I share a special affinity for George Washington, the “Father of Our Country,” most likely because we share a birthday. Per the Gregorian calendar, Mr. Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Popes Creek, Virginia. A couple of centuries after his nativity, I was born on February 22 in the town from which President Washington personally led his troops westward to douse the smoldering rebellion over whiskey taxes in western Pennsylvania.
From my one-room elementary school days, I remember the fun of cutting out manila paper hatchets for the annual Washington’s Birthday cherry tree chopping reenactment. Mr. Martin allowed me, since it was my birthday, to read a poem or story about the first US President to my the less-than-impressed schoolmates.
Despite the yearly excitement that accompanied my self-satisfying connection with him, I never learned very much about George Washington. What I acquired came from an occasional magazine article or a couple of visits taking our kids and grandkids to his home, Mount Vernon. So, when I learned that historian and presidential scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin had produced the History Channel’s mini-series “Washington,” I felt compelled to watch it. Viewing this program was a demystifying and de-mythifying experience. The myriad commentators in the presentation and the dramatic reenactments presented a portrait of a complex man whose life was as conflicted as the new nation he helped create and lead.
After watching “Washington” I felt both saddened and outraged at how far from its dawning our nation has strayed. I felt moved to read Washington’s September 19, 1796, Farewell Address to the nation. In this discourse the retiring leader delineated what he had learned as the Revolutionary War Commander-in-Chief and as the first President of the United States, and he offered warnings to those who would serve and lead after him.
Washington warned against the nation devolving into factions that would endanger the unity of purpose upon which the republic was conceived.
They [those who work to obstruct the execution of laws] 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, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, 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 common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
Today’s fractured political status and the resultant societal divisions give proof and truth to Washington’s warnings. The current administration’s behavior and policies only deepen these divides. The first President continued,
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
“Cunning, ambitious, unprincipled men . . . usurp for themselves the reins of government” certainly sounds like what has happened in the current executive branch and its unprincipled leader.
The statesman Washington alerted the citizens of what will happen when an unscrupulous leader and his lackeys subvert the power of the people:
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.
The current chief of the prevailing party in power, emboldened by his blind-eyed, cowardly partisans, has turned again and again to elevating himself to the level of despotism. Whereas George Washington, both as the General of the Army in the war against Britain and as President, surrounded himself with people who thought differently and welcomed their views and their challenging him, the current White House demagogue surrounds himself with like-thinking or non-thinking sycophants who must pledge their undying loyalty to the Chairman; if they don’t or if they question him, they are “fired” and belittled and given a demeaning sobriquet.
In recent months the Oval Office squatter has continued to challenge the legitimacy and the powers of various departments in the Executive Branch and is working to subsume their powers into his autocratic position. Washington has something to say about such destructive and un-republican actions:
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.
Continuing his cautions against factionalism, Washington warns,
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.
“It opens the door to foreign influence.” As the nation is divided into more and more opposing factions, foreign countries with anti-democratic values continue to wedge their ways into these growing ruptures in the republic’s foundations.
In the 18th century the first President recognized the importance of maintaining productive relationships with other countries.
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?
How different in 21st century America this view is from the xenophobic, nationalistic, ignominious attitudes the current leadership displays towards our fellow nations, unless of course the nation is led by a dictator, oligarch, or tyrant.
But there is more:
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.
I add that an even more baneful foe of a republican government is the minority election—and even worse re-election—of the current unqualified pretender in the Office of the Presidency.
Watch the History Channel’s “Washington.” Read Washington’s Farewell Address in its entirety.
Then ask yourself, as I did, “How did our nation get itself into such a political and moral mess?”
George Washington: Farmer. General. Statesman. Visionary. Patriot. President. Citizen (his preferred title).
Current Office Holder: Liar. Narcissist. Draft Dodger. Racist. Amoralist. Would-be King.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. A lady asked Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”
Keep it we must. For the sake and future of our nation, we must return a person of Washington’s integrity, courage, and leadership to the Office of the Presidency.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher,writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly. Readers may contact him at [email protected].