Washington, War and Wisdom

This week, I assigned an excerpt of George Washington’s Farewell Address to my HIS 201 class.  I admit it had been a while since I’d read it so I reread it before I made their quiz.  Two of Washington’s statements really stuck out to me and I think they are quite applicable to the United States today.

Washington had decided not to run for a third term (a precedent that held until FDR became the US’s first president for life).  Washington’s main point in his farewell address was to encourage unity in the fledgling republic.  The ideological divide between the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians was moving toward the eventual creation of political parties.

Foreign policy  was also a point of division.  Relations with France and Britain were in constant flux and the people of the US found themselves divided over which they supported.  It’s this area of foreign policy that Washington addressed that caught my eye on rereading his farewell address.

“The nation prompted by ill will and resentment sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy,” Washington declared.  “The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject…The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations has been the victim”  It makes one wonder if Washington would have been as gung-ho on the “War on Terror” as most of our politicians have been over the past decade.  Something tells me that Washington would have issued a Letter of Marque against Osama bin Laden instead of making war on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (without a declaration of war).

“So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils,” Washington went on.  “Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”  In other words, having a “favorite nation” like, oh, I don’t know, maybe Israel, ties our foreign policy to theirs to the point that we serve their interests and not our own.

(Washington went on to say that “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have no, 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 and enmities.” Had the imperialists of Woodrow Wilson’s day heeded Washington’s words…well, I’ll not speculate on the sacrosanct notion of not making the world “safe for democracy” – whatever that means.)

Perhaps Washington’s farewell address should be required reading for any person elected to serve in the federal government.


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