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  • Writer's pictureGina Greenlee, Author

George Washington’s 1796 Warning: The Threat to Democracy


George Washington

Washington’s Farewell Address, published at the end of his second term, stands today as a timeless warning about the forces that threaten American democracy.

George Washington warns against the formation of political parties. He cautions that political parties can lead to divisions and rivalries within the nation, undermining unity and causing conflict. Washington believed that political parties may prioritize their own interests over the welfare of the country as a whole, leading to the erosion of democratic principles.

 

“… in the course of time and things…cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion…”

Washington, never having been all that interested in being President, only took the job on the hope of being able to leave office at the end of his first term. His plan was to then enter an entirely private retirement, his service to his country fully rendered. To that end, he enlisted James Madison, chief drafter of the US Constitution, to help him prepare a farewell to the American people — one that might explain his decision while also serving as an articulation of principles by which he hoped the public might judge future candidates.

 

As the date approached, both Hamilton and Jefferson, the de facto leaders of the emerging Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, pleaded with Washington to stay on for a second term. They felt sure the still-fragile union would be torn apart without his centrist, above-the-fray leadership.

 

Washington begrudgingly consented. But as the sun of his second term began to set, he decided he wouldn’t allow himself to be retained again. He was tired, and it was no longer his fight. As such, he called in Hamilton to help him put final touches on that letter he’d consigned to a drawer four years earlier.

 

Excerpts from George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address


Constitution

“That name, American, must ever stir the just pride of patriotism within you more than that of any narrower association. With slight shades of difference, you have the same beliefs, manners, habits, and principles. You have fought together, and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the fruit of joint efforts, of common dangers, of shared sufferings — an inheritance purchased by the sacrifice of so many in their pursuit of a single destiny itself so much larger than any we could achieve by our several selves.


American Flag

“All parties, begun under whatever banner, that have as their real object control over the natural deliberation and action of elected authorities are destructive to this fundamental unity. They serve to make the will of the nation secondary to the will of the party, and not even the will of the party whole, but the will of the few at its head. They would have government bend to their alternating and selfish whims, at the cost of executing those plans produced by common counsel, designed for the public good, and modified by mutual interest alone.

 

“I warn you of the dangers of parties, especially those of geography. But let me also warn you, in the most solemn manner, of the destructive effects of the partisan spirit itself — which distracts, divides, and weakens; which agitates with invented jealousies and false alarms; which attracts riots and rebellions; which kindles hatred; which opens the door to the foreign influence and corruption that enter through party passions to the end of causing the policy and will of one country to become subject to that of another.


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“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.


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To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable…Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty…


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“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party….


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“… in the course of time and things…cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion…


American Flag

“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.


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“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.


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“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.


American Flag

“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. 

 

“You must promote, as a matter of supreme importance, institutions for the spread of knowledge. For as long as public opinion holds the reins of government, public opinion must be enlightened.

 

“Fixed sympathy for those we favor leads to the over-esteem of accidental traits, to the suspicions of one becoming the suspicions of many, to the distribution of privileges via unjust judgments, and, finally, to the spur of vengeance. The corrupted and the deluded even put these false loves ahead of their own country’s needs, masking their wickedness with the appearance of virtue, often to applause, when all underneath is infatuation and self-interest.


Washington's Farewell Address

“I ask you — Americans, my countrymen — to take these words as the counsels of an old and affectionate friend…in helping to tame the fury of the partisan spirit, reminding the hearer to be aware and on guard, especially against pretended patriotism. What I say here — these words of hope — are my best answers to my concern for your welfare, which has guided my pen and heart all along.”

 

 

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