July 9, 2020


George Washington and Self-Government ( William B. Allen, Jul. 9th, 2020, Real Clear History)

Washington was less sanguine than Madison about the possibility of erecting stable political authority on the foundation of fluctuating public sentiment. Accordingly, his conduct of the government was based upon constant reaffirmation of the authority conveyed to representatives--as in his forceful response to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and an express argument on behalf of the rule of law, rather than fluctuating opinion--brought together with complete confidence in the ability of the people retrospectively to evaluate the performances of their representatives. Representatives must deliberate and act, and the public can evaluate their judgments and choices and hold them accountable at the appropriate time.

Washington's view required that two things be accomplished: first, he needed to adopt and defend clearly stated policies (while deferring to the deliberation of the legislature), and, second, he needed to anticipate the faithful fulfillment of the public's wishes, even in cases that seemed to run counter to sentiment (such as the Jay Treaty's abandonment of the claims of slaveholders).

The first objective Washington accomplished in a masterful manner by means of his approach to managing his Cabinet--requiring of diverse officers carefully deliberated and explicit enunciation of grounds for decisions, and then making the decisions based upon his judgment of what was fitting. This was manifested over a series of contested policy crises throughout his administration (public debt, national bank, excise taxes, Proclamation of Neutrality, the Jay Treaty, etc.). The second objective was pursued through deliberate addresses to the Congress and the public, in which Washington explicitly justified his conduct, not by claims of superior wisdom but by means of a willingness to submit the test of his judgment to the subsequent evaluation of the people, upon the presumption of good intent on his part.

Washington's "Farewell Address" of 1796 takes up this task magnificently. However, it is important to remember that throughout his career he emphasized this posture as essential to the establishment of self-government. He frequently emphasized the establishment of a "national character," through which the people habituate themselves to acting in a certain manner. He declined ever to claim authority for himself by right, deferring to civil authority when in military command (even when that authority was feckless); he retired from authority in a timely and deferential manner, disavowing reliance upon "influence" in responding to critical urgencies (such as Shays' Rebellion), and arguing strenuously against the practice of "instructing" representatives how to vote, a practice that abolishes true political deliberation. All these precepts of just statesmanship coalesce in a powerful exposition in the "Farewell Address," which rehearses the highlights of Washington's career and forms his parting admonitions on the evidence of his consistent pursuit of these goals.

Thus, the "Farewell Address" might well be subtitled, "A Principled Defense of Self-Government in Practice." In that address, Washington highlighted the people's "love of being one people," their love of union, as the basis of their readiness to act consistently to secure the "blessings of liberty." He expressed this wish in several forms, beginning in 1783, when he declared forthrightly that the promise of self-government was a prospect held out to citizens who had only to claim it for themselves in order to enjoy repose under their "own vine and fig tree." Indeed, he went on to say that if they should fail to enjoy happiness, they would have none but themselves to blame. Self-government, and political happiness, demanded civic responsibility.

"It is their right; it is their duty."

Posted by at July 9, 2020 12:00 AM