George Washington on Liberty and Order

Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. He is the author of several books and is working at present on A Basic History of the United States to be published by Western Goals, Inc.

There are truths to which the passage of time and the gaining of new experience add luster and vitality. So it has been, for me at least, with those contained in Washington’s Farewell Address. With each new reading of it, I have been impressed anew with the relevance of so much that he had to say to our own time. Often, too, I discover some new theme or emphasis that I had not been aware of earlier. Undoubtedly, these different impressions arise in part from the richness of the material but also may be conditioned by my particular interests at a given time. At any rate, the theme of liberty and order stood out for me in my latest reading of the Farewell Address. It seemed to me that all the parts fitted together into a whole within the framework of this theme.

Before getting into that, however, it may be of some aid to place the address in a much broader historical frame. Some observations about liberty and order more generally will help to set the stage for his remarks.

Thoughtful men may differ about the desirability of liberty, but they rarely do about the necessity for order. Also, nations, kingdoms, and empires have differed much more over the extent of liberty within them than of the degree of order, over long periods of time anyway. They have ranged from the most compulsive tyrannies to ones in which considerable liberty prevails. By contrast, all governments are to a greater or lesser extent devoted to maintaining order. But there are great differences of belief, persuasion and practice as to how order is to be maintained and the proper role of government in doing so. It is the differences on this that largely determine the extent of liberty in a country.

There have been, and are, countries in which those in power believe that government must act to impose order in every nook and cranny of society. The active principle in this, if principle it be, is that if government does not impose order then disorder and chaos will prevail. Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher in the seventeenth century, expressed this view with clarity and force. He declared that if men were permitted to act according “to their particular judgments and particular appetites, they can expect thereby no defense, nor protection against a common enemy, nor against the injuries of one another.” There must be a power over them, he said, and the way to get that power is “to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills . . . unto one will . . . . For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is enabled to perform the wills of them all . . . .”

A view similar to this of what was necessary to order and how it could be achieved, as well as the role of government in it, was widespread in Europe in the seventeenth century. It was an age of royal absolutism, of claims about the Divine right of kings, and of the assertion of government power to direct the lives of peoples. England had an established church; no others were tolerated. All were required to attend its services, contribute to its support, and have most of the great events of life celebrated or recorded in it. The church officials censored publications, licensed schools, and kept watch over the doings of the people.


Economic life was circumscribed and controlled by the government under a system most commonly known as mercantilism. The government controlled exports and imports, gave subsidies, bounties, and grants to encourage certain undertakings, prohibited others, gave patents, charters, and other forms of monopolies to individuals and companies, enforced craft regulations, and maintained much power over the lands of the realm. Harsh penalties were imposed for every sort of offense from blasphemy to treason. Evidence abounded that government was making massive efforts to impose order. As for liberties, they had most commonly to be asserted against the grain of the prevailing system.

So, too, in the twentieth century, the dominant view of those in power in many lands is that government must impose an all- encompassing order upon the peoples under its sway. At its farthest reaches, this view achieves its fruition in the totalitarian state, with its direct control over all the media of communication, every aspect of the economy, over education, over such religion as is permitted, over work and over play.

In other lands, where this bent toward state-compelled order has been moderated thus far—has been kept from going so far—it evinces itself in government intervention in the economy, the thrust of regulation into many realms, in redistribution of the wealth, in controls over education, medicine, charity, and hundreds of other areas. The ideologies supporting this pervasive government power differ in many particular respects from those that supported seventeenth- century government power, but the notion that government must impose an order else chaos and disorder will prevail is common to both. Extensive liberty can hardly be reconciled with such compulsive orders.

That George Washington held a view on how to maintain order and the proper role of government in sharp contrast to those described above is manifest in his life and works. Moreover, a seismic change in outlook, both in England and America and over much of Europe, had taken place between the time when Hobbes had penned his Leviathan and the founding of the United States. A major aspect of that change was a shift from the emphasis upon a government order imposed on men toward individual liberty and responsibility. The shift sparked in many Americans an awareness of the danger of government both to liberty and to order. At the root of this shift was a different conception of the origin and nature of order.

