President’s Day: You cannot shield yourselves too much…


George Washington, as first President, imagined his role to be that of an elected king, not in power but in responsibility. The traditional theoretical charge of the monarch was to rule the whole people with justice; to be the protector and father of the people. When he created the first cabinet he sought to include men who represented the views of all Americans, and it was in pursuit of this that he appointed Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, two men who could not have more divergent ideas about the Constitution and what it had created. The result was vicious and disruptive partisan wrangling in the cabinet.

As the end of his second term approached and Washington determined not to run for another term, he took it upon himself to produce a document that would summarize his advice to the nation, sort of like a fatherly farewell. The document is known as Washington’s Farewell Address. It was never delivered as a speech and was written by Alexander Hamilton, but it expresses the first President’s views. It is no coincidence that a large portion of it is a warning against the destructive nature of partisanship. Below I excerpt some of Washington’s thoughts on partisanship, and embed the entire document at the end.

In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection…. Will it not be their wisdom to rely for the preservation of these advantages on the Union by which they were procured ? Will they not henceforth be deaf to those advisers, if such there are, who would sever them from their brethren and connect them with aliens?
Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They 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.
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.

The text was copied from the Avalon Project at Yale University

Washington Farewell Address 1796