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Farewells, Then and Now

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In 1796 a President beloved by his countrymen delivered his farewell, a tradition that has continued through last night. He opened by confessing his concerns–that he was unworthy to the task he had undertaken, expressing a modesty that his contemporaries considered genuine:

I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.

In this he invoked the spirit of Cincinnatus, the wise Roman general who was raised to absolute power as dictator and who gladly relinquished it to return to the life of a simple farmer. But he was troubled by the forces at work in America. He issued a warning: a spirit of partisanship is descending over the country, and in the face of this Americans must focus on what unites rather than what separates them (emphasis added):

Political parties serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

And he saw a second threat: that a class of men were rising in power who placed unjustified faith and confidence in the resolution of all problems through military means and who leapt at the opportunity to enmesh America in the military conflicts then covering the old world. George Washington was no pacifist, but like many professional soldiers he well understood the limits of warfare, together with the sad fact that wars, once unleashed, can rarely be driven in the direction that their sponsors would like. He therefore prayed for America

an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rival ships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter. Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.

The man he warned us against was George W. Bush, who introduced a level of partisan venom to government in Washington which has known no equal in modern times and who embroiled the nation in foreign wars of choice which yet test our resources and reputation. With that in mind, today is a day to recall the great farewell address of 1796 and to take to heart the words that Washington so sagely spoke. And what about the lesser George W. and his speech last night? Only one phrase mattered. “Good-bye.”

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