Victor Nuovo: Washington a towering figure
Editor’s note: This is the 23rd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
No narrative of the founding of this nation is complete that doesn’t take account of George Washington. Yet of all the founders, he is the most difficult to represent. As the historian Joseph Ellis has written, the trouble with Washington as a subject of history is that it is hard to find the man beneath the monument, which was being erected over him even while he was still living. In his most recent book, American Dialogue, Ellis sums up the historical problem succinctly: “There was a man named George Washington who walked the earth during the last two-thirds of the eighteenth century, but he has been transformed into an otherworldly demigod whose wisdom is silence”; and he concludes this with this remark: “There are no words on the Washington Monument.” Perhaps this is why accounts of the nation’s founding, focus on Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison as agents who promoted the main outlines of the American Republic while assigning Washington the passive role of presiding demigod.
But in fact not only did Washington have a well-considered idea of what this nation should become, but as the first President, he, perhaps more than any other, set it on its course, so much so that it can be said that, for better or for worse, much of what the United States has become is what he intended and worked for. What did he intend?
He intended that the United States of America should become a great continental power, continuing on its western expansion, and that, in this course of development, white Protestant Englishmen would displace the indigenous nations that had been settled here for millennia. He acknowledged that the land was originally theirs by right, and insisted that their displacement should be accomplished only through legal means: through purchase or through treaties carefully executed and faithfully observed, for he acknowledged that the indigenous peoples had constituted themselves into sovereign nations each with its own body of law and system of government, and that they deserved proper respect in keeping with the law of nations — the very idea of international law was relatively new, invented in Holland by Hugo Grotius during the previous century in his influential work, The Right of War and Peace. It served as a guide to the European settlers to North America.
Washington also foresaw that, as European settlers acquired more and more of the land and developed it for agriculture, an activity that he engaged in on a grand scale, thereby greatly enriching himself, the economic prospects of these indigenous peoples would decline with the loss of hunting grounds and the diminishment of wildlife. The remnant of native peoples would continue to live in their much diminished territories, and to survive they would have to change their mode of life and take up agriculture or animal husbandry and become acculturated to a European mode of life. This policy is best described as economic genocide, enforced by brutal acts of savagery.
When contemplating the European settlement of America and the western expansion, it is important to ask, “Who were the savages?” But I digress.
The dominant theme of the Farewell Address is the union of the states under the federal constitution. Washington depicts the union of states under one government, thereby making it one nation, as “the Palladium of [the people’s] political safety and prosperity,” endowing it with a religious, albeit nonsectarian quality. “Palladium” refers to Pallas Athena, the mother goddess of Athens, whose enormous statue presided over the citadel of classical Athens. The more perfect union brought about under the new Constitution, included a national name “American,” and a new identity for every citizen — a cultural identity “you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits and political Principles” and a “common cause.” The benefits that would derive from this union were not only political but also economic, for this new nation would not only increase in territory and fertile land also rich in resources, but in access to the sea; hence, it would become a leader in world commerce. Washington envisioned The United States as what it has become: an international economic powerhouse.
Washington’s Farewell Address was his valedictory. It included a defense of what he hoped would become his legacy, for it was under his direction that in accordance with the Constitution that the organization and practices of the federal government first took shape. He acknowledged that the government he celebrated was a government of the people and that its chief purpose was, in accordance with the Constitution, “to secure the blessing of liberty” for all the people, now and hereafter. But he was emphatic that in the enjoyment of liberty the people must make this government and its law a standard for all their future actions. “This government, the offspring of our own choice uninfluenced and unawed … completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its Laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.” Or again, “The very idea of the power and the right of the People to establish government presumes the duty of every Individual to obey the establishment of Government.”
Washington’s Address was not greeted with universal applause, hence another prominent theme in the Address was a warning against factions and party politics. What he warned against was already a reality. Jefferson regarded the Address as a Federalist tract, and he was not wrong. When he became president in 1800, Jefferson went about dismantling Federalist policies and institutions. But in his second term, he found it necessary to restore much of what he dismantled.
It has been noted that Washington did not write the Farewell Address by himself. He had two noteworthy collaborators: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In 1792, near the conclusion of his first presidential term, he planned to retire and had asked Madison to draft a valedictory. Circumstances brought a change of mind, and he served a second term. In 1796 he was firm in this decision. He had retained Madison’s draft, which became the first part of the Address, and he drafted a second part. He gave these to Hamilton to complete.
To suppose that the final product did not contain Washington’s thoughts and purposes would be a mistake. His genius was as an organizer and leader in war and peace. His achievements were extraordinary just because his modest sense of himself enabled him to rely on the exceptional talents of others to fulfill his own purposes. The Farewell Address is an expression of Washington’s administrative genius. He was the American Pericles.
The Farewell Address ended with a caution to avoid special relations or alliances with other nations. “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.” “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 connection as possible.” One of his legacies, for good or ill, is American nationalism.
Read Washington’s Farewell Address for yourself online here.
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