At the end of his second presidential administration, after forty-five years serving America, President Washington did not want to leave without imparting some final guidance and wisdom. To do so, Washington, working from drafts written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, wrote a letter to the American people titled “The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America, on his Declining the Presidency of the United States” and more popularly known as “Washington’s Farewell Address.”
In his Farewell Address, President Washington first expressed his zeal for America and his reasons for declining a third term as President. Immediately following these introductory comments, however, Washington, driven by concern for the welfare of the American people and his apprehension of danger that awaited the nation, offered his advice and observations, for “frequent review,” on how America could remain strong. Washington termed these observations the “disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” Washington then set forth six principles that he believed would preserve liberty in America: protecting unity of government, avoiding faction or political parties, preserving checks and balances, maintaining religion and morality, protecting public credit, and cultivating peace with foreign nations.
On the unity of government, President Washington, showing his Federalist sympathies and anticipating the coming Civil War, expressed concern that regional affiliations would threaten the national identity and loyalty. As Washington said, “The name of ‘American,’ which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any [name] derived from local discriminations.” Washington supported this appeal to national unity by noting that each geographic region of the United States benefits from the preservation of the “Union of the whole,” whether by expanded trade, by greater strength against foreign nations, or by the security that internal peace within the United States brings.
After his discussion of the benefits of unity, Washington then cautioned against the obstruction to unity: faction and political parties. Washington warned that factions and political parties might form for legitimate reasons but then be taken over by “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men … to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” Washington warned that these factions and political parties may use pretexts to “innovat[e]” with the Constitution’s principles, or to alter it in a manner that undermines what the faction cannot directly overthrow.
Following his dire warning against allowing factions and political parties to lead to despotism, Washington then addressed another possible source for despotism: encroachment by one branch of government against another. Washington noted that the checks and balances established in the Constitution must be followed, and “[i]f, in the opinion of the people, the distribution … of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way, which the constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for, though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” In other words, as was true of the rise of faction, Washington argued that bypassing the Constitution for a short-term good may lead to a dictatorship. Washington stated that the precedent of bypassing the Constitution outweighs the temporary benefit with a “permanent evil.”
Washington then turned from what must be avoided to save liberty to what can be done to preserve liberty. The first “indispensable supports” that Washington addressed are religion and morality. “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life,” Washington asked, “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.” Washington went so far as to say that a person cannot claim to be a patriot if he should try to subvert religion and morality. “[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. … [M]orality is a necessary spring of popular government. … Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”
Following his discussion of religion and morality, Washington briefly touched upon “a very important source of strength and security”: public credit. Washington warned against incurring too much debt, but also warned that sometimes a smaller expenditure to prepare for danger prevents a much larger expenditure later.
Finally, Washington concluded his observations with a call to “cultivate peace and harmony with all.” To that end, Washington warned against emotional attachment to one nation or emotional hostility towards another that could lead America into a conflict that is not truly in her best interest. Washington also warned against foreign influence in America and political connections with foreign governments.
Many of President Washington’s warnings from over two-hundred years ago were prescient. Today, the Constitution is frequently ignored for some short-term good or re-interpreted so that a provision that could not be “directly overthrown” may be sidestepped against the will of the people. This has happened as our nation’s faith in God has waned, our virtue crumbled, and our financial restraint ceased. Only time will tell whether the dire consequence of despotism will result or whether we, as a people, will return to our founding principles and the way of liberty.
Read George Washington’s Farewell Address here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3710
Justin Butterfield is a religious liberty attorney at the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas. Mr. Butterfield graduated from Harvard Law School in 2007. During his time at Harvard, Mr. Butterfield served as the student coordinator for the Veritas Forum, was a member of the Federalist Society, and was heavily involved with the Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship. He is also a Blackstone Fellow. A native Texan, Mr. Butterfield completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso where he graduated summa cum laude with honors and University Banner Bearer with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering.
In addition to his practice in the area of religious liberty, Mr. Butterfield co-authored two scholarly articles: “The Light of Accountability: Why Partisan Elections Are the Best Method of Judicial Selection,” published in The Advocate, and “The Parsonage Exemption Deserves Broad Protection,” published in the Texas Review of Law & Politics. Mr. Butterfield has also co-written articles for the Washington Times and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Decision Magazine.