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Is a Trump presidency what George Washington warned us about?

I decided to reread Washington’s farewell letter yesterday after reading Andrew Sullivan’s essay about factionalism and Donald Trump.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

Washington’s farewell address wasn’t an address, at least not in the modern sense of being a speech. It was written in the form of a letter to “friends and citizens” to clarify, as he approached the end of his second term as president in 1796, that he would “decline being considered” for another term.

(It was much, much later that the Constitution was amended to preclude a president from serving a third term, but Washington’s precedent was so powerful that, although it had no legal force, no incumbent ever sought a third term until Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. On that occasion, FDR refused to clarify — even as the balloting occurred at the Democratic convention in 1940 — whether he would agree to run for a third term, again, partly out of respect for Washington’s precedent.)

Anyway, Washington clearly stated — in the letter to the nation that we call his farewell address, a letter that was published in newspapers around the county — that he would not accept a third term. But he also used the letter to provide some valedictory remarks to the nation, warning against dangers that he feared could endanger the future of the republic. On that list was a warning to the nation against the dangers of excessive partisanship or factionalism.

Factions, he said, lead to partisanship, and then to the running of the government by a party “often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, that can seize power in a way that overrides … the delegated will of the nation.” This, he warned is “of fatal tendency” to a democracy.

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Wrote Washington (or perhaps Alexander Hamilton, who helped him with the writing): “Combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, [but] they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

I confess that I decided to reread Washington’s farewell letter yesterday after first reading a long essay in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, who was moved to write by a concern that the advent of President Trump might be the kind of event Washington was warning about when he spoke of factionalism/partisanship as a threat to the health of the American constitutional system.

Sullivan’s essay was titled “The Republic Repeals Itself.” Hardly any of it was about Washington’s Farewell Address. Most of it, and I recommend it to you, was speculation about how things might go in the next period when the combination of President Trump and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress takes over in January. He circled his way around to Washington, and the excerpt from the address Sullivan emphasized was this:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Washington, by the way, was 64 when he retired, lived less than three years after leaving office. If this makes you want to read the whole Washington farewell, it’s available here.