Obama plays the George Washington card

President Obama enlisted Washington's support in advocating for more revenue.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Obama enlisted Washington’s support in advocating for more revenue.

One surprise President Obama pulled in his tax-the-rich speech last Monday was a quote from George Washington. As a history nerd, I perked right up, thinking, “Whoa, playing the George Washington card, not something you see every day.”

Washington is the most revered but probably least quoted of the founders. The general fathered a country, looked really good on a horse but spoke with great reserve, didn’t publish much, and was neither a wordsmith like Jefferson nor a wit like Franklin.

The quote was from Washington’s Farewell Address. Nerd alert, it wasn’t what we would call today an “address.” GW never spoke it. It was a written statement published as a letter to the editor of papers around the nation and then as a pamphlet, in which form it was the No. 1 bestseller of its time.

James Madison had helped Washington write it in 1792, when Washington first planned to retire after one term as prez. Then Alexander Hamilton helped him revise it four years later.

Some history nerd within the Obama speechification team convinced the current prez to enlist the Great Man’s support when it was discovered that what Washington had written could taken as an endorsement of raising taxes to pay down the national debt (which is pretty much what Obama was advocating). The passage from Obama went:

“None of the changes I’m proposing are easy or politically convenient.  It’s always more popular to promise the moon and leave the bill for after the next election or the election after that.  That’s been true since our founding.  George Washington grappled with this problem.  He said, ‘Towards the payment of debts, there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; [and] no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.’

“He understood that dealing with the debt is — these are his words —  ‘always a choice of difficulties.’ But he also knew that public servants weren’t elected to do what was easy; they weren’t elected to do what was politically advantageous.  It’s our responsibility to put country before party. It’s our responsibility to do what’s right for the future. And that’s what this debate is about…”

Pretty cool. I agree with the first president. To pay its debts, the government needs taxes, and all taxes are (ya gotta love these word choices) “inconvenient and unpleasant” to those on whom they fall. One of the problems we have at present is that as soon as any tax is proposed, the prospective taxees complain about the inconvenience, and that seems to end the discussion.

President Washington did not equate taxation with Big Government tyranny, nor with socialism (which hadn’t been invented yet). And that’s pretty much all Obama wanted us to get from his illustrious predecessor on the subject.

I got out the full farewell address and reread it. It’s a bit of a tough slog, but quaintly rewarding.

It’s funny, or more pitiful or maybe both, what we do with these sacred texts – from the Bible to the writings of the secular Founders — searching for sacred backup for our own beliefs or needs of the moment, and tiptoeing away from whatever else in the text might not be helpful.

Maybe some wisdom is timeless, but the truth is that not even President Washington had much of a clue what challenges President Obama or America would be facing 215 years later. With that caveat, let’s take a look at what was on the Washingtonian mind as he tried to give his parting advice.

He feared sectionalism, hated partisanship
Washington (along with most of the founders) had dreamed of a republic that could function without political parties. He had seen the formation of America’s first two-party system (the Federalists led by Washington’s protégé and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Washington’s friend and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson) break out within his own cabinet. Washington agreed to serve a second term largely because he hoped that as the unifying figure of the nation, he could steer it back to a no party system.

He couldn’t. But his biggest overall message in the farewell address was to nurture national unity and to abjure partisanship.

The hyperpartisanship of today, hereby duly noted, was Washington’s nightmare (although it would be hard to say it is any worse than the breathtaking partisanship of the immediate post-Washington period. See Edward J. Larson’s account in “A Magnificent Catastrophe.”)

It is touching but naïve, at least in retrospect, to imagine a democracy without partisanship. But if today’s partisans want to heed Washington, they should do a much better job of working across party lines in the national interest. (And repeating what I said last Tuesday, I do not mean to imply that in today’s context the blame for uncompromising hyperpartisanship is shared equally by the two major parties.)

Here’s a taste of Washington’s warning of excessive partisanship:

“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. “

Views on borrowing money
He was a deficit hawk, as am I, but he thought the ability of the United States to borrow money was a good thing. Surely Hamilton encouraged this section, which occurs just before the part Obama quoted. It says:

“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expence 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 expence, but by vigorous exertions in time of Peace to discharge the Debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear.”

There’s significant wisdom here, although dated in many ways, and it is grounds for bipartisan headaches. For example, he values the ability of the United States to incur debt, so presumably that is a Washingtonian non-endorsement of the Repub-beloved balanced budget amendment.

