Valedictory and Unheeded Lesson

From 1796, George Washington speaks to us today, through his Farewell Address (actually never spoken but rather printed), published 19 September of that year.  Easily available on-line, I finally read the whole thing in preparing to write this post.  It’s got some interesting things in it, some of which one would expect, but others of which were to me at least nothing less than astounding.

His first encomium and admonition were his comments about the blessings and indispensability of union to secure the new country’s independence and its people’s liberty, and the corresponding evils of sectionalism, party, and internal foreign influence.  But reading through his comments, and bearing in mind he was the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, this is what stuck out:  In multiple places Washington counsels against the pernicious seduction of disunion as being inimical to liberty.  The citizen is repeatedly warned to have no truck with those who would whisper in his ear that his region or his state would be better off alone.  Disunion is presented as the harbinger and handmaiden of liberty’s destruction.  But in no place at all does Washington say anything along the lines of, “And besides you can’t leave the union in any event.  Our union is indissoluble, eternal, and final; we’re all stuck here together, forever.”  Washington doesn’t come out and say that secession is permissible, but the whole bit about resisting the temptations of dissolution makes little sense unless you assume that it is possible in the first place.  I found that omission extremely curious, given how much space he devotes to advocating against disunion.  In point of fact he leaves it in the air.  Intentionally?  Who can tell, at this remove?  But recall how bitter were the debates over ratification.  Maybe there were questions that people sort of agreed weren’t to be asked or answered just yet.

All of which goes to demonstrate two things: (i) The Supreme Court is not in fact the highest arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning; there is another tribunal, and thank God we’ve only had to litigate there once.  It took us four years to try the issue, cost us millions upon millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dead, even more wounded and maimed, and like many actions left a lot of side issues unresolved.  But we did settle the fundamental nature of the union.  (ii)  The most important outcome of that trial was not slavery’s destruction, but the preservation of the Union.  If the issue had gone the other way then the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would have been dead letters from Day One.  Whatever was left of the country could have enacted any damned law it pleased and it wouldn’t have made a difference to those in bondage.  Washington was right: Only in union is liberty achievable.

Interesting as well are Washington’s warnings about piling up debt except in dire national emergency, and the need to pay it off ASAP so that we do not put off on our descendants the burdens we should have borne ourselves.  Even though the address has been read aloud annually in Congress, beginning in the 1860s and continuing (at least in the Senate) up until now, it doesn’t appear that many of the members of either house have been paying too much attention to that part, certainly not for the last 80 or so years.  I mean, it’s been over three years since we’ve even had a federal budget.

Nor does the judicial branch come off well from a close reading of the address.  Washington observes that the Constitution contains within it a specific mechanism for its own amendment, and that recourse should be had to that mechanism very sparingly, and only after lengthy deliberation. 

“Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. * * *  If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.”

The fundament of our liberty is not something to be tinkered with based upon the cogitations of the moment (what he would have done with the Supreme Court’s “evolving standards of decency,” “emanations,” and “penumbras” makes for amusing thinking), because speculative opinion is almost sure to be incorrect.  As have proven to be large amounts of the court’s ruminations and announcing their own prejudices as the law of the land.  For “usurpations” read “living document,” “substantive due process,” and similar expressions.

And of course the most devastating comparisons just naturally arise when you read Washington’s evaluation of his own qualifications for the office and character of service in it, and compare them with the un-self-conscious self-evaluation of the office’s present occupant.  To wit:

“The impressions with which I first undertook the arduous trust were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself[.]  * * *  Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”

The above was written by a man who had commanded troops in the wilderness (what’s not widely known is that the first shots of what became the Seven Years War were fired by American militiamen under Washington’s command in the wilds of trans-Appalachia against French troops), who’d been a surveyor, a planter, the field commander of the entire American war effort (at a time when there was no such thing as a $600 hammer), who’d chaired the Constitutional Convention, and who then had supervised the building of the first United States government.  The present feller has never held a real job in his life that anyone knows of, and to all appearances has got where he has through indulgences (academic records, anyone?) and lies [Either he was lying that he was born in Kenya in order to get into college and get himself published favorably, or he’s been lying to the American people that he was born in Hawaii; he’s made both statements repeatedly and publicly, and both cannot be correct.].  Before he was even elected, he modestly announced that his mere nomination was sufficient to cause the world’s oceans to recede and the planet itself to cool.  Under his superintendence the unemployment rate has remained above 8% for more months (consecutive, as it happens) than under his eleven predecessors combined.

What is also interesting, and in no small measure distressing to contemplate in light of where we have come to and the terms of our public debates, are Washington’s comments about the roles of public virtue and religion in the maintenance of a free and republican government:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. 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. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution 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.

“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

Go back and read what he has to say about oaths in court.  I remember a conversation I had in roughly 1998 or so.  This was shortly after Clinton had admitted to lying under oath about a certain blue dress.  We were assured by everyone from the NYT to NOW that it really didn’t matter that he was a confessed perjurer, because well, you know, those questions just weren’t really anyone’s business, and what does “is” mean after all and shut up.  I pointed out that once you abandon the notion that the oath a witness takes actually means he will tell the truth, then you may as well hang it up, because there is nothing at that point to separate you from the mess then prevailing in the former Soviet Union.  My interlocutor just wasn’t having it.  It didn’t matter; it was a side issue because it wasn’t any of our business and besides shut up.  And now we have the spectacle of the U.S. Attorney General lying to Congress about when he was briefed on an illegal gun-smuggling operation being run from the highest levels of the Dept. of Justice.  I’m just going to come right out and state that there is a straight line between those two data points.

In any event, Washington’s Farewell Address is a document that bears re-reading, frequently.


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