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.