Admonitions From Washington Worth a Listen

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Apr 13, 2016 12:01 AM
Admonitions From Washington Worth a Listen

Had you been in Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 1796 and picked up a copy of the American Daily Advertiser, you would have discovered a remarkable statement -- not on the front page, but on the second.

It was from high-ranking and popular elected official who had no interest in keeping his office.

"Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary," he said, "I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it."

When this farewell address appeared in what was then the nation's capital city -- as the moment is described by biographer James Thomas Flexner in "Anguish and Farewell" -- President George Washington was already "in his carriage rolling towards home."

In those days, the prospect of life along the Potomac -- for Washington at least -- meant leaving political power behind not relentlessly pursuing it.

Now, 220 years later, the farewell admonitions that this great president formulated with the literary assistance and advice of fellow Founding Father Alexander Hamilton retain a remarkable timeliness.

Washington warned his countrymen not to run up the federal debt and force their grandchildren to pay it.

"As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit," he said, according to the text published by The Avalon Project.

"One method of preserving it," he said, "is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."

Washington warned those in public office that they must respect the constitutional limits on their power -- and warned of the consequences for the nation if they did not.

"It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another," he said. "The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.

"A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position," he said.

Washington also warned that liberty would be imperiled if America turned its back on religion.

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports," he said. "In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens."

"Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?" he said. "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

"It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government," he said. "The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"

Washington then warned against an uneducated and uninformed public.

"Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge," he said. "In proportion as the structure of a government give force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened."

Pay down the federal debt. Obey the constitutional limits on the federal government and each of its branches. Defend the moral and religious tradition that made this nation free in the first place. Be an educated and well-informed people.

These principles were on target more than two centuries ago. They remain on target today.