On this day, September 19, 1796, American newspapers published George Washington's "Farewell Address." It was not actually a speech, but an open letter to America in the form of a speech. (American newspapers also serially published the essays in defense of the Constitution which are today known as "The Federalist Papers." American newspapers had different standards than they do today, as we will see shortly, perhaps because Americans today have different reading habits, if they read at all. But that's a chicken-and-egg question for another day.)
Washington's Farewell Address quickly became a basic political document for the new nation. It was reprinted as part of the membership paraphernalia of the Washington Benevolent Societies that sprang up after his death in 1799. It was printed in children's primers, engraved on watches, woven into tapestries and read annually before Congress. The Address received widespread fame and became a symbol of American republicanism, the nation's guiding political philosophy. It was used as a benchmark with which to judge the two-party political structure, foreign affairs, and national morality. It was regularly memorized and recited by American students.
There were three major themes in the address, all of them relevant to today's political scene.
First, Washington warned America "in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party." It
leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. 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.
The spirit of party dominates politics today, and as Washington predicted, it is leading to tyranny. Republicans tolerate socialism and mass-murder if it's committed by the right Party. Democrats denounce a war they would support if it were led by a member of their own Party. Christians won't vote for Ron Paul.
What should unite us instead of a political party, are "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" (to quote here the Declaration of Independence). Many in our day claim that Washington and the other Founding Fathers created a secular government. This is simply not true, and couldn't have possibly taken place in a country dominated by Christianity. Washington declared that the idea of a secular government is contrary to reason:
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 connexions 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.
Finally, Washington criticized our current foreign policy 200 years in advance:
The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible.
The policy was echoed by Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address (1801)
I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one] which ought to shape its administration,…peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.
The Address was invariably cited whenever an alliance was discussed. Not until 1949, with the signing of the treaty that established NATO, did the United States again enter into a military alliance. Then, continued violations of the Founders' policies characterized the federal government, notably alliances with Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan and aid to Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran.
As Washington D.C. continued to abandon the wisdom of its Founding Father, it was ironically appropriate that on this very same day in history, in 1995, the Washington Post chose to publish the "manifesto" of the "Unabomber."