By John Avlon
Editor’s note: John Avlon is the author of “Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations” and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
WASHINGTON (CNN) – As President Obama prepares to give his farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday, he’s following a tradition begun by the first founding father.
The original farewell address was George Washington’s final revolutionary act. In an open letter addressed to his “friends and fellow citizens” and published in a Philadelphia newspaper, Washington delivered the greatest scoop in American history: the first president would decline a third term and secure the peaceful transfer of power.
By the end of his second term, President Washington was stung by relentless attacks in the press and alarmed by growing partisan bitterness. Fearful for the country’s future, he harnessed the most famous team of ghostwriters in history to flesh out his hard-won wisdom from a half century in war and peace. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were sequentially summoned to draft the farewell in secret, even as both schemed to create opposing political parties, against Washington’s wishes.
The primary point of Washington’s farewell was not to recite his administration’s accomplishments. Instead, he decided to issue a “warning from a parting friend” about the forces he feared could destroy the American experiment: hyperpartisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars.
But Washington was too much a man of action to simply reflect on problems. He steered toward solutions, renewable sources of strength he felt could save us from descending on history’s path of failed republics. He called for unity among “citizens by birth or choice,” advocated political moderation and fiscal responsibility as keys to effective government, defended religious pluralism, praised the importance of education and set out a foreign policy of independence, securing peace through strength.
Washington’s farewell was celebrated as civic scripture for over a century, more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence. It was memorized by generations of schoolchildren as a means of connecting them with first principles. Its advice was slapped on postcards and offered as one of Thomas Edison’s earliest recordings. Given its resonance, it’s no surprise that most of Washington’s successors followed his example by issuing a farewell address.
Andrew Jackson based his farewell on Washington’s “voice of prophecy” and his warnings against exacerbating the regional divisions that could lead to civil war. Abraham Lincoln quoted the farewell address in his 1860 campaign stump speech in defense of his new abolitionist Republican Party and ordered it read aloud to Union troops during the Civil War to remind them what they were fighting for. Woodrow Wilson, a Washington biographer himself, wrestled with Washington’s warnings against foreign alliances while making the case to enter World War I.
Eisenhower’s farewell address was directly inspired by Washington’s example, famously offering a farsighted warning about the dangers of the “military industrial complex.” Lyndon Johnson invoked its message about the importance of public education to achieve “enlightened opinion” among self-governing people. Ronald Reagan focused on the admonition that religion was a prime pillar of liberty.
While the memory of Washington’s farewell has faded from the frontal lobe of American politics, it deserves a revival for its relevance today.
Over the past few decades, our two political parties have become polarized along ideological and geographic lines, as Washington feared, leading to “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms … they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
The chaos of a dysfunctional democracy, compounded by relentless party warfare, Washington warned, could erode faith in self-governance and open the door to demagogues with authoritarian ambitions: “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.” History showed that the appeal of a strong man was a well-trod path to the destruction of liberty.
Washington also warned against the danger of foreign influence in domestic politics, arguing that “history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Sovereignty had been lost in the ancient Greek city-states that invented democracy and Washington had seen our former allies in revolutionary France deploy agents and agitators to undermine his administration. Russian efforts to influence our election via cyberspace are just the latest variations on an insidious old game that aims to “mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils.”
Washington’s farewell remains a powerfully prophetic document. It is the Old Testament of America’s civic religion, rules of behavior dispatched by a distant god, compared to the New Testament of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a poetic promise of life after death.
In his own farewell address, President Obama may take inspiration from Washington’s durable wisdom and offer his own warnings about the storm clouds on our horizon. While such a move might provoke predictable partisan outrage, he will be following a clear precedent set by our first president.