A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character by Matthew Spalding and Patrick Garrity

An Indispensible Book for Learning More about the Workings of George Washington's Mind

Rowman & Littlefield • 1996 • 217 pages • $27.95

Of all the Founders, George Washington is the most famous, but arguably the least well known. Washington’s life is well chronicled, but when it comes to his thought, he is largely a mythic figure. People carefully study the writings of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, et al., but as for Washington, he is known almost entirely for his deeds—defeating Cornwallis, presiding over the Constitutional Convention, serving as the first president—rather than for his words. What did he believe?

A Sacred Union of Citizens by Matthew Spalding (director of lectures and educational programs at the Heritage Foundation) and Patrick Garrity (senior fellow at the Claremont Institute) helps to answer that question by focusing on Washington’s most famous writing, his Farewell Address. The authors have produced a lovely volume that sheds a great deal of light on Washington’s own character and his hopes for a national character that would emerge in his countrymen. There are many good biographies of Washington, but for a vision into the workings of his mind, this book is an excellent beginning point.

The book is structured around the Farewell Address, its history and meaning. Interestingly, Washington did not actually deliver the address; rather, he sent it to Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser, where it was published on September 19, 1796. The message was the culmination of Washington’s public life and in it he painstakingly expressed (the authors even discuss some of the material he deleted and reproduce part of the handwritten manuscript showing some excisions) his counsel to the nation he had done so much to create. In fact, the Farewell Address is a lot like Washington himself in that many people have heard of it, but few know much about it. Many politicians, for instance, can tell you that in it, Washington advised against foreign alliances and interference in the affairs of other nations, but would be hard-pressed to relate any other idea contained in the Farewell Address.

For their benefit, here is one. The problems of political parties and factionalism concerned Washington as much as did the dangers of foreign entanglements. In Paragraph 21 (the entire Address consists of 50 paragraphs) he writes, “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 perpetuated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” How very true.

Unfortunately, Washington did not immediately give a prescription for the avoidance of these evils, but elsewhere in the Farewell Address, Washington extolled the virtues of just minding one’s own business. If the character of most if not all of the people were to be formed around that simple maxim, people would turn away from the seduction of politics.

Washington also warned in the Farewell Address against allowing even the slightest weakening of the Constitution’s restraints upon governmental power, writing, “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.” Alas, many members of the Supreme Court have been willing to ignore Washington’s counsel, if they know of it at all. The Constitution’s limits on government power have been shredded, thanks to the arrogance of justices who thought that achieving what they regarded as socially good results was more important than preserving the Constitutional plan of limited government based on a few enumerated powers and many unyielding restrictions.

Readers who take up this book expecting to find unfailing Washingtonian support for minimalist government will, however, be disappointed. The authors note that he favored the establishment of a national university, for example, not seeing the long-run dangers of allowing the government to become active in the provision of education. He also favored a national bank and held an ambivalent attitude toward foreign trade, maintaining that the nation might develop better if the people produced more of their own goods. Bastiat came along half a century too late to have enlightened our First President on the folly of government involvement in any of these areas.

A Sacred Union of Citizens is an intriguing project, well executed. For Americans interested in learning more about the workings of George Washington’s mind, this book is indispensable.

Further Reading

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