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George Washington warned us

Painting depicts Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware

Painting depicts Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware River in December 1776 as part of a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War against the  British. Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

George Washington’s birthday will be celebrated by a reading of his Farewell Address on the floor of the U.S. Senate this month. This happens every year. Unfortunately, as in the past, there will be few, if any, senators in attendance.

In his letter to the nation, written largely by Alexander Hamilton, Washington warned about foreign interference with our democracy and denounced those “tools and dupes” who would assist foreign nations in subverting American interests. “How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils?” Our first president would be scandalized to know that a foreign power succeeded in doing all of those things during our 2016 elections. He would be even more scandalized to know that one of his successors urged just such foreign interference.

Our first president also warned us about our political parties which, he felt, could use partisanship as “potent engines … to subvert the power of the people.” He felt that political parties allowed “a small but artful and enterprising minority” to “put in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of the party.” He feared that political parties might encourage the populace “to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual” who would use this power “to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.” He feared the demagogue who would one day say to a nation that they were “in peril” and that: “Only I can fix it.”

He also feared that after a partisan election there would be a “spirit of revenge” where the victorious party would seek to punish those who lost the election. George Washington could not predict the call for an unsuccessful candidate to be “locked up” or for the renewed passion to revisit matters investigated and disposed of long ago in order to punish the “loser,” but he rightly noted and warned us that this kind of behavior was done in “different ages and countries” where it led to “a more formal and permanent despotism.”

Our senators would also be reminded that they should not cede their legislative power to the executive branch as they have.  Appropriations and budgetary concerns fall within the powers of Congress, not the president. Washington spoke of “the necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing” that power. He cautioned that altering the separation of powers and allowing the usurpation of power by a single branch “is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” He warned that, “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.”

As important as was his entire address, no issue was more important to Washington than his recognition that the greatest threat to our county was not external forces, but internal division. He passionately urged that we all should “cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment” to our nation resisting “every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link us together.” It was for this reason that the first time George  Washington’s Farewell Address was read in the halls of Congress was amid the Civil War.

Every day we are confronted by the fundamental reality that the so-called “base” of our political parties has among it some unsavory characters who mouth divisive and untruthful rhetoric and mischaracterizations. We seem to be killing the middle as each party moves closer to its base and the more extreme views become closer to being accepted — immoderate people on both left and right have an outsized voice. Our leaders have to work harder to find a middle ground.

The outer fringes are empowered when we call each other names, and our leaders cater to their political bases rather than govern. If you pay close attention and listen carefully, you will find both sides are complicit and that Washington’s advice is as relevant today as it was some 220 years ago.

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.

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