He thinks government should live within its means most of the time, borrow when necessary, do it promptly rather than risk having to pay more later, and then raise taxes to pay down the debt rather than leave that “burthen” for “posterity.”

The biggest reason for the debt problem that we have now is that Congress and presidents, going back a long way, got out of the habit of ever paying down debt. You can get away with that during decades of almost constant prosperity, such as the incredible string experienced in post-World War II America. The growth of the economy keeps the debt manageable as a percentage of GDP. But it just gets too easy to keep doing it, and when you hit a really big recession, you wish you could borrow big bucks to deal with it, but you already owe so much that you’re not sure whether you can safely add to it.

That paragraph above has nothing to do with Washington, except that if congresses and presidents since about JFK forward  had followed his plan, paid for their spending with reasonable taxes, gone into debt when necessary and paid off the debt when possible, things would look a lot different.

On states’ rights
Washington was a federalist, which was the big national government faction during the founding period. Jefferson and Madison broke with him and became the tentherists or states righters of their time, worrying about an overreaching federal government. The farewell address is loaded with subtle references to this difference of philosophy.

Of course, today’s tentherists would point out that the federal government has grown unimaginably and gotten involved in a zillion more aspects of our lives than anything Washington ever dreamed of. They would be right. I note that when he talked about federal borrowing, the only occasions he could imagine would be for wars, not for stimulus spending (Keynesianism had not been invented) and not for Social Security. But what to do with that fact? They’ve been invented now based on countless changes in circumstances that Washington could not have foreseen.

On foreign affairs
Washington was an isolationist in a way that neither major party could today embrace. The nation was badly torn, across both partisan and regional lines, by factions that favored England and factions that favored France. The president’s powerful warning against “permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign world” would be difficult to reconcile with the NATO alliance, nor with the current U.S. relationship with Israel. But then, he had no notion of the burdens and opportunities presented to the superpower in a one-superpower world.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Roy Everson on 09/26/2011 - 02:38 am.

    As with all examples of greatness, it’s always possible to point out how wrong or naive these mere humans could be. These were experimenters with, not only democracy, but turning back on hundreds of years of monarchy, not an easy trick. The rise of parties was inevitable, yet two of the greats, Washington and Adams, thought otherwise.

    When you observe how intensely the founding fathers would quarrel with each other, hate each other, libel each other and in one case even shoot at each other– you see the emptiness of the “constitutional conservative” which in another generation was called “strict constructionist”– the narrowest of interpretations of WWtheFFD.

    (Another great book recommended on the subject, “Founding Brothers,” won a Pulitzer a few years back.)

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/26/2011 - 06:42 am.

    Eric, once again, thanks for the constant reminders that you are a “deficit hawk.”

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/26/2011 - 08:39 am.

    Eric, thanks for the background on President Obama’s words. I don’t always agree with him but it’s fascinating to see from where and from whom he’s drawing his inspiration.

    Conversely, it’s always interesting how some of the most dysfonic of my fellow citizens, when faced with the reality that the lessons their leaders and pundits have drawn from “historical realities” actually have NOTHING to do with the history they believe to be on their side,…

    feel the need to bat away the truth of what they’ve just read with inane comments that, in their own minds, invalidate the truths which they are too weak of mind, heart, soul, and imagination to face.

    The knee-jerk reaction we so often see exhibited is far too common: claiming that the person who is telling them the truth they lack the courage to face is simply not to be trusted because,… because,… because,…

    of whatever straws they can grasp at that moment to convince themselves that the purveyor of that truth is one of those they regard as “them,” not one of those they regard as “us.”

    If something is claimed to be true by someone they regard to be one of “us,” however, nothing is required to back up that truth,…

    whereas, if something is claimed to be true by someone they regard as one of “them,” NO AMOUNT of factual data, logical reasoning, or actual quotations from historical figures and documents is sufficient for them to allow that ACTUAL truth to enter their awareness. It MUST be pushed away and ignored,…

    because such people view the world, not through the lens of facts, verifiable information, foresight, emotional intelligence and logic, but a set of warped, twisted lenses applied to them by their own psyches in response to their psychological dysfunctions,…

    in order that they, with massive pieces of their personalities rendered absent, not suffer the extreme discomfort caused by noticing all those things in the world around them that would call those missing pieces forth.

    In the end, however, it is not an acceptable (or even remotely useful) way of finding your way in the world to operate by the dictum, “whatever I want to be true IS true, because I want it to be true and I know other people who agree with me, and anything I DON’T want to be true MUST be FALSE because I, and the people who agree with me WANT it to be false” (a statement to which there are far too many corollaries to name).

