George Washington: ‘Citizens By Birth Or Choice’ Will Make America Great
Historian John Avlon on the First President's Farewell Address
John Avlon will appear at the February 7t House of SpeakEasy event “Failing Up,” alongside Janna Levin, Idra Novey, and Mitchell S. Jackson. Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, doors at 6pm. Buy tickets here.
John Avlon’s new book, Washington’s Farewell (Simon & Schuster), was a timely arrival last month. Elections always see a spike in public interest in presidential history. But last year’s vote was exceptional: none in recent history has thrown into such stark relief the past left behind and the potential hazards ahead. A well-reasoned, impeccably researched reminder of George Washington’s warning to the future would appear to be just the ticket. And the reading public confirmed it: after just eight days in stores, Washington’s Farewell was already in its third printing.
“In times of uncertainty,” Avlon told me this week, “with storm clouds all around us, I think people can find comfort and courage from studying history. After all, perspective is the thing we have least of in our politics, and now is the time to look for clarity and perspective in first principles and durable wisdom. That’s what Washington’s Farewell Address provides.”
The address, “a retirement notice that would change the world,” was published in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796, as Washington himself was on the road home to Mount Vernon at the end of two exhausting terms as president. Over the next two and a quarter centuries, it would inspire generations of Americans and, in different ways, each of Washington’s 44 successors. Long in the gestation, and bearing the fingerprints not only of POTUS 1.0 but also of Alexander Hamilton, the farewell is a clear-eyed, almost clairvoyant document. “It is that rarest of things,” Avlon says, “a memo written by the first founding father to future generations about the forces he felt could destroy our democratic republic: hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, and foreign wars.” Sound familiar? Yes, Avlon concedes: “His warnings are ripped from the headlines today, and by studying them we’re reminded how seriously we’ve got to take the challenges we face—while remembering that vigorous citizenship is the ultimate backstop in a self-governing society.”
Looking back, in setting the farewell in its proper context, Avlon reminds us that there is no “pre-partisan Eden” to be found in American history. In-fighting between the founding fathers was rife, with Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, by the latter’s admission, “daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.” But to focus too much on these disputes is to miss the point, argues Avlon. “To the extent that the bitter fights between the founding fathers are often used by partisans to excuse extreme behavior on their own side, that fundamentally misreads the real lesson, which is that the founding fathers regretted much of the bitterness and division that they indulged in. It was unwise and beneath their best selves.”
Interpreting the founding fathers’ words and deeds is of course fundamental to the American project; it’s unavoidable when dealing with a constitution. How should the task be approached? “We do ourselves a disservice when we make the founding fathers seem perfect and unapproachable. They were, of course, flawed human beings—that makes their wisdom much more accessible. Individual human nature doesn’t change much over the centuries, though cultural standards change, hopefully reflecting a fitful evolution to form a more perfect union. But it’s a mistake to judge the founding fathers through the cultural lens of our own time. We need to try to understand them in the context within which they lived. When I interviewed Lin-Manuel Miranda for the book—because the song “One Last Time,” from Hamilton, is solely about the Farewell Address—he spoke passionately about the idea that we need to embrace the contradictions—and in doing so we make the old stories new again. We don’t need to idolize the founding fathers beyond reason, but we do need to seek out enduring wisdom and remind ourselves that if we cut ourselves off from the wisdom of the past we remain willfully ignorant about history, and then we’ll be doomed to repeat it.”
Of course, Washington’s wisdom was not always recognized as such. It’s easy to forget, given the veneration accorded him by most sides today, but Washington was beset throughout his presidency by criticism from all comers. His opponents even raised toasts to his “speedy death.” “One of my favorite chapters in the book is titled ‘Hating George Washington,'” says Avlon. “It’s a reminder that even though we often put George Washington on a pedestal and see him as fundamentally above the partisan fray and political criticism, he was attacked in often overheated and sometimes unhinged terms. And that offers, I think, a helpful reality check. Whenever we might feel wounded in the political arena, it’s helpful to remember that even George Washington had to confront his ‘haters.’ But his character, moderation, and virtue ultimately carried the day.”
It was these attributes that Washington put to use in the crafting of the farewell, distilling his unique experience into a mere 6,000 words that he hoped would reflect “a plain style,” that they may be “handed to the public in an honest, unaffected, simple garb.” Despite the mixed feelings he engendered, it was well received, with one publication recommending that its readers preserve that week’s paper “as a choice legacy of experience, wisdom, and patriotism” that may be “transmitted as an inheritance to our children.”
Avlon describes how this has happened, through public recitals, generations of public-school teaching, and periodic revivals by Washington’s successors. More recently, he concedes, it has “faded from the frontal lobe of American politics,” replaced by shorter set pieces like the Gettysburg Address and soundbites half remembered from Kennedy’s inaugural. But that may be about to change. Historians’ ears across the nation pricked up on January 10 when, in his own valedictory address, President Obama quoted Washington’s Farewell and echoed his calls for an end to divisive partisanship and the rejection of “‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.”
Avlon was watching. “President Obama extended the idea of the ‘warning from a parting friend’ that George Washington established with his own Farewell Address. Obama’s ‘warning’ was about threats to our democracy—a reminder that we can’t take our gains for granted. That they need to be secured and expanded by each generation. But some of his remedies were very similar to those advanced by George Washington. Particularly, President Obama advocated vigorous citizenship as the backstop for self-governing people. Both men recognized there was no substitute in a self-governing society for vigorous citizens taking responsibility for the direction of their nation. That wasn’t simply the job of rulers, but average people, to stay engaged. Both Washington and Obama expressed passionate belief in the idea that our independence as a nation is inseparable from our interdependence as a people. That has been the secret of our success as a nation founded on an idea that is open to all who wish to seek it—as Washington said, ‘Citizens by birth or choice.'”
