Every year since 1896, on or near George Washington’s birthday, a member of the U.S. Senate has read aloud the first president’s farewell address on the Senate floor. The party of the reader alternates every year.
Let’s hope the assembled senators are particularly attentive this year.
We can’t know, of course, what George Washington would make of our current president or the state of partisan politics in America. But we can make a pretty good guess.
Let’s start by considering Washington’s farewell address. The first president’s final message to the American people is among the most eloquent statements of American values and our political culture ever written. It is not as widely taught today as it was during the first century of the nation’s history, and when it is thought of, it is most often remembered for Washington’s admonition against foreign entanglements. But perhaps even more important today are his arguments against despotism and factionalism, or what today we would call party loyalty.
At the time Washington wrote his address, the presidency wasn’t constrained by term limits. Yet, immensely popular as he was, he decided to retire and not seek a third term He was humble about his considerable contributions to building the new nation.
Washington thought that both patriotism and a due regard for the “peculiar value” of his services should lead him to the “shade of retirement” from public life. And his wisdom on the need for a norm of presidential retirement has echoed through our history — so much so that Washington’s judgment has now been enshrined in the Constitution as a mandate. There can be little doubt that Washington would see the push by President Trump’s most rabid supporters for his perpetual service (as in the hashtags #Trump4Eva or #KingTrump) as anathema.
Republican Senators, also, would be targets of his ire. Before the Senate trial Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made it clear that he didn’t intend to be an impartial juror in the impeachment trial of Trump. As he said, “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.” His performance during the trial was true to his word.
To some degree, this sort of partisanship is not unexpected. But can we not hope for anything better? Facing much the same question at the end of his career, it is striking how prescient George Washington was — and how sternly he warned against the raging partisanship he feared.
When Washington delivered his final address, political parties were in their infancy. Even then, he saw the dangers of division. As Washington put it, parties “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.”
Washington seems especially prescient in his warning against demagoguery and its link to factions and political parties, which he worried would over time “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.”
It wasn’t a single party Washington condemned: It was the party system and the competition for power that he feared. As he put it, “the alternate domination of one faction over another” would eventually lead to despotism. He feared greatly “[t]he disorders and miseries which result [and] 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.”
Washington also predicted how a party leader would gain and keep power. At worst, he said, a party head “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, [and] foments occasionally riot and insurrection. [This] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” Surely that, too, echoes in today’s heated Twitter-filled rhetoric.
Washington’s predictive pessimism was eerily accurate. But he also offered hope, calling us to our better natures and envisioning a government “adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, [and] uniting security with energy.”
Today, I think Washington would look at the party system and see his fears rather than his hopes realized. He would see a small minority faction of one of the parties, led by an unprincipled man dedicated to his own elevation and built on the ruins of public liberty. Were Washington to speak to the leaders of the Republican Party, to which I formerly belonged, he would warn: “That way lies despotism.”
Paul Rosenzweig was a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute.