As the United States moves towards the transition of a new administration this coming week, I thought it would be appropriate to study what previous presidents have done during this transition time.
President George Washington left the presidency and the nation's then capital city of Philadelphia in September 1796. He used his departure to publicize a major final statement of his political philosophy which is known as WASHINGTON'S FAREWELL ADDRESS. This document has long been recognized as a towering statement of American political purpose and until the 1970s, was read annually in the U.S. Congress as part of the national recognition of the first President's birthday. His words, carefully crafted with the help of Madison and Hamilton, is relevant today as it was in 1796. (In the musical, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda captures the first part of Washington’s address in the song One Last Time.
Here is an excerpt on his warning about the “Spirit of Party” from this 32-page hand-written document:
Let me now take a more comprehensive view, & warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally.
This Spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
. . .
It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot & insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true--and in Governments of a Monarchical cast Patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate & assuage it. A fire not to be quenched; it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.
Reflection Questions for 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Eric H. F. Law
For competent leadership in a diverse changing world