By John David Dyche
In 1796, after heroic military service and two presidential terms, George Washington announced his retirement from public service. His Farewell Address may be the most underappreciated document in America's political canon.
Washington did not deliver this valedictory as a speech, but merely published it in newspapers. He called it "the disinterested warnings of a parting friend" with "no personal motive to bias his counsel." It remains remarkably relevant today.
Regional rivalries, political factions, and foreign powers threatened the young republic's stability. So the first thing Washington prescribed for its political prosperity was an appreciation of "the immense value of your national Union."
A map of the 2012 presidential election results shows that sectionalism is flourishing. The "red" states won by Republican Mitt Romney form a contiguous, mostly southern, band. And secession petitions are in vogue, including one from Texas having over 125,000 signatures.
Next, Washington urged Americans to resist "the spirit of innovation" upon constitutional principles. He cautioned against, alterations "which will impair the energy of the system" and "undermine what cannot be directly overthrown."
How prescient! Amendments and judicial decisions have made our democratic republic less republican (small "r") and more democratic (small "d"). The Constitution created a national government of limited powers, but the limits have all but disappeared.
The Founders' federalism left most matters to the states and the people. But a centralizing tide of progressive rule by "experts" in Washington has largely supplanted the ingenious original design that let states serve as diverse policy laboratories.
Washington also warned against "the baneful effects of the spirit of party." The two-party system has served America well, but the recent trend of extremely close presidential elections and divided government, along with movements like Occupy and the Tea Party, suggest that factionalism still has the potential to poison the body politic.
Respect for the separation of powers was another Washington maxim. Consolidation of "the powers of all the departments in one" could create "a real despotism," he said. Tyranny is always a danger in democracies, especially during economic hard times.
Presidents of both parties have steadily expanded executive power at the expense of a pliant Congress. As George Will recently wrote, "Government power is increasingly concentrated in Washington, Washington power is increasingly concentrated in the executive branch, and executive-branch power is increasingly concentrated in agencies that are unconstrained by legislative control."
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," Washington observed, "religion and morality are indispensable supports." He added, "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."
In his book Coming Apart, the brilliant Charles Murray describes the dramatic decline of American religious involvement, especially among the working class. This secularization, he argues, is contributing to a dangerous societal divide. An elite and insular new upper class is on one side, increasingly separate from a new lower class "characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions."
Washington praised "institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge" because "it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." Yet our educational system is failing in critical respects. Americans have access to more information, but that does not translate into knowledge, much less wisdom.
In especially timely advice, Washington counseled to "cherish public credit" and "use it as sparingly as possible." He admonished against the accumulation of debt and "ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear." But our national debt is approaching $17 trillion with no plan for reducing it.
"Towards the payment of debts there must be revenue," Washington added. "To have revenue there must be taxes," he continued, and "no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant." Our current complex, anti-growth code surely confirms this.
Finally, Washington said America should "cultivate peace and harmony" with all nations. He warned equally against "permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others." Kentucky's U. S. Senator Rand Paul espouses similar principles, but such generalities are insufficient in a volatile world of fanatics and weapons of mass destruction.
As America faces today's existential cultural, economic, fiscal, and global crises, it remains as prudent as ever to ask, "WWGWD?"
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com.