By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
”How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” –Dr. Samuel Johnson
This post, I am distressed to report, will be a little bit bifurcated, though perhaps I will have figured out how to put the two parts together by the time I reach the end. We recently had discussion (Anthony K Wikrent; Louiedog14) on the question of whether a good President must also be a good human. Since it seemed to me that surrendering power is almost certainly the act of a good man, I thought I would look at President George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796). However, there I discovered Washington had strong views on political parties, which is a topic that I am more or less continuously interested in, covering electoral politics as I do. Now, if the test of a good man is to be ignored by all those who claim to honor him (cf. Mark 14:72), then Washington is indeed a good man, and my problem is solved [brushes hands together]. Proceeding, however, I’ll first take a look at Washington the man, then briefly at the production of the Address, then at the Address itself, and conclude.
From the Naked Capitalism perspective of “fearless commentary on finance, economics, politics and power,” Washington is almost too good to be true. He was a land speculator, a slaveowner, and died a very wealthy person. And in North American at the time, there was rather a lot of land to speculate on, which Washington did quite successfully (no doubt being a surveyor helped):
In 1752 Washington made his first land purchase, 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, Virginia. This act inaugurated the second and more profitable phase of his cartographic career, in which he assumed the role of land speculator. Over the next half century Washington would continue to seek out, purchase, patent, and eventually settle numerous properties. His will, executed in 1800, lists 52,194 acres to be sold or distributed in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley. In addition to these properties, Washington also held title to lots in the Virginia cities of Winchester, Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), and Alexandria, and in the newly formed City of Washington.
When he was elected president in 1789, George Washington was one of the nation’s largest landowners. Most of his holdings were on the wrong (western) side of the Appalachian Mountains, though, and thus of dubious financial value.
Washington had been working to remedy that. In 1785, he had gotten the Virginia House of Delegates to charter the Patowmack Company to build canals and otherwise improve navigation on the waterway (you know it as the Potomac River) that Washington was convinced could eventually, with a short portage or two, link the Ohio River to the Atlantic. This connection would knit East and West together and make the country stronger, Washington believed. It would also, not entirely coincidentally, make both his Western landholdings and his home base at Mount Vernon on the Potomac more valuable.
I got this from Joel Achenbach’s “The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Rise of the West.” As The Washington Post reporter tells it, Washington was aware of the potential for conflict of interest in his endeavors. He hemmed and hawed before accepting Virginia legislators’ offer of shares in the Patowmack Company in 1785. Thomas Jefferson had advised against it, but Washington finally agreed with a promise to “turn the destination of the fund vested in me from my private emoluments, to objects of a public nature.” As president of the company in its early days, he accepted only a nominal salary.
Still, the effort mixed public and private interest in remarkable ways. In an effort to settle Maryland and Virginia’s competing claims to jurisdiction over the Potomac River, Washington set in motion a series of meetings that ended up leading to the Constitutional Convention, over which he presided.
He’s no angel! Washington was as slave owner. Historian Eric Foner describes Washington’s plantation:
Washington’s sprawling estate consisted of eight thousand acres. There were five separate farms where tobacco and grain were the main crops, each worked by slaves directed by a white manager. There were also woodlands teeming with game, experimental gardens, stables, shops for carpenters, blacksmiths and other craftsmen, and a mansion, where Washington and his wife lived, attended by slaves dressed in red and white livery.
Foner also describes how Washington “worked” his slaves:
Labour, of course, was the raison d’être of slavery, and Thompson devotes much attention to Washington’s efforts to create a disciplined workforce and to the ways slaves resisted his demands. He was ‘by no means an easy man to work for’. He insisted that slaves and hired workers adhere to his own highly demanding work ethic. ‘I expect my people,’ he wrote to one overseer, ‘will work from daybreaking until it is dusk,’ a regimen which in summer, as Thompson points out, meant a very long work day indeed. Every morning Washington went into the fields. He noticed when slaves were not at work and reprimanded them and the farm managers. Extremely concerned with his public reputation, he took pride in his own self-control. Those who knew him, however, were aware that he had a fierce temper. He was ‘tremendous in his wrath’, Jefferson recalled after Washington’s death, and slaves learned to steer clear when he was provoked.
From the speaker, I turn to the speech. (Actually, that’s not quite right. Not only did Hamilton and Madison contribute to early drafts of the Address, the speech was never delivered, but printed and distributed by Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser).
