While it now may seem quite conventional that George Washington decided to leave the White House after two terms in office, it’s important to remember that when he assumed the presidency in 1789 there was no convention for him to draw upon. The twenty-second amendment, which set the familiar two-term limit, was not to be ratified until 1951, and as the nation’s first president it was largely up to him to define the scope and set the limitations of the office (as the Framers of the Constitution intended). In all likelihood Washington could have continued to successfully run for president for the rest of his life. In spite of the difficulties of his second term he was still extraordinarily popular, almost to the point of deification. That he chose not to, and voluntarily stepped down from one of the most powerful political offices in the history of the modern world, demonstrates once again the man’s prudence and dedication to republican principles.
And it’s this I want to discuss for the moment: Washington’s republican principles. In particular, I want to look at how his Farwell Address invokes them as a justification for stepping down, and what they say about Washington’s view of public service.
The Address, which in its unabridged form is divided into 51 paragraphs or sections, begins with a fairly lengthy explanation of its author’s intention to leave the presidency behind. In it, Washington explains that his greatest desire had always been to withdraw to private life and spend the rest of his days as a humble citizen. This desire was scotched by his call to the presidency in 1789, and again in 1792. Though on both occasions he was willing to bow to the public will, by 1796 he had determined that the nation was no longer in need of him, and that in light of his years of service his countrymen would be willing to indulge his wish for a peaceful retirement. In itself, this is not a particularly unusual sentiment; after long years of service, a man desires rest. What is of interest, however, are the terms that Washington uses to describe his time in office.
At various points, he refers to the presidency as an “important trust,” an “arduous trust,” and a “uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty.” He also states his desire to “return to that retirement from which [he] had been reluctantly drawn,” and expresses with humility his belief that he had “contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgement was capable.” Rather than view the office of president as a privilege or an opportunity, Washington seemed to look upon it was a trust or a duty, to which one might be called but should not aspire. While toady it might seem strange for an American president to refer to their office as a burden, or confess doubts as to their ability to carry it out, it was perfectly in keeping for an 18th-century gentleman like Washington to do so. This has to do mainly with his status as a proponent of classical republicanism.
A word about that.
An extremely popular political philosophy during the Enlightenment, classical republicanism drew on the examples of the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic, in which a multitude of political offices were held by members of different social orders. The powers held by these offices checked and balanced each-other, thereby imparting a sense of stability. In its 18th-century form, classical republicanism was predicated on the notion that a) the best form of government was the republic, and b) a lasting republic was one that was built on the ideals of public service, virtue, and mixed government. In such a state it was felt that high positions of power were best held by members of the aristocracy. As men of affluence and education, not only where they best suited to handle affairs of state, but the privileges they enjoyed carried with them a social obligation to sacrifice a portion of their time, effort, and even wealth, in service to the public good. This kind of social responsibility required a gentleman to be honest, forthright, and virtuous, and to resist the numberless opportunities for personal enrichment that high office often presented.
As a man of wealth and privilege himself, classical republicanism was an important part of the gentlemanly code of conduct to which Washington, and men like him, aspired. In numerous instances over the course of his life, his dedication to duty and rejection of tyranny led him to accept offers of leadership for a time, only to put them aside once he felt his responsibilities had been fulfilled. The presidency was yet another of these offers of leadership, and it should come as no surprise that Washington’s Farewell Address is rife with sober republican advice and numerous examples of his principled view of public service.
a) At the end of section 13, Washington cautions against the growth of a large military establishment in the United States, armies being traditionally viewed as a threat to liberty. This belief has its origins in the ancient republics Greece and Rome, wherein armies were raised only during wartime, and were composed of citizens fighting to protect their homes, rather than professional soldiers fighting for money
b) In section 19, he gives a general endorsement of balanced government, stating that, “It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.” Again he alludes to the example of the ancient republics, who sought to balance freedom with security, stability and social order
c) Section 22 contains a warning against the excesses of factionalism, and the inevitable emergence of dictators and tyrants out of the chaos of inter-party conflict. As with Caesar in Rome, Washington fears that the excessive and violent partisan struggles going on in the United States will push people to look for security in the “absolute power of an individual,” at the expense of their liberty
d) In section 26, Washington argues that a strict separation of powers in a republic is necessary for the protection and promotion of the common good. Power, he claims, is best exercised by, “dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the Guardian of the Public Weal against invasions by the others.” This idea, instrumental to the American system of government, is an echo of the Roman Republic, wherein power was divided amongst a large number of offices as a means of preventing authority from being concentrated
These are all, I think, reasonable points to make. And I’m sure that they resonated with many of the people who read them, who saw in the United States a continuation, or even a perfection, of the republics of antiquity. For them, and for Washington, government functioned best when authority was carefully delineated, when different social orders knew their place, when factionalism was kept to a minimum, and when power was exercised mainly by independently wealthy, publicly-minded gentlemen. This ethos had served Washington throughout his professional life, made him one of the most popular men in America, and helped him to weather an at-times stormy presidency. And at its centre was the notion of public service; that high political office was not meant to be an opportunity for already wealthy men to become wealthier, but a chance for them to give back to the society that made their prosperity possible.
It’s worth noting, however, that the America that Washington was addressing in 1796 was rapidly being transformed from an agrarian, agricultural, socially static society into one that was upwardly-mobile, acquisitive, and at times aggressively egalitarian. This new America, the America of the 19th century, placed greater emphasis on wealth as a measure of social standing (money being less a matter of birth and education, and more a consequence of opportunity and hard work), and began to actively condemn gentlemanly pretensions as un-democratic. Though he continued to be venerated long after his retirement and eventual death in 1799, a man with George Washington’s particular convictions would no doubt have found it difficult to achieve the political success he enjoyed in his lifetime amidst this emerging status quo.
And I don’t suppose there’s anything the matter with that. The United States of America cannot be, always and forever, what its founders intended. It must, of necessity, shift and change in order to suit the needs of succeeding generations. The country that Washington presided over at the end of the 18th century was, for all its novelty, the product of a well-defined social order, and of the efforts of men with gentlemanly pretensions. That looking back we should find it, and them, rather alien is only natural. Nevertheless I believe there is great value in examining the words and convictions of a man like Washington, whose republican bone fides were rooted in a much earlier era, and asking ourselves whether they continue to have value. While I certainly know my own feelings on the matter, I leave it to you to determine for yourself.