily contrast the lofty, universal and revolutionary rhetoric of Jefferson in the Declaration with the sober, somber and serious analysis of Washington in the Farewell Address. You can remind students that these two men became the leaders of our first political parties. They took very different positions on the French Revolution, on the national bank, on the power of the central government, on the signing of treaties with Great Britain, on the rights of states, on the Whiskey rebellion, and a long list of other issues. They were partisans and if the flames they tended never burned down the republic, they certainly contributed to making it a hotter place.

But there is another side to this story. There was mutual admiration. Washington was deeply moved by the language in the Declaration and made sure it was read to all the troops; Jefferson when he became president practiced what Washington preached and kept the nation out of European wars. Moreover, if you travel to Charlottesville, visit Jefferson's home and look at his tombstone you will see listed the three most important accomplishments in his life: writing the Declaration of Independence, authoring the Virginia statute on religious freedom, and founding the University of Virginia. The last two sound very familiar to any recent reader of the Farewell Address. Both Jefferson and Washington were supporters of religious freedom and saw the virtues that could arise in a society that removed impediments to religious practice.

And both Jefferson and Washington were genuine supporters of higher education. One built a university in Charlottesville; one made a substantial contribution to a struggling college in Lexington.

In our current era of intense partisanship, debt burden and budget deadlock we would be well advised to ask what George (or Tom for that matter) would do.

This essay is a revised version of a talk given at Washington and Lee University, on Reunion Weekend, in May 2012, with the title "Rediscovering Washington's Farewell Address."

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