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/26/2011 - 09:50 am.

    So Eric, are you suggessting that in 1789 there were no poor; no uneducated; no sick people? Is it that in 1789 people from every continent on the planet were not emigrating here?


    It (the nanny state) was been invented now not based on countless changes in circumstances, but on countless changes in our understanding of the meaning of “is” that Washington could not have foreseen.

    The founding fathers were the epitomized “reality based” thinking. They pledged their fortunes and their lives to put the only piece of infrastructure that is absolutely necessary for people to flourish: Freedom of action and security the Right to own property and to use it as one sees fit without causeing harm to other’s rights.

    It’s a silly excersize for Obama to invoke Washington; emblamatic of a rising desperation and creeping acknowledgement that he is a one term President headed towards the Jimmy Carter wing of American history.

    “Hope and Change” will take it’s place right beside “malaise” in the lexicon of epic American failures.


  5. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 09/26/2011 - 11:28 am.

    Let us hope that Abba Eban is correct when he said: “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” My hope is that our congress moves toward political compromise, which they have accomplished most of the time since 1787. They must use the brains of today, schooled by the accomplishments and mistakes of the past to reach that point. Hope and change have been that fuel for 224 years.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/26/2011 - 11:37 am.

    I love hearing from the right about “reality based thinking” after the country is still struggling with the legacy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Making Obama a “one term President” at any cost when your solutions have completely failed and you have no solutions of your own is a great example of “reality based thinking”.

    And the “nanny state”! The right confuses the “nanny state” with “Big Brother” which we now have thanks to 30 years of right wing Republican misrule. If we only had a little more “nanny” in such a state so that we no longer had poverty, illiteracy, disease, ignorance, things we still have in abundance thanks to the right wing. And thanks to the right wing, many of us no longer feel any responsibility about these problems.

    I like Mr. Swift’s implied suggestion for a bumper sticker slogan the right and maybe the rest of us can rally around: “Hopelessness and no change!” I’m really looking forward to this appearing on bumpers and signs in the forthcoming elections.

  7. Submitted by Bob Hussey on 09/26/2011 - 12:29 pm.

    It’s about time Obama began culling the historical record to find support for his ideas.

    Conservatives have been doing this for years, successfully convincing millions of people that right-wing small government ideology is grounded in American history, despite evidence to the contrary.

    Granted the President will never be able to use history to enlighten those among us who believe Paul Revere’s ride was about gun control or the Battles of Lexington and Concord occurred in New Hampshire. Still, I’d love to see the former Constitutional Law Professor go toe-to-toe with the Palins and Bachmanns of the world on the proper meaning of our most revered historical document.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/26/2011 - 12:50 pm.

    The founding fathers were not immigrants; they had been here for generations and regarded themselves as British citizens.
    Their main beef (as it were) with the mother country was economic — they objected to being taxes without representation in Parliament. There was never any question about the ownership of property — it was about the manner in which it was taxed. This is where they differ from the Tea Party and their ilk — the TPers object to paying taxes set by duly elected representatives — they don’t like being in the minority.
    And individual freedom was not the issue for the FF’s (they were slave owners).

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/26/2011 - 01:29 pm.

    Mr. Swift, once again, sets up a straw man to knock down. The times, said Mr. Dylan, they’re a changin’, and just as much now as in the 1960s, or in the 1790s.

    The founding fathers were certainly reality-based, but they were also idealistic, else there’d have been no Declaration of Independence, no revolution, and certainly no Constitution, since cold, hard reason would have suggested that the first two were impossible against the world’s most imposing superpower at the time, and the third stood a good chance of not being adopted primarily because there were numerous people – Patrick Henry among them – who might well have been philosophical soulmates to Mr. Swift, so strong was their distaste for a strong central government. That’s the piece of infrastructure that Mr. Swift would like to pretend doesn’t, or shouldn’t exist, and would like us to believe isn’t necessary for a functioning society – one functional enough, at least, to provide him (and me) with both freedom and the right to own property, and to protect those rights, as well – a strong central government.

    It’s useful to remember that these same epitomies of “reality based thinking” abandoned – by which I mean ‘rejected,’ very much on purpose, and according to their own “reality-based” experience – the Articles of Confederation, which gave us a central government both inept and powerless, and came a lot closer to the sort of national government today’s “Tenthers” would have us believe is somehow in our interests.

