It is as sad as it was inevitable; our two major political parties finally deteriorating into lethal enemy camps instead of bastions of competing ideas. We say lethal because our constitutional democracy really is at risk. George Washington dreaded the inevitable formation of political parties in the new nation. He knew exactly where political parties would lead.
Listen, carefully, to our first and best President. “The spirit of party 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 party against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. So, said George Washington 230 years ago in his farewell address to the nation he served so magnificently. He died at Mount Vernon three years later.
He was, in this respect, remarkably prescient for his time. Also, it is not inconsequential that the next six Presidents of the United States were all alive during the Washington presidency, and five of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams) knew Washington and worked with him. Andrew Jackson, our seventh President was only thirteen at the time of the American Revolution, but he enlisted in the army and was captured by the British forces. He was, therefore, the only American President to have been a prisoner of war. Suffice to say, Washington’s influence on the presidents and the presidencies that followed him was enormous.
Today, the administration of our government is largely enfeebled as Washington feared, and the animosity between the parties has probably never been greater. Our political parties are, of course, focused on power. Winning is everything. Fidelity to the party, too often, becomes far more important than fidelity to the nation. We need not point fingers at who is to blame. It doesn’t matter.
President Trump has made a horror of decorum, discretion and demagoguery. The presidents before him, including presidents Obama and Bush (43) were willing to deceive when it served their respective agendas. While George Washington would weep at what the Presidency has become under Trump, he also, no doubt, would be horrified at the enfeebling partisanship the Democrats have demonstrated from the outset of the Trump presidency. Washington, no doubt, also would be horrified by the blanket abuse of Executive Privilege practiced by President Trump, the doctrine Washington established during his second Administration with respect to peace negotiations with England and the Jay Treaty.
Probably nothing would have horrified President George Washington more than Trump’s vilification of the press in America. Contrary to what many Americans might assume today, a hostile press quickly developed during Washington’s presidency. The press, which grew mightily during Washington’s two administrations became merciless in its criticism of the new President, especially over the Jay Treaty. Even John Paine, whose inspiring writing Washington read to his forces at Valley Forge directed volley after volley of harsh (and unfair) criticism at America’s first President. Washington responded, powerfully, by not dignifying the criticism directed at him with any response at all, a precedent that his image-conscience successor, John Adams, unfortunately, failed to follow.
Everything Washington feared about the evolution of political parties in the new country has come to pass. Well, almost everything. We haven’t experienced party-directed riots or insurrection—yet.
Washington was a paragon of decorum and deportment. He did not aspire to the Presidency and was determined to retire following his second term. He enshrined in the new nation’s collective memory that he was a servant of the people and that in America the people were never the servant of the President. England’s King George could not believe his ears when he was told that Washington was retiring to his home at Mount Vernon after completing his second term as President; that he was voluntarily relinquishing power. Who had ever heard of such a thing at that time in history? “If that is true,” King George said, “then Washington would become the greatest man in the world.”
We don’t expect our current President or the leaders of our two major political parties to rise to the level of dignity that President Washington bequeathed to our nation over two hundred years ago. That level of selflessness and commitment to the ideals upon which our nation was founded seems long gone. We don’t see that kind of presence in either of the two parties or in either house of congress. There are no statesmen today who seem able to hold a candle to those who were present at the creation of this nation. None. We are all the losers.