WASHINGTON’S FAREWELL could hardly have been published at a better moment. Released on the day when President Obama gave his own farewell address in early January in Chicago, John Avlon’s elegant book about the best-known Founding Father was poised to strike a deep chord in us. For, like Washington himself in his time, we live today in a climate marked by high political fragmentation, divisiveness, and immoderation. Once again, ideological intransigence promoted by purists of various persuasions, on both sides of the political spectrum (but especially on the right), dominates our politics and risks tearing apart the social fabric of our republic.
That’s precisely what Washington feared as he was leaving office in 1796, resisting calls to stand for a third term. The voluntary relinquishment of power was then — as is still now — a remarkable display of moderation and restraint. Washington could have easily been elected for four more years, but his health was not good and he was tired of politics. Moreover, he really wanted to enjoy at last the peace and comfort of his Mount Vernon estate with his beloved wife Martha. Ambition could have overcome all these doubts, and he, too, might have succumbed to the temptation of power. In the end, however, Washington decided to step down, giving posterity an inspiring example.
To be sure, his personality had something to do with that. On the one hand, Washington had a pretty good idea of what he had achieved by the end of his second term; he had played a key role in securing the independence of the colonies from Great Britain and in the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. On the other hand, he had always been a humble person: “neither a Man of learning, nor of much acquired knowledge,” he conducted himself in an honest and unaffected manner in political life. His heart was always in the right place, even if he may have been, as John Adams once ungenerously put it, “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his Station.”
Be that as it may, Washington was a man of moderation determined to maintain his independence from the various factions of his day. This theme dominates Avlon’s book. “I was no party man myself,” Washington once said, “and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.” He was rightly concerned that factions would hijack his administration and try to impose their own policy priorities to the detriment of the common good.
Washington had his reasons to be concerned about the fragility of the fledgling republic, which was not doing too well after the ratification of the US Constitution. It was confronted with rebellions at home (such as the Whiskey Rebellion) and difficult treaty negotiations abroad, and the specter of the French Revolution was looming large. Washington had to navigate prudently between those who called upon him to come to France’s aid in its war against Great Britain and those who recommended neutrality. His endorsement of the Jay Treaty with England, ratified by Congress in 1795, led Washington’s critics to attack him for having surrendered to the demands of the English king — whose “puppet” he allegedly was.
To make things worse, Washington was no longer able to count on unity within his own administration. He tried hard to reconcile Hamilton and Jefferson, but failed to bring a lasting agreement between them and their allies. The task was almost impossible even for a politician of Washington’s vision, who believed in the importance of “liberal allowances, mutual forbearances, and temporizing yieldings on all sides.” Hamilton and Jefferson were speaking for two different constituencies, which eventually formed two different parties that would clash in the 1800 election. Hamilton and his friends stood for energetic federal government and the interests of finance, while Jefferson and his admirers represented the interests of individual states and of the farmers in the country.
As Avlon reminds us, the differences of opinion between the two camps grew stronger toward the end of Washington’s first term, causing him to consider withdrawing from politics altogether. He even enlisted James Madison’s support in drafting a possible farewell address in 1792. When Washington finally decided to stand for and serve a second term, it was mainly because he feared, as many did at the time, that the fragile republic would self-destruct under the weight of hyper-partisan politics.
Four years later, Washington’s realized his desire to retire from politics. He carefully planned his final act, this time enlisting the help of his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. (Avlon’s book deftly retraces the drafting of the Farewell Address, showing Hamilton’s contribution.) The text was revised by Washington himself, who then planned its publication in a non-partisan Philadelphia newspaper, the American Daily Advertiser. He wanted to bequeath to his fellow Americans a useful document, one that would also speak to future generations.
Washington was quite successful in this regard. His Farewell Address continues to inspire us today as we struggle with hyper-partisanship, an inefficient education system, and a crippling national debt. The 6,000-word text laid out what Avlon identifies as the “six […] pillars of Washington’s philosophy of liberty” — natural unity, political moderation, fiscal discipline, religion, education, and a foreign policy of independence.
They are all related to each other. Without unity, there can be no liberty. “Nothing but disunion can hurt our cause,” Washington said, warning against the perils of parochial interests and local jealousies. Liberty is also inseparable from fiscal responsibility, he insisted. For a nation to remain free, it must manage its public credit wisely and not incur a great amount of debt; it should not throw upon posterity the burden that the present generation ought to bear. Finally, a free nation must also be a moral and educated one.
Of all these six pillars of liberty, the most important one seems to be political moderation. Moderates are few and rare, said Montesquieu, one of the inspirations of the Founding Fathers. Washington’s case shows why this is so. It is difficult to practice moderation when all the factions around you seek to push you in their own directions, and when the majority will seems to go against prudence.
As Avlon points out, Washington’s was a form of moderation that combined firmness and self-restraint with a conciliatory temper. “To Washington,” he writes, “moderation was a source of strength” that allowed him to resist the demagogues and factions of his time while defending the common good. This is an important and often neglected point, which I have also tried to make in Faces of Moderation. For moderation is sometimes equated with weakness and pusillanimity, while in reality it requires a good dose of courage and readiness to swim against the current. Washington was not afraid of doing precisely that; he played the role of a convener on common ground, and incarnated the image of the man of the center, the trimmer able to balance different factions and prevent the ship of state from capsizing in rough seas.
Such a statesman, moderate and firm at the same time, looking at the present and taking into account the needs of the future, always above the fray, is badly needed today. The fringes — or, to use the title of Avlon’s previous book, the “wingnuts” — have been much more vocal than the center lately, and moderates have been increasingly sidelined, losing in primaries to purists committed to litmus tests.
Daniel P. Moynihan once claimed in jest that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” If he were alive today in our age of post-truth, he would be baffled, as many of us are, by the proliferation of alternative facts and fake news. We have slowly self-segregated ourselves into hyper-partisan tribes that see political reality through radically different lenses and display a dogmatic commitment to an extreme “politics of faith.”
Extremists on all sides have always had several things in common. They confuse partisanship with patriotism and see politics in black and white, us versus them. They are unwilling to compromise and are moved by the spirit of revenge. In their pursuit of power, they also espouse a discourse of doom, full of exaggerations and conspiratorial fantasies. Half a century ago, Richard Hofstadter described what he called “the paranoid style in American politics”; among this style’s many characteristics are fervent appeals to religious suspicion, the encouragement of ethnic and racial divisions, the demonization of political opponents, the cultivation of fear, and the fostering of adversarial politics with no middle ground for compromise.
This fundamentalist, immoderate style of politics is fashionable again in the United States, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we care about our polity and want to do something to reverse the trend, we would do well to read John Avlon’s wonderful book carefully, and to reflect again on the enduring wisdom of Washington’s Farewell Address.