    Poor? Uneducated? Sick? We had them in droves, but they lived on a continent largely unexploited by its existing population, with abundant land available for those who wanted it take it (to the dismay of the native population), thus making upward mobility more likely then than now; in an era prior to the industrial revolution, so the vast majority of people were farmers, which required little in the way of formal education at the time; and with average life spans of just over 40 years of age. If that’s the era to which Mr. Swift would like to return, he’s welcome to it, though everything I’ve read suggests that genuine time travel, while it makes for intriguing fiction, isn’t actually possible.

    “Hope and Change” may well take its place alongside Jimmy Carter’s “national malaise,” in the lexicon of American failures, but it’s no more silly for Obama to invoke George Washington than it is for someone on the right to invoke their own presidential icon, whomever that might be.

  10. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/26/2011 - 03:02 pm.

    It is always fascinating to see those who wrap themselves in the flag of the REvolution, so ignorant of history.

    It happens so frequenty, and there are so many misstatements, fictions, and re-writing of history, and often navigating politics in America I feel I am operating in a bizarro world.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/26/2011 - 04:09 pm.

    No straw men up my sleeve, Ray.

    I’m responding to Eric’s contention that (what I call) the nanny state was invented based on changes in “circumstances” that Washington could not have foreseen. My point, which you’ve not refuted, is that Washington, being the astute fellow he was, *had* to be aware of the same societal “circumstances” the nanny state purports to address since they were all present in his day.

    What Washington could not have foreseen was the devolution of Jeffersonian populism into Socialism, and the convoluted, freedom strangling mess it has led his, and my, beloved country into today.

    Therefore, it is silly for Obama to believe Washington provides a solid footing to support his teetering administration.

  12. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/26/2011 - 04:37 pm.

    What’s nonsense is that you believe that the only expense that the Federal Government has is so-called “entitlement” programs (which, while not exactly a misnomer, is misleading to the point of disenginuity).

    Mr. Swift, do you think that the forefathers of this country foresaw billion dollar fighter jets, space-based espionage, and the internet? Or even trans-continental railways, let alone interstate highways? Do you think that any one of those men, who relied on slaves and beasts of burden to maintain plantations and traded with nearby towns and probably never crossed more than the equivalent of one state line could have even comprehended travelling across the entire continent in less than 7 hours by plane and communicating around the world in mere seconds? Do you think their minds wouldn’t have been boggled by all of the roles that the Federal Government would have to play in interstate commerce, national security, and the general welfare in light of these?

    Don’t get me wrong, I think we do spend too much on many of these things, particularly the war machine. But I think the greater problem is that we simply don’t pay for them. We are the richest nation in the world, and we simply refuse to pay for what we should. If you think your taxes are too high, feel free to opt out of the national defense and make sure you don’t take unemployment if you’re unemployed, and feel free to skip out on Social Security. Better yet, if you don’t like it, feel free to find yourself a tax-free haven. Like somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Make sure to purchase some bulletproof clothing before you go, though, and make some friends with people with guns and food, too.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/26/2011 - 05:07 pm.

    “Do you think their minds wouldn’t have been boggled by all of the roles that the Federal Government would have to play in interstate commerce, national security, and the general welfare in light of these?”

    I think their minds would be boggled by the machinations the Fed gov has undertaken to get us to the point where it plays all the roles it’s taken under the guise of interstate commerce and what the “general welfare” is taken to mean these days.

  14. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/26/2011 - 05:21 pm.


    Well finally a response to the idea Buffet is always free to write a check to the IRS. Well constructed.

    So what’s the reason for almost zero media coverage of the Wall Street constitutional actions?

  15. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 09/26/2011 - 08:54 pm.

    “I hope we shall . . . crush in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.” Thomas Jefferson

    The founders were smart, but they were by no means monolithic in their opinions. It’s stupid to think of “the founders” as one entity. The right loves to simplify things into black and white.

    Explain away swifty.

    “When economic power… became concentrated in a few hands, then political power flowed to those possessors and away from the citizens, ultimately resulting in an oligarchy or tyranny.” John Adams

    As riches increase and accumulate in few hands . . . the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard.” Alexander Hamilton

    Or everyone’s favorite Republican.

    “As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” Abraham Lincoln

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/26/2011 - 09:18 pm.

    Probably, worries about corporate corruption is one reason the founders put limits on the influence government had on the people…or thought they had.

    Corporations, unions, men who made vast fortunes exchanging world currencies or pumping oil, none of them can have any more influence over us than we allow government to have.

    Cradle to grave nanny care has it’s price Alec.

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