Why George Washington’s last message proves apposite to our own time.
After two terms as America’s first president, Washington bid farewell by publishing in a daily newspaper a long, heartfelt address, warning his countrymen about the forces that could threaten democracy. Editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast and former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, Avlon (Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, 2010, etc.) analyzes that address and other of Washington’s writings to create a vivid portrait of the struggles that marked the nation’s early years. Washington had been a reluctant first president, but his experiences as an army commander served him well as a peacetime strategist facing dissension among the prickly, squabbling members of his administration. Admired as a general, he was “pilloried” as president and saw the rise of opposing political parties, something the Founding Fathers had not foreseen. “There was an idealistic assumption among the founders,” writes the author, “that elected representatives would reason together as individuals.” Washington clearly saw the perils that the nation still faces: he believed that “partisan impulses needed to be restrained by a wise and vigilant citizenry” or risk the rise of demagogues. Liberal education was vital to an enlightened population who could participate responsibly in civic matters. He worried that self-interest and regional, rather than national, identity could lead to disunity. Citizens needed to recognize the benefits of a central government that provided “equal laws and equal protection.” That protection extended to religion, ensuring pluralism so that no sect would “degenerate into a political faction.” As for foreign policy, Washington advised independence but not isolationism. Avlon engagingly traces the afterlife of the address, showing how subsequent presidents cherry-picked ideas consistent with their own political views. He argues persuasively that the document deserves the serious reading that he offers. “Armed with a sense of perspective,” he writes, “we can take some comfort that our domestic divisions too shall pass.”
A thoughtful consideration of Washington’s wisdom that couldn’t be timelier.