Conventional Thinking: Washington’s wisdom
In the aftermath of a divisive election and as Thanksgiving arrives, it is fitting to ponder the state of our country. To do so, it is more instructive to turn to the writings and speeches of our greatest leaders than to turn on cable TV news.
I recently reviewed the Farewell Address of George Washington and wasstruck by how prescient his words, penned in 1796, are for America today. Here I highlight parts with hopes that you will re-read it, along with works of other greats, such as Abraham Lincoln.
We are fellow-citizens.
Written to “the people of the United States,” Washington begins his letter with the greeting, “Friends and Fellow-Citizens.” That lone thought would go far in our country today. To restore the civility and mutual respect Washington fostered, which is so contrary to the “us versus them” tone of politics today, has potential to transform the public discussion.
We are privileged.
Washington brimmed with gratitude to his countrymen. “In looking forward to the moment which is intended to terminate the career of my public life,” he said, “my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me.” We have lost sight of that gratitude, and must work to regain it.
Jealously guard liberty and virtue.
Washington said, “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.” We would do well to keep watch against this warning: “It is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth (of liberty); as this is the point . . . the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively directed.”
Shun partisanship and boundaries.
Today’s “red-state vs. blue state” map contradicts Washington’s hopes for America. He said, “In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations—northern and southern—Atlantic and western.” Washington warned extensively against “political factionalism,” and in these regards, I fear we may be beyond easy repair.
Avoid debt and unnecessary war.
Long before Dave Ramsey, Washington warned against personal and private debt. Facing a mortgage and debt crisis comparable to our own day, he and the founding fathers overcame and found solutions in 1786. Washington warned “against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue” and against rushing to war.
Cling to religion and morality.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he said. “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” These words show why our country has taken the wrong path in recent days.
Fear the Almighty.
Washington, a devout Christian, makes more than one reference to religion. His final words speak volumes: “Though in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence and that, after 45 years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
Only Jesus Christ is perfect and unblemished. Yet occasionally God raises up a person to whom we may look for wisdom and guidance for our day. In the Patriot Sage, we have such an example for today, one worthy for each of us to review and emulate.