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Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address: Did He Waste His Breath?

As he prepared to leave office, President George Washington was concerned about the partisan and martial path the young republic he helped found was heading down.

Even the “Father of His Country” was not above criticism and vitriolic attacks in the press. Although the recently retired general whom the Indians believed could not be killed loathed the shots taken at him by “infamous newspapers,” he refused to make any response that would deny his countrymen of “the infinite blessings resulting from a free press.”

This noble attitude contrasts sharply with his contemporary and successor John Adams who signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law in an attempt to criminalize criticism of the president, as well as the vigorous defense currently being mounted by our current president of his authority under the National Defense Authorization Act to indefinitely detain persons he suspects of posing a threat to the security of the homeland.

In this and in myriad other ways, Washington was in fact “the indispensable man” and an example to politicians in his own time and ours.

When the time came for Washington to return to his beloved Mount Vernon and deliver one last message to his “friends and fellow citizens,” he relied on his former collaborator and Virginian James Madison to help him draft his Farewell Address.

September 19, 2012 marked the 216th anniversary of Washington’s Farewell Address. Deservedly so, this speech has become renowned for its prose and principles — including national unity, tolerance of political differences, and neutrality in the endless foreign conflicts.

To ensure that his remarks would strike the appropriate tone, Washington informed Madison that the speech should declare “in plain and modest terms … that we are all children of the same country…. That our interest, however diversified in local and small matters, is the same in all the great and essential concerns of the nation.”

Although he penned a version of the address in his own words, he ultimately approved and delivered the words written by Madison.

After rehearsing his own record of political and military service and expressing his “love of liberty,” Washington urges the states to remain united and to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

In this case and in so many others, the United States has failed to follow President Washington’s wise recommendations.

Our military-industrial complex is immense, and counts profits in the billions derived from supplying our armed forces currently deployed around the globe. Defense contractors sign billion-dollar contracts with the government, and funnel millions into the campaign coffers of key congressmen whom they can count on to keep the money flowing and the troops fighting.

To avoid the plague of perpetual war, Washington warns against “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.”

Sadly, our modern proclivity is to surrender sovereignty to international bodies whose members are not elected and thus not accountable to the American people, and to send monetary and military support to “freedom fighters” in the Middle East. As themurder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya demonstrates, however, all this patronage has failed to purchase peace.

Washington associates a lasting peace with the avoidance of martial meddling and with the level of virtue in the citizenry. He declares that a peaceful country can be maintained only by peaceful people. Washington explains:

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? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

Our own government’s defiance of this good advice is apparent by its efforts to portray Muslims as radicals and enemies worthy of hate and suspicion; as well as by its codified disregard for due process as evidence by the compilation by President Obama of a kill list composed of people (including some Americans) targeted for summary execution.

In light of Washington’s wise warnings, it is little wonder that we find ourselves trillions of dollars in debt due in part to the demand for the funding of multiple military operations, as the Constitution, the rule of law, and virtue are counted among the collateral damage.

The history of the past 216 years reveals that most of Washington’s successors have refused to heed the counsel of caution given in his Farewell Address. Instead, they have chosen to bid farewell to the “fundamental maxims of true liberty” included by him and his fellow delegates in the Constitution.

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