Belief in a Natural Order

George Washington and his contemporaries were imbued with a strong belief in a natural order. Order, in their view, was not something that could be arbitrarily contrived and imposed by man. The foundations of order, they held, are in the frame of the universe, in the laws that govern it, in the nature of man and his faculty of reason, and in the principles of relationships by which constructive activities can take place. At best, men can only act in accord with and imitate the order that is given.

The belief in a natural law and natural order was not new to the eighteenth century, of course; it had been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans, at least. But it had come to the forefront in the century before the founding of the United States as a result both of vigorous efforts to revive it and of many scientific and philosophical formulations of it.

Newton had persuasively set forth in mathematical terms the laws governing the course of the heavenly bodies. Thinkers were getting impressive results in their searches for the laws and principles governing all sorts of relationships. What struck so many in that age was the idea of proportion, balance, harmony, and order resident in the natural tendencies of the world about them. Most marvelous of all, at ]east to many, this order was consonant with human liberty. Rather than frustrating man in the use of his faculties for his benefit (and for the commonweal as well), the natural order provided means for him to do so most effectively. The foundations of liberty in this belief in a natural order were in the natural rights doctrine.

In his Farewell Address, Washington did not expand upon or elaborate on the theme of liberty. Although the word “liberty” occurs several times in the document, it plays mainly a supportive role in what he has to say. The attachment to liberty is assumed, a given if you will, upon which to hinge his arguments. Washington said as much himself: “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.” But, he says, from first one angle then another, if you would have liberty you must support those things on which it depends.

For example, in recommending a united support for the general government, he declared: “This Government, the off-spring of our own choice, . . . adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, 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 support.” To clinch the argument, he says that these “are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.” In arguing against the involvement of Americans in foreign intrigues, he says that by doing so “they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty . . . .”

A Sense of Order

The word “liberty” occurs frequently throughout the address, but by my fairly careful count the word “order” occurs only once. Even that instance is insignificant, however, for the word is used in a phrase, as “in order to” do something or other. It occurs at one other point as part of the word “disorders,” which, while more significant, is hardly proof of a theme. Yet a sense of order pervades the whole document. It is there in the cadences of the sentences, in the matching of phrase with phrase, in the balance of one tendency against another, in the thrust toward discovering a common bond by piling up references to particular interests. It is clear, if one reads between the lines, that there is an order for men’s lives, an order for nations, an order for relations among nations, an order by which parts belong to a whole, and an order by which balance and harmony can be maintained. Government is not the origin of this order, but it is necessary to the maintenance of it, even as it is ever a potential threat to it. Government is made necessary by the bent in man to disrupt order.

The two main sources of disorder to which Washington alludes are these. First, there are those passions in men which incline them to pursue their own particular and partisan designs at the expense of the well-being of others. Washington called it the spirit of party, but we might understand it better as partisanship for causes. (He had in mind the dangers of this to the stability of government, but it does no violence to his idea to apply it to individuals as well as groups.) “This spirit,” he said, “unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind.” Among the dangers of these partisan passions, he declared, are these: “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 . . . . Thus the policy and will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”

The other source of disorder, to which Washington alludes, is “that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominates in the human heart . . . .” It is this power hunger which makes government dangerous, for it prompts those who govern to overstep the bounds of their authority. “The spirit of encroachment,” Washington pointed out, “tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.”

Advice and Counsel

The body of the Farewell Address is devoted to advice and counsel about how to conduct the government so as to maintain order and preserve liberty, and to warnings about holding in check those partisan tendencies and the bent toward consolidating power which endanger them. The following were his main points: (1) Maintain the union; (2) Keep the principles of the Constitution intact; (3) Preserve national independence; (4) Buttress policy and behavior with religion and morality; (5) Cherish the public credit; and (6) Follow peaceful policies toward all nations. These general principles are not nearly so revealing, however, as his particular recommendations and the arguments he used to support them.

The main device Washington employed to support his advice to maintain the union was to invoke those things the people had in common: the name American, their struggles for independence, their common beliefs, and their common interest. He surveyed the continent, from a mountaintop as it were, and ticked off how north and south, east and west, were bound together.

