Then and Now

On Good Friday, I chanced across a photograph of the lower Manhattan skyline at night from Good Friday in April 1956. Three skyscrapers, dominating the space, feature certain windows illuminated to form gigantic crosses to commemorate that most solemn of Christian holidays. The year 1956 was not that long ago. But how much has changed in those 60-odd years! Can you imagine such a public display of Christian affirmation in New York today? Nor can I. 

That was then. Now things are different. 

I thought about that disjunction between then and now when reading through Washington’s Farewell Address this weekend. Washington had intended to withdraw from politics when his first term ended in 1792. He asked James Madison to draft a valedictory statement but, when the time came, bickering among some of his Cabinet, especially between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, convinced him to run again. He set the original document aside. 

But when 1796 rolled around, he was weary and determined to leave politics. He enlisted Hamilton to revise the statement to which he added his own observations. The document is known as Washington’s “Farewell Address,” though Washington did not deliver it orally. Instead, he had it published in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser in September 1796, about 10 weeks before the election to choose his successor.

It was widely reprinted and became, in the words of the historian John Avlon, a sort of “civic scripture,” more widely reprinted even than the Declaration of Independence in the early years of the Republic. During the Civil War, both Houses of Congress began to hold annual readings of the document. The House abandoned the practice in 1984. I am told that the Senate continues to this day, selecting a senator (and alternating between parties) to read the document aloud on the Senate floor to commemorate Washington’s birthday. 

Several passages from the Farewell Address have become inscribed on the collective memory of the nation. But what struck me rereading the 6,000-word statement is how much it appears as a period piece, a blast from an apparently unrecoverable past. Anyone who has read the Farewell Address will recall Washington’s stirring warnings against “the fury of party spirit,” foreign entanglements, his cautions against excessive debt, his insistence on the place of religion as the foundation for civic order. The question is: what relevance do such injunctions have in present-day America? 

It pains me to say it, but I suspect the Farewell Address retains but a rhetorical claim on America circa 2023. Then, in 1796, Washington’s exhortations and admonitions had purchase in the political, economic, and moral reality of America. Now, they mostly echo like antique sentimentalities, more or less like the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Who still takes that seriously? 

Even the tone of the document seems chiseled from another world. One important theme of the address is the importance of the union of the states to the preservation of peace and prosperity. Devotion to the union, Washington says near the beginning of the address, is “the palladium of your political safety and prosperity.” What a splendid deployment of the word “palladium,” a “safeguard” or “protection,” from Παλλάδιον, a statue of Pallas Athena that guarded Troy! 

The substance of the address seems even more distant. Consider Washington’s strictures against the formation of factions, which echo and expand upon the arguments of Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist. The deployment of factions, Washington writes, puts “in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.” Such factions, he says, are 

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 councils and modified by mutual interests. 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.

Washington was warning about a possible future prospect that has become our daily reality. 

Indeed, Washington’s admonitions could be torn from today’s political headlines. “The alternate domination of one faction over another,” he writes, “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.

Are we there yet? 

Washington says that “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” But are we not doing everything possible to inflame the “spirit of party,” to exacerbate the differences that divide us, to “kindle the animosity of one part against another” to the point of “foment[ing] occasionally riot and insurrection”?

Yes, we are, and, as Washignton warned, such divisions, quite apart from the domestic squalor they foster, open “the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” Has President Xi read the Farewell Address?

One of the refreshing things about the founders is their clear-eyed acknowledgment of the commanding place power occupies in the metabolism of the human spirit. The Farewell Address offers a sterling example of this frankness. Those entrusted with the administration of the government in a free country, Washington observes, ought to be especially careful about allowing the powers of one department “to encroach upon another.” “The spirit of encroachment,” he notes, “tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.”

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 necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.

“To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.” How are we doing on that score?

The Farewell Address touches on several other subjects. Here I’ll mention two.

The first concerns public credit and debt. Washington understands that public credit is “a very important source of strength and security.” In order to preserve its potency, he cautions, it is important “to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.” By the same token, he advises against “the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” 

As I write, the federal debt approaches $32 trillion (that’s 32,000,000,000,000 for those who appreciate the plumpness of zeros). That excludes the various “unfunded liabilities” that the country has incurred, stuff we have promised to pay for in the future but for which we have yet to set aside the money. That pushes the total (as of two years ago) up to something like $125 trillion. Our elected representatives did that to us, to our children, to their children, down, probably, to the seventh son of the seventh son. 

Finally, there is the matter of morality and its basis, religion. We modern sophisticates tend to blush when the subject of religion is broached. We mewl about “the separation of church and state” and wait for the moment we can utter the word “fundamentalist.” 

George Washington, however, was not a member of that anti-Christian church. Indeed, in one of the most famous passages of the Farewell Address, he stipulates that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” In case we didn’t get it the first time, he proceeds to drive the point home. “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.” 

OK, he says we ought to have regard for morality. For such an Enlightenment figure as George Washington, morality surely does not encompass or stand upon religion. 

But it does. “Let us with caution,” he writes, “indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Well, that was then. We’ve made such progress since 1796. We have embraced our hatred and antipathies with uncommon zeal, to the point where the words “secession” and “national divorce” are once again circulating in earnest. A snarling partisan spirit is alive and rancorous. We have in all essentials transformed ourselves from a republic into an oligarchy, trampling on such quaint guardrails as the separation and disbursement of powers. We have loaded ourselves—or, rather, we have been loaded—with eye-watering, incomprehensible mountains of debt. And we have loudly rejected the claims of traditional morality and religion as so many otiose and unprogressive holdovers from a discredited past. 

Like those crosses outlined in light on the Manhattan skyline at night, George Washington’s exhortations and admonitions are residues of a lost and probably unrecoverable past. What that means for us now and in the future is sobering to contemplate. But this is Easter, a holiday commemorating a miracle. That is good, because we are going to need one. 

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