Tag: george washington

Senate Reads and Ignores Washington’s Farewell Address

Today in the U.S. Senate, Johnny Isakson of Georgia read George Washington’s Farewell Address. Some senator has done so annually since 1896. It’s one of the crueler examples of our leaders celebrating political ideas that they ignore.

We should not adopt positions just because George Washington did. But if the Senate insists on reading a speech mostly about the evils of permanent alliances while almost universally supporting several such alliances, some senator should at least explain the irony.

We remember the address for arguing that confusing our interests with that of other nations would entangle us in foreign controversies, causing us to prepare for or fight wars remote from our interests and therefore to maintain an overgrown military establishment burdensome to economic growth and liberty at home. Almost forgotten is the speech’s furious denunciation of those “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens” that, by confusing other Americans about the difference between their interests and that of an ally, would:

Betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

I wonder how many of our senators realize that those are words Washington would likely have applied to them (albeit privately, as the address was given that way). This is, after all, a Senate that seems to agree with the secretary of state’s recent claim that our military alliances in Asia and Europe should be:

Embedded in the DNA of American foreign policy and not sort of beginning and ending in fits and starts. The engagement has to remain constant… We can’t allow this very big complex world that is so demanding to have the United States absent anywhere.

People are entitled to agree with that opinion, but they should do so without ritual evocation of traditional American ideas about foreign policy that it rejects.

Beyond Toleration: George Washington’s View of Liberty

Participants in various current controversies would do well to settle into a comfortable chair and ponder these words of George Washington, sent to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., 220 years ago today:

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

I am particularly struck by the third paragraph, which proclaims that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” – thoughts that both reflected and shaped the character of the new nation. Those words actually echo the congregation’s address to President Washington. But the preceding line is even more impressive:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.

That is, equal freedom under the law is not something extended by some as “toleration” of others. Rather, all people who “demean themselves as good citizens” are allowed the free “exercise of their inherent natural rights.” It took almost two centuries to fulfill that promise to Jews, to women, and especially to African Americans. And even today Muslim and gay Americans may wonder if they are still regarded as objects of toleration “by the indulgence of one class of people” rather than as full citizens entitled to “the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Let us continue to work toward George Washington’s dream of a world in which “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”