George Washington tried to warn us

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Here it is, the day after Election Day. Maybe your party won, or lost, or, more likely, a little of both.

Does it really matter? If you listen to the rhetoric, in every election the fate of the entire civilized world is at stake. The other guys will destroy everything you hold dear if you let them win.

George Washington saw that coming. He tried to warn us in his farewell address, which is still read aloud in the U.S. Senate every year. Here’s an explanation of that tradition by Senator Tim Kaine, D-Virginia:

In Washington’s day there were no political parties. Most people felt allegiance to their states or geographical regions–North vs. South. In that sense, Washington foresaw the Civil War three score and five years later.

But the North vs. South argument reflected a deeper divide over the nature of the new republic. Some, like northerners John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, believed in a strong central government, or “federalism.” Others, like Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred more autonomy for the states. These two philosophies soon pitted the old friends against one another in parties they founded: Adams and Hamilton as Federalists, Jefferson and Madison as anti-federalist Democratic-Republicans.

While we currently view partisanship as inseparable from the American political process, in the early republic, most condemned parties as divisive, disruptive, and the tools of demagogues seeking power.5 “Factionalism,” as contemporaries called it, encouraged the electorate to vote based on party loyalty rather than the common good. Washington feared that partisanship would lead to a “spirit of revenge” in which party men would not govern for the good of the people, but only to obtain and maintain their grip on power. As a result, he warned Americans to guard against would-be despots who would use parties as “potent engines…to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”6
The greatest danger to the Union, though, stemmed from the combination of factionalism and external invasion. Washington explained that partisanship “open[ed] the door to foreign influence and corruption” because it weakened voters’ abilities to make reasoned and disinterested choices. Rather than choosing the best men for office, the people would base decisions on “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms,” and so elect those in league with foreign conspirators.

Shira Lurie, Ph.D., essay on “George Washington’s Farewell Address” at

Does that sound familiar? Even today, both sides make decisions based on ill-fated jealousies and false alarms. Both accuse their opponents of collusion with foreign conspirators.

Jefferson defeated Adams in his bid for a second term after a bitter, slanderous contest in 1800. Adams rode out of town in the middle of the night before the inauguration. The two never spoke for years, but reconciled at the end of their lives. Both died on the same day–the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

How did they come together in the end? By appealing to what they had in common rather than what separated them. The were both patriots and Founding Fathers–the last of their kind. As Washington put it, “friends and fellow citizens.”

That is what we must do today: Come together. Look for what we all have in common, rather than what divides us. I’ve said it here in reviewing two books about conflict. I’ve said it here in a message to my church. Freakonomics Radio said it here in its November 2, 2022 podcast “I’m Your Biggest Fan!” (It’s toward the end, listen to the whole thing.) Senator Kaine said it in the video above.

But the Father of our Country said it first. I’ll give him the last word.

Friends & Fellow Citizens:

This manuscript of George Washington’s 1796 farewell address is in the digital collections of the New York Public Library. [Farewell address, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.]

… 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.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It 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 part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

George Washington’s Farewell Address

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