He was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” George Washington, the planter from Virginia and hero of the War for Independence, is the Cincinnatus of the American imagination. Like the Roman, Washington served his country when he was called to do so, and he returned to his home after having given up a remarkable amount of power. Washington’s life offers modern Americans lessons on virtue, humility and servant leadership.
Valuable lessons regarding American politics can be found in his farewell address.There is no doubt that many of us had to read Washington’s farewell address at one point or another during middle or high school. Nonetheless, I think that revisiting it today would not be out of turn.
In the address itself, I would like to present just two major warnings that are given for the sake of brevity. The first is a plea to be cautious about entangling ourselves, as a nation, in foreign affairs. If we are aggressive abroad, there is no doubt we may grow to be despotic at home.
Trump is often labelled as someone who supports “isolationism.” This is nothing short of an alarmist accusation, however.
Removing the US from foreign entanglements like the Trans Pacific Partnership is something that is desperately needed after the Bush and Obama years. Remaking the rest of the world in our image is no longer something to which we should be devoted. When Trump exclaimed in 2016 that “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism” or when he said in a speech “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down” he was speaking right out of Washington’s playbook.
The second is a warning concerning the divisiveness of “factions” or political parties. During Washington’s tenure, the nation was utterly divided between Jefferson’s Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists. This condition would eventually lead to civil war, and Washington knew that factionalism could ultimately result in something as awful as that. This is an important message for us today, when unity is strongly needed.
Trump’s calls for unity and his offer to compromise on immigration signifies his willingness to work with both parties. It sometimes seems that many Democrats wouldn’t mind seeing the country/economy fail if it means seeing him fail. Make no mistake, getting over polarization and factionalism will involve both parties but that does not mean it cannot be done if the state of our union is actually solid.
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Early Americans had the honest fear that any executive put in charge of the nation as a whole would become a despot, thus turning the presidency into a sort of “elected king.” After all, they had just spent eight years fighting a bloody war against a strong executive. Washington, being the Cincinnatus-like statesman that he was, appeased these fears by leaving office after only two terms. Lord Acton once said that “power corrupts”, and quite honestly this is true. However, in giving up power Washington ultimately let virtue be his guide.
Conservatives have to keep this in mind, and not let their desire for Trump to accomplish his goals override the principles of limited government. On the upside, it does seem like his populist appeal will give conservatives hope as it relates to restoring power back to the states and the people.
From 1776 to 2018 our country has made a gradual shift from union to empire where the executive yields an extreme amount of power. Cincinnatus has become Caesar in many ways. While it is true that some hope may be placed in our current president (who still has at least three years to reverse the tide of governmental bloating), we must realize that the presidency should not be the main aspect of government we are concerned about. Instead, we should be concerned with the just execution of federalism and the protections of checks and balances so that it really wouldn't matter as much if a president you love or hate is in power.
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