“The North,” he said, “in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common government, finds in the production of the latter great . . . resources of maritime and commercial enterprise and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South, in the same intercourse . . . sees its agriculture grow and commerce expand . . . . The East, in a like intercourse with the West, already finds . . . a valuable vent for the commodities which it brings from abroad or manufactures at home. The West derives from the East supplies requisite to its growth and comfort.” This was an economic order which had its roots in the diversities of the regions. Washington warned against the rise of factions seeking to use political power for partisan ends that might disrupt the union and disturb the existing order.

Preserve the Constitution

Washington’s concern for preserving the Constitution intact was motivated by the belief that a balance had been incorporated in it, a balance in which the national and state government checked one another, and the branches held one another in check. “The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power,” he declared, “by dividing and distributing it . . . has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern . . . .” “Liberty itself,” he pointed out, “will find in such a government with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian.” He warned against two things in particular. One was the “spirit of innovation upon its principles.” The other was “change by usurpation” of power. That was not to say that the Constitution was perfect as it stood in 1796. But if something needed correction, it should be “by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates.” No man or body of men should assume the power to do so, “for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”

Washington hoped that the United States would follow an independent course in world affairs, that it would lend its weight toward an order in which peace would be the norm, but that it would not become entangled with other nations in the quest for power and dominance. His distrust of government did not end at the water’s edge, for he believed that foreign governments would, if they could, use the United States for their own ends. He warned “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence”, for “(I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Underlying these fears was the belief that in the nature of things, in the natural order, each nation pursues its own interests. Hence, “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.” He cautioned against constant preference for one nation and opposition to others. “It is our true policy,” Washington said, “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world . . . .”

Religion and Morality

The first President had some other recommendations on foreign policy, but before discussing them, it would be best, as he did, to refer to the role of religion and morality. The belief in a natural order, the hope that the American political system had been shaped in accord with it, was not sufficient, in Washington’s opinion, to assure the working or continuation of order among men. Man is a creature of unruly passions, as already noted, and the necessary corrective to these is religion and morality.

“It is substantially true,” Washington commented, “that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” And, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness . . . . A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.” Moreover, “let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

These remarks preceded both his advice on public credit and on peaceful relations with other nations. On cherishing the public credit, he said: “One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible . . .” Washington expected that there would be occasions for extraordinary expenses, making war came to mind, when it might be necessary for the government to borrow money. But he warned against the “accumulation of debt,” declaring that the way to avoid this was “not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars have occasioned.” That way, it should be possible to avoid “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear.” Washington thought his countrymen might be the more inclined to follow these policies if they would keep in mind “that toward the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant . . . .” Not everyone may find the balanced formulations of eighteenth-century sentences pleasant, but it must be admitted that the logic in the above is impressive.

At any rate, the principles discussed in the above two paragraphs provided the framework for his recommendations for maintaining peaceful relations with other nations. To that end, Washington advised this: “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. And can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it.” Above all, “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.”

Any extended political connections—permanent alliances, for example—could only embroil the United States in the conflicts among other nations. Otherwise, “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing . . . .” That is surely the natural order for trade, and a plausible hope for peace to those who knew of, when they had not experienced, the devastating mercantile wars resulting from the use of force in national commerce.

A Farewell Message of Timeless Truths on Liberty and Order

George Washington reckoned that he had devoted the better part of forty-five years to the service of his country when he retired. He was an unabashed patriot, proud to be called an American, a sturdy friend of the union, and none knew better than he the struggles out of which the United States had been born. He was a man of his time, as are all mortal men, spoke in the phraseology of times past, yet in his Farewell Address he touched upon and elaborated some timeless truths. Further experience has served only to confirm the validity of many of his recommendations.

His thoughts on unity, on the love of power, on the impact of partisan strife, on the importance of focusing on our common interests, on avoiding entanglements with other nations, on religion and morality, on the public credit, and on freedom of trade have worn well when they have been observed, and have brought suffering by their neglect. The terror and tyranny of this century, the slave labor camps and barbed wired borders of nations with their fettered peoples prove once again that liberty depends upon order, and that if order is not founded upon and in accord with an underlying order it will tend to be nothing more than the will of the tyrant.