Today, every elected official across Orange County should take the time to read and reflect on the farewell message left to us by our nation’s first president, George Washington, just before he retired in 1796.
Already shocked by the divisions emerging in America after two terms in elective office, Washington called on his predecessors to think as leaders not partisans.
He had already seen and was critical of the sports-team approach to government inherent in political parties, writing “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.”
Washington also publicly relayed his fears that partisanship could fester authoritarian tendencies.
“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.”
His main fear about partisanship?
“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.”
His advice to future leaders?
“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 read Washington’s full letter to the American people, click here.
After reading the letter, every Orange County local official should ask themselves whether they are upholding the spirt of Washington’s high bar for public service.
Consider the basics.
Are city councils and the county board of supervisors really doing enough to ensure people can effectively interact, opine at public meetings?
Are local cities and the county protecting the people’s right to know, say for example, publishing public agendas for meetings ahead of the three-day minimum called for by state law?
Are cities and the county making sure to post relevant public records ahead of being asked to?
Is the public’s business really being conducted in the most open, transparent and efficient manner?
The idea of stopping to read, reflect Washington’s farewell letter isn’t novel or new.
It’s one of the most obscure but longest held traditions in American politics.
The U.S. Senate started the tradition in 1862, in the midst of the civil war, as a way to keep people focused on fundamentals.
By 1896, it was well on the way toward becoming one of the chamber’s most kept traditions.
Each year, a member of the Senate (the parties switch each year) will stand up and read Washington’s thoughts aloud.
Last year, Wisconsin’s Democratic Senator, Tammy Baldwin, read the address.
This year, just over week after the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman will read the address – although according to Senate schedule it won’t take place until Feb. 22 when senators are back in session.
I covered a host of these kinds of speeches back in 1996 when I covered the U.S. Senate (one of my favorite beats) for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C. And while they can easily be seen as formulaic, it’s clear that the senators who spoke Washington’s words were affected by them.
That year, the late Sen. Daniel Akaka, from Hawaii read the address, noting, “I am deeply honored and privileged to be an American, the first Senator of Native Hawaiian and Chinese descent chosen to read George Washington’s Farewell Address in observance of his birthday. Let us not forget his timeless words that remind us of the enduring democratic principles embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
Each Senator leaves such an inscription in Washington’s Farewell book, to commemorate a nation that doesn’t forget. For years, it used to just be a formal acknowledgment of having read the text in Senate session. Over time, senators left longer, more thoughtful notes.
“The past is prologue,” wrote Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in his 1957 notation. “Study the past.”
Given what’s been happening recently, I was struck by the message left in 1987 when the address was delivered by former Senator John McCain – my former boss when I worked as a Latin American analyst at the International Republican Institute, monitoring elections across the region with the National Endowment for Democracy in the early 1990s.
I saw Senator McCain stand up to more than a few bullies during the time I was honored to serve under his leadership at IRI, especially during the Mexican elections of 1994. And while I didn’t always agree with him on every issue or decision, he was a clear example of an elected official who took seriously his oath to preserve and protect liberty.
McCain’s note about reading Washington’s farewell really applies today.
“It is an honor and privilege for me, according to custom, to have conveyed George Washington’s Farewell address to the United States Senate and to the people of this nation. In this stressful time when once again the confidence of the people in their institutions is being severely threatened, I believe it is entirely fitting to reflect on General Washington’s emphasis on morality in government.
Closer adherence to his words is the surest path to a restored institution of the presidency and a renewal of faith of the American people in their system of government.”