The recent transition (indeed much of the last election cycle) has reaffirmed the existence of many other political beliefs and trends that Avlon finds nascent in the late 18th century. “In researching Washington’s Farewell, it was fascinating to find that the basic fault lines of American political debates have remained remarkably consistent, while they parade under different party names at different times. Even going back to the Constitutional Convention, you had a collection of people who argued for national unity, and a strong and energetic central government. These people tended to be from urban areas. But they squared off against people from more rural areas, who identify primarily with states’ rights and feared the encroaching power of the federal government that seemed to be crowding out their way of life. Both sides thought they were fighting for freedom. Washington attempted to reconcile the two. All of which is to say that the red-state/blue-state divide we sometimes obsess over is not new, and in fact the deeper divides are urban versus rural. Those were reflected in Hamilton and Jefferson’s debates, and they exist today. We’ll probably not ever be able to entirely transcend them, but if we consciously try to bridge those divides we can heal much, if not all, the polarization in our country. If we exacerbate those divides, we’ll see further trouble in our future—but nothing compared to the Civil War we suffered only 90 years after America’s independence.”
Besides internal divides, Washington was also deeply concerned about “the danger of foreign influence on our democracy”. I wonder if current affairs, as they unfolded over the course of 2016, affected Avlon’s thinking as he was writing Washington’s Farewell. “In ways that I couldn’t have anticipated, when I was writing the book, Washington’s warnings about the dangers of foreign powers trying to interfere with and influence domestic politics to subvert our sovereignty has taken on new urgency. Vladimir Putin didn’t invent this playbook all by himself. Washington understood that this was a way that democratic republics have fallen in the past. While I think public opinion is beginning to consolidate around still emerging facts about the extent to which Russian hacks and the spread of fake news influenced the election outcome, there’s no question that the election results were a stark reminder that we do depend on enlightened opinion in democracies—and that means we need to elevate civic education. People need to go out to vote and participate in our political process. Self-government is our collective and individual responsibility. It can’t be passed off or ignored—or, if we do, we run the danger of amusing ourselves to death.”
But general enlightenment has rarely seemed further off. With knowledge and facts now routinely brought into ontological dispute, how might those charged with guarding the public record help us get back on track? “Partisan newspapers were a painful fact of life in Washington’s time. They drove political divisions and wounded Washington in deeply personal terms. Which is to say that partisan news has been with us in some form for a long time – but it has become institutionalized in different ways because of the fragmentation of the media and the rise of the Internet, which has allowed people to self-segregate into separate political realities. We need to push back on these trends by restoring the media’s reputation for independent journalism delivered without fear or favor. That means being willing to hit both sides but it also means insisting on a fact-based debate. We all need to remember the wisdom once expressed by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.’ And we need to work, perhaps even a bit harder, to make the important stories interesting.”
This chimes with Avlon’s editorial policy at the Daily Beast, which he has helmed since 2013. “I’ve always described our political point of view as ‘non-partisan but not neutral’. That means that we’ll hit both sides as the facts demand, without descending into the swamp of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ moral relativism. We have a readership of well over a million readers a day. It’s fair to say that many of our readers come from more urban areas. And we’ve always made it a point to avoid a trap of predictability. For example, having a roster of columnists that run the gambit between liberal and libertarian. When I get a chance to write my own columns, and in my own commentary to CNN, I’ll often invoke history because it does impose a sense of perspective on our politics. That’s valuable, especially at a time when there is an attempt to unmoor us from many of our best traditions.”
This impulse to moderation, to the calm presentation of differing views, is not exactly emulated across the board. Cool-headed reportage is in short supply, and it seems to be part of the problem. The way things are is not reflected in the public mood. “Donald Trump will be giving his first State of the Union address at the end of this month,” Avlon points out, “and by any measure, the State of our Nation is divided and dispirited, lurching between fear and anger. What’s frustrating is, by almost every measure, President Obama’s two terms left us far better off than we were when he inherited the Oval Office, during the depths of the fiscal crisis. But despite the fact of an economic recovery, Donald Trump was able to do something out of character in the American presidential elections. Remember, demagogues usually do well in economic downturns. It’s rare to have a demagogic campaign succeed during a period of recovery. But the recovery was unequally dispersed, and Trump was able to play into the anger and resentment of many white working-class voters. Normally, of course, a president would seek to unite the nation, to reach out beyond his base. But with the lowest approval ratings ever for a newly elected president, Donald Trump seems determined to compound the problem by relying on the demagogue’s playbook and continuing to divide the world into ‘us against them.'”
The hazard inherent in such an approach is largely just potential at this stage. There’s still time, I suggest, for President Trump to pick up a copy of Washington’s Farewell.
“One of the reasons it continues to resonate is that there are aspects of its wisdom you can connect with, liberals and conservatives alike,” Avlon says. “Lyndon Johnson used to love to quote his warning about the importance of education. Ronald Reagan loved quoting from Washington’s advocacy of religious pluralism, and the importance of virtue and morality to a self-governing people. But I think the most urgent issue of our time is the poisonous hyper-partisanship that has artificially polarized the nation and led us to where we are today. I’d recommend that Donald Trump start reciting Washington’s warnings against hyper-partisanship on a regular basis. President Trump apparently does not read books, so perhaps we’ll have to get him the audio version. But however the idea is ingested, the wisdom still holds.”