George Washington is one of those historical figures about whom it is easy to find reasons to admire. Perhaps the foremost two that spring to mind are his successful leadership of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and his tenure as our country's first president. As children I'm sure we all grow up admiring him, given his preeminence among our founding fathers. No doubt we all remember the fable of him as a child himself, boldly admitting to cutting down a cherry tree rather than tell a lie. For me though, my deep and profound respect for the man comes from the recognition of the fact that he was able to do what very few people in history have done in his position. It is a feat which is based in historical fact and I think is so monumental that it completely justifies any myth of his legendary character. I am speaking of his refusal of absolute power in the service of the birth of our nation.
Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, many of the officers and men of the Continental Army had yet to receive much of the pay promised to them by Congress. In May of 1782 a letter was sent to Washington by Colonel Lewis Nicola who proposed resolving the situation by having the army support his appointment as King of the United States. Naturally Washington reacted very strongly against this suggestion, refusing a mantle offered to other important men of history such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, who accepted it, and ultimately lead themselves to their own ruin. I mention this not only because I believe it earns him a position of prominence in the pantheon of historical figures, but to establish his exceptional integrity and single-minded devotion to the upright establishment and survival of the United States of America.
Over the course of his presidency, George Washington was keenly aware that as the first President of the United States, his every action would be precedents for his successors. Despite the widespread demand that he serve a third term he retired from the office after serving only two, thus establishing a peaceful transfer of power that exists in the Executive Branch of our government to this day. At this time, the two-party system was beginning to emerge. There was the Federalist Party, associated with John Adams, and the Democratic Republican Party, or anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson. Many of the differences between the two parties would be formed over the course of the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, and when Washington left office in 1797 they had become a potent force in the new America's politics. In these parties George Washington foresaw a danger to the new republic for which he fought, one he warned the country against in his farewell address:
"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."
Given the current state of affairs in our country, with party politics they way they are and the manner in which they affect our government; the accuracy of these passages that were delivered over two hundred and ten years ago is so profound that to me they border on prophecy. Look back over the last few election cycles and you can easily see our community having been agitated with poorly grounded jealousies. Although not having taken us to the point of riot and insurrection, yet, our political parties have most certainly kindled the animosity of one part toward another. Indeed, do we not now refer to ourselves as being a nation of blue states and red states?
I do not wish to promote the notion that just because one is involved with a political party it necessarily follows that they must be prone to corruption, or cannot be good public servants. Over the course of our history we have been fortunate enough to have had many fine statesmen from both parties serve us with both diligence and honor. Yet when you consider the never-ending cacophony of partisanship coming from the twenty four-hour news cycle, talk radio, and the internet coupled with the vast, potentially limitless sums of money that can be raised by either party from anonymous donors, even potentially by foreign governments; one has to wonder that if, particularly now, the two parties are more focused on securing their own power rather than furthering the best interests of the country.
I understand that when one believes a cause is just it is natural to want to see its goals carried to fruition. The question that must be asked is how far does one go in this pursuit? What is the maximum price willing to be paid in its fulfillment? There is no doubt that in pushing their respective agendas, both Democrats and Republicans do believe they have the best interests of the country at heart and in theory there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately though both sides have become so single-minded in the quest for power that it seems they are willing to sacrifice a functioning republic that promotes the general welfare for a dysfunctional one that, even in only a small measure, satisfies their rigid ideals. Put simply, the Democrat and Republican parties see themselves as enemies whose sole purpose is to destroy the other and to employ every possible advantage in doing so. If it means an unlimited, unregulated amount of money may be spent to influence our elections and legislative process to the detriment of us all then so be it. If it means that perfectly good legislation is killed in Congress by poison pill amendments for the sole purpose of securing political advantage, then again so be it. In these ways and others, both parties have served to, as George Washington put it: "distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration".
The solution to this problem is not the abolition of political parties. This is not something that Washington was advocating in his address. He said party spirit should be discouraged and restrained, not eliminated. I think his point was that even though people will always coalesce around certain ideals there comes a time when the passion for those ideals is counterproductive. Believe it or not, there are some genuinely good ideas that have germinated from both political parties, but because of the antagonism between the two they will never see the light of day. If our country is to see real solutions to our problems and continued prosperity this antagonism must end. Political jockeying has its place, but it must stop when mutual concern is involved.
If George Washington were to see the political landscape with which we contend today, then based on his final address I do not think he would be at all surprised. Although he may have predicted this present, his advice to restrain the passions of our political parties is certainly easier said than done. Yet in addition to his wisdom he also left his example. One that we, citizen and public servant alike, would do well to follow. He marshaled a fledgling army against the superpower of his day, refused absolute power over a new nation, and always put the well-being of his country first. We should endeavor to do the same and think of ourselves not as dogmatically inflexible Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans, first and always.
About The Author:
Jim Paquette lives in Indiana with his wife and two kids. He writes about politics, religion, movies, and television on his blog: jimdom.NET ( http://www.jimdom.net ).