1) Washington declines to serve a third term
Friends and Citizens:
The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.
Lambert here: Again, I think that surrenduring power, and securing the prospect of orderly succession for future iterations of that new old thing, a Republic, is an unambiguously good act (presumably, therefore, enacted by a good human).
2) Washington stresses the advantages of the Union, and inveighs against parties
Every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole….
The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common government, finds in the productions of the latter great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South, in the same intercourse, benefiting by the agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand. … [And the same logic for East and West.]
Lambert here: Washington’s discussion of North and South erases slavery even more thoroughly than the Constitution did. Another way, after all, of saying “great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise” is “Southern slaves on Yankee bottoms” (= ships). Since, as Foner points out, Washington found slavery sufficiently dubious to free his slaves in his will, it seems strange that he would picture this “intercourse” between North and South as continuing “unrestrained,” without conflict, for the indefinite future.
Here we come to the first two mentions of parties:
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
Lambert here: On the one hand, we see “jealousies and heartburnings” today, along with all the other ill effects Washington mentions. The notion that parties “render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together” is quite modern; we call it “othering.” On the other, are we really to characterize the Abolitionists as “designing men” who “may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views”? If it took a party brought into being by Abolition to bring slavery to an end, doesn’t that make parties good?
3) Washington inveighs against party capture of government
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. …
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which 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.
Lambert here: Here again, we see the ill effects that Washington inveighs against (and from parties in general, not one or the other). However, it is not completely clear to me that Washington means by “party” what we mean today, after over 200 years of institutional evolution. Washington gave the Address in 1796, when Hamilton’s Federalist Party had only been in existence for seven years, and Jefferson and Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party four. What could really have been known about them, in that short a span? Here is a timeline:
To me, the distinctive competence, if you will, of the modern political party is its control over the ballot. I don’t see that in the descriptions I read of how the parties of Washington’s day operated. The press is just as appalling as ever (why?), but the party structures look a lot like what we would call Flex Nets to me. (I need to find a copy of Elkins and McKitrick’s The Age of Federalism to understand this period better.)
4) Washington inveighs against “the spirit of party”
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.
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.
Lambert here: Washington is very astute on “alternate domination,” which we see today, where electoral politics seems like nothing so much as an impacted mass of grudge matches. However, I’m mistrustful of “spiritual” explanations where material context is absent. Further, when you think of how carefully the checks and balances of the Constitution were constructed, it seems strange that parties were never considered in scope. Legislative, Executive, Judicial branches, but nothing on factions, let alone parties. If indeed partisanship culminates in the “ruin of public liberty” — which, after all, the Constitution was designed to preserve [pause for the usual caveats] — the omission of Constitutional provisions for parties seems like an enormous loophole. Then again, “The United States is also a one-party state, but with typical American extravagance, they have two of them,” as Julius Nyerere said.
5) Washington, isolationist
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. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
Lambert here: The contemporary relevance couldn’t be more obvious.
Schmoop (I love Schmoop) summarizes the tragedy of Washington’s Farewell Address as follows:
It’s a tale as old as time (minus the singing teapot): a wise person dispenses really good advice, and everyone says “thanks” but continues to do the thing they were just warned not to do. Then everything basically plays out exactly the way the wise person said it would.
Washington’s strictures against party were obsolete at the time they were spoken. As for “interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe,” well…. that battle was over by
1898 the Mexican-American War the Loiusiana Purchase…
It’s not clear to me that any human holding the power of a President can be good in any sense that those not in that position can ever understand; the power is too much, the pressures are too great, the information is too bad, and life is too short for most of us to become wise. (Am I correct in thinking that Roman custom demanded that a general, riding a chariot in his triumph, would have a slave whispering “Memento mori” in his ear? We don’t seem to have a lot of that, and we should have more). The same goes for any human with a net worth of $525 million.
So in what senses can Washington be considered a good man? Two, at least. First, he voluntarily surrendered power (threw the ring into Mount Doom, as it were, and with no Gollum to help). Second, with his views on the social and political effects of party, Washington made and shared an accurate and farseeing call; that argues for a balanced, even a stoic, mind and temperament. Obviously, Washington was a slaveholder, and so did great evil. Then again, as labor “was the raison d’être of slavery,” so too labor is the raison d’être of capital. So who among us has standing on that question? (Cf. 2 Sam 12:1-7.) How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of workers….
 Cf. Quintilian’s definition of an orator: “A good man speaking well.”