Monday, June 12, 2017
George Washington’s Warning About American Despotism: A Cautionary Tale for Today
Although known as his Farewell Address, the words Washington selected were never spoken to an audience. The president arranged with David C. Claypoole, editor and proprietor of the Daily American Advertiser to print his letter in the Philadelphia newspaper in September of 1796. As one reads Washington’s words in his Farewell Address, an adept reader may be astounded at how remarkably prophetic they are. Some of what Washington conveyed to his countrymen about the divisiveness of political parties reveals the president’s genuine wisdom:
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.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
President Washington expressed genuine concern in that “the alternate domination” of one political party over another, thereby allowing one party to enjoy temporary power over the government that would use it to obtain revenge on the other. He seriously felt that this tendency toward atrocities directed at the party out of power “…is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Washington understood what America would become if “a wise people” did not do their duty to discourage and restrain the over-zealous development of political parties.
Unfortunately, it may be too late to restrain the hunger for power evident in America’s political parties in this day; such power now seems entrenched as it has become evident that both major political parties have a hard time yielding to the will of the people.
The presidential election of 2016 had offered some hope as a “wise people” to have wised up, and the antics of the 2016 election have helped many a naïve American citizen awaken to the realities of what “We the People” have allowed over several decades as the two major political parties “ran the show.” Americans trusted the political process, but now realize the political system is broken – and it threatens the existence of the very nation Washington and those of the founding generation had fought so hard to create.
If enough Americans can awaken in this time, they may begin to realize that it is not just one political party that is the problem, it is both political parties that have led to the state of politics that allows an aristocratic political elite to ignore America’s founding principles and values. If enough Americans can awaken in this time, the nation may be able to avoid the “frightful despotism which can lead at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”