We are living through a civic stress test on the system the Founding Fathers gave us.
In his farewell address, written and published in Philadelphia in September 1796, George Washington warned about the forces he feared could destroy our democratic republic.
He based his warnings on a half a century of public service amid war and peace, working with the greatest team of ghost writers in history — James Madison and Alexander Hamilton — drawing upon lessons from the ancient Greek and Roman republics which had fallen before.
Only two decades after the Declaration of Independence, the success of the American experiment was far from certain. Washington focused on three dangerous dynamics that had doomed democracies in the past: hyper partisanship, excessive debt, and foreign wars.
We continue to play with these forces at our peril.
Hyper partisanship is perhaps the most self-evident danger we face today. George Washington was an independent president — he was not a member of any party as a matter of principle. He wanted to operate as an executive beyond partisan interests, focusing solely on the national interest.
While he recognized with dismay that his most talented surrogate sons in his cabinet were scheming to create political parties against his wishes, he recognized that it was the duty of the wise people to restrain their rampant self-interest and rapacious pursuit of power.
Washington saw danger from political parties that were divided along regional lines, recognizing that those divisions could spark a civil war. But history taught him that polarized parties could create divided and dysfunctional democracy that in turn would make citizens so frustrated with the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government that it could open the door to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions.
Likewise, Washington recognized that excessive debt was a force that toppled empires. He recommended that we “cherish public credit” and pay off our debts expeditiously so as “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Today, serious efforts to restrain the deficit and debt have all but been abandoned by both parties.
The dangers of foreign wars and foreign entanglements were very much on Washington’s mind. He understood that one of America’s greatest strengths was in the simple fact of geography: We were isolated from European wars by an ocean and should take advantage of that peculiar position to strengthen both economically and militarily so that we could take our place as an independent nation on the world stage. This was not an endorsement of isolationism, as some would later claim: it was a foreign policy of independence.
Washington was also fixated on the dangers of foreign powers trying to influence our domestic debates and interfere with our democratic elections. At the time, the danger came from revolutionary France which deployed agents to try to undermine his administration for pursuing a policy of neutrality between England and France. But the recent revelations about Russian’s attempt to influence our own presidential election reminds us that America is not immune from the larger cycles of history.
At a time when dishonesty, divisiveness, and demagoguery has metastasized in our body politic; when rampant deficits and debt are campaigned upon but never reduced once power has been achieved; when America’s longest war continues with no end in sight and foreign powers have tried to influence our election, the backstop that Washington believed in must kick in. That is us — We The People.
The deeper truth Washington understood was that our independence as a nation was inseparable from our interdependence as a people. That remains the case.
Many of Washington’s solutions to the problems he identified retain their relevance. He called for unity among “citizens by birth or choice,” identified political moderation as a great source of strength, advocated religious pluralism, and recognized that education is essential to achieve the “enlightened opinion” that a self-governing society depends upon.
Now it is time for a new generation of Washingtonians to put country over party, to value the virtues of a strong and inclusive government, guided by a belief in political moderation while balancing individual liberty and generational responsibility.
These are the first principles we can build on to emerge from this period stronger as a result of all we have experienced, defining common ground and rediscovering a sense of common purpose, determined to not take our republic for granted, and to hand it to the next generation better than it’s been handed to us.
John Avlon, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, discuss his book “Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations” at noon Wednesday at the National Constitution Center. To register, visit www.constitutioncenter.org/debate or call 215-409-6700.