The duty of a wise people

George Washington captured my imagination and heart as a child, with his humility, his love for the land, his willingness to take on public duties when all he truly wanted to do was return to his farming at his home, Mount Vernon.  In the darkest days of the Revolutionary War,  his army in rags and struggling to survive a cold winter encamped at Valley Forge, PA from December 1778 to June 1779, General Washington, didn’t toss up his hands and say, “they don’t pay me enough to put up with this misery!”  He didn’t  pack up his gear and head south for the winter.  He suffered right beside his troops and spent many hours writing letters (excellent site here), often pleading for funds to arm, feed and clothe his ragtag army.  In those dark days, he still took the time to handle mundane and routine personal business matters, keep in touch with his wife and family, while dealing with some of the toughest challenges of leadership.  He tackled starting an army from scratch, with no experts and limited military experience, he forged ahead, always placing the highest importance on principles over expediency.   He paid attention to not only the big problems, but he made time to deal with the little problems too.   George Washington didn’t wait for someone else to solve his problems.

He had learned early in life to think for himself.  He didn’t have a fancy education or access to as many books as most ordinary public schools contain today.  What he did have was character honed by the strength of his convictions.  Early in life he copied out by hand (no cut and paste option back then)  “rules” to live by that had been used by Jesuit tutors for generations, as Richard Brookhiser explains in his book, “Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace” (here).   What is so lacking today is what George Washington used to guide his life- a belief in ideals.  There’s a quote that I had taped up from the time I was a teenager that helped guide me and to this day challenges me to never lose sight of the values I believe in, “Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands.  but like the seafaring man on the deserts of waters; you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.” – Carl Schurz.   George Washington helped me build my character, by setting an example worth following.  Some Jesuit teachings helped him find his.  Our children need to be taught to find some worthy ideals to emulate. George  Washington believed so much in our American future that when he finally did return home, he changed the orientation of his home from east to west, believing America’s future lay, not in it’s English past, but in the uncharted America that lay westward.  He inspired a fledgling nation then and he still inspires many of us today.

George Washington was so revered by the American people that, had he chosen to grasp those reins of power, he could easily have become America’s first “king”.  He reluctantly took on the first executive task to try and unite a new nation, serving two terms and then peacefully handing over power to another President, with very different political views and the leader of  a rival political party.  Washington never joined a party, but his views aligned with the Federalist Party.  In his farewell address (full text here), he warned of  the dangers of factions and partisan politics.  The entire speech runs well over 7,000 words and offers up memorable quotes on a wide range of issues vital to a free people committed to popular government and preserving our Republic. Every American should take the time to read this speech sometime.  Here are a few paragraphs on the danger of factions and political parties:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this 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.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. 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.”

We should listen to his wise counsel whispering to us on the winds of time.


Filed under American Character, American History, Food for Thought, Politics

7 responses to “The duty of a wise people

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