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How George Washington anticipated and warned of our present national situation

In contemporary political discourse we hear much about the value of diversity, multiculturalism, and globalization. Yet diversity under a rule of law presupposes an accepted social order.

Detail from the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. (Wikipedia)

As America’s laborious process for choosing a president moves slowly but noisily ahead, there is much to be learned from the wisdom of the first holder of that office.

George Washington called it a “Solemn Contemplation,” but it is better known as his Farewell Address.  It is a magnificent speech, marked by learning, insight and elevated vocabulary—features encountered rarely, if at all, in any public figure today—and may be read profitably by one who would govern.

More than that, Washington anticipated our present national situation. With admirable foresight, he understood what the nation would suffer if it failed to honor its charter documents. He feared the dissolution of the country via sectionalism, the power of dissident minorities, and what we today call the “Deep State.”

Absent shared respect for the Constitution, he declared, we are no longer a people. “The basis of our political system is the right of people to make and alter their constitution of government. But the Constitution at any time exists, and till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.”

It is the duty of every citizen to obey the established government.  Washington decries any activity that serves to organize faction, any extraordinary force that aims to replace of the delegated will of the nation with the will of a party or a small but artful and enterprising minority. As he puts it:

All obstructions to the execution of laws, all combinations and associations under whatever plausible character, with real design to direct, control, or awe the regular deliberation and activity of constituted authorities are destructive of fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.”

In common usage the term “democracy” is far from a univocal term. “The People’s Democratic Republic” is not what Woodrow Wilson had in mind when he led a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.  For John Dewey, the leading American philosopher of Wilson’s day, democracy is more than a form of government.  It is a way of life, a creed directed to a social ideal.

While democracy has several distinct forms—i.e. direct, representative, social, and economic—when we call a form of government a democracy today, we usually have in mind representative democracy in which citizens exercise their right to form policy not in person but through representatives whom they choose.

In a constitutional democracy such as those that prevail in Europe and North America, the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a constitution designed to protect the rights of the minority and the protection of other rights governing speech, press, and religion.

Viewed historically, a constitution need not be a single written instrument or even a legal document, but it is likely to be more or less a formal acknowledgment of a commonly accepted set of fixed norms or principles recognized by all. St. Thomas, as well as Aristotle and Cicero before him, gave custom, rightly directed by the natural order, the force of law. Today the concept of a natural law is widely repudiated, and it would be foolish to declare that custom should reign unchallenged.

Instead, in contemporary political discourse we hear much about the value of diversity, multiculturalism, and globalization. Yet diversity under a rule of law presupposes an accepted social order. In the United States the nineteenth century “melting pot” successfully blended elements of Christian Europe, but in the twentieth century and today, the melting pot is better described as a cauldron of unamenable cultures.

The common Western liberal concept of democracy assumes uncritically that men are naturally and morally equal. It is an assumption that does not bear empirical scrutiny. Anyone who follows the course of events as reported daily by the media is aware that there is a wide disparity among the people as a result of parental upbringing and education that leaves the populace polarized in a way more fundamental than disparity of income.

That is only one of numerous divisive factors. In many American states, the electorate is likely to contain undocumented aliens as well as legal immigrants, and it is not uncommon for some in both groups to be deficient with respect to the English language and largely ignorant of American history and Western political traditions.

The common faith which John Dewey sought has yet to be found nor is likely ever to be. Yet absent a common core of beliefs, the self-government we take for granted is in jeopardy.  Militating against democratic governance are the indiscriminate awarding of suffrage to illegal immigrants, a politically biased media that limits people’s access to vital information, excessive tolerance of deviant behavior and a concomitant failure to punish, the surrender of basic freedoms in the name of safety, and docile acceptance of a bureaucratic imperium and a politicized judiciary.  Undoubtedly the list could be extended

Washington presupposed virtue or morality in the populace, calling it “a necessary spring in the people.” He rhetorically asked, “Where is the security for people, for property, for reputation, for life if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are its indispensable supports?” His answer: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” And he added that “morality cannot be maintained without religion.”


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About Jude P. Dougherty 1 Article
Dr. Jude P. Dougherty is Professor Emeritus and Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America. He has served as president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and the Metaphysical Society and was the longtime editor of the sixty-year-old Review of Metaphysics. Among his books are The Good Life and Its Pursuit, The Logic of Religion, and Western Creed, Western Identity.

11 Comments

  1. As country we are so blessed to have had Washington as our first president and leader during the revolutionary war. While certainly flawed, he kept his ambition under control to lead the country to a republic, when it certainly could have morphed into something else. There were other great men at the time also, but without Washington, highly doubt the country could have started as it did. He was a gift from God.

    • It was a bit disconcerting to me also. If I recall correctly Dewey was one of the architects of the secular humanism that would infect , then destroy education in America. In charity I must believe the author found a quotation that served irregardless….

      • Or, as the author has been teaching philosophy for decades and has written books on this topic, he could be pointing out that even Dewey—a secularist and no friend of orthodox Christianity—believed that democracy requires a common faith and foundation, otherwise it is doomed. Put another way, does anyone think that Dewey would be supportive of the sort of radical identity politics that are now fracturing our society even further?

  2. I find it curious that the word “republic” is not used once in the piece. The author describes the U.S. (North America meaning the U.S.?) as a constitutional democracy but ours is a constitutional republic. Otherwise a very insightful piece of writing.

  3. Letter CWR Washington 03-08-20
    In addition to his Farewell Address, in his public (!) Prayer for the United States of America, Washington also offered this:

    “Almighty God; we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection; that Thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government. . . . And finally that Thou wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose to all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (Marjorie Barrows, One Thousand Beautiful Things [Chicago: Peoples Book Club, Inc., 1947], 425).

    Not much here about the “wall of separation.” He probably didn’t get that memo.

  4. “It is the duty of every citizen to obey the established government.”
    Good to see the veil parted every once in a while behind these think pieces

  5. Historically the vision of the Founding Fathers was prevention of the establishment of ‘a’ religion as in Britain and The Church of England. A religion that was compulsory culturally and dominant in politics. The reason why so many left Britain. Initially a separation concept was not intended to exclude freedom of religion or its expression in Govt. As evident in George Washington’s papers. On the other hand it was the wisdom of ‘crazy’ King George to enforce the Royal Charter, which contained the Common Law on the Colonies, preventing the growing New England Theocracies from usurping individual freedoms. Our dilemma is a growing secularization toward unprincipled Liberty the outcome of Am socialist idealism. And ignorant Catholics like Justice Anthony Kennedy, the exemplar of a concept of Liberty that presently adjudicates religious mores as social injustice. A reason why Pres Trump is so violently opposed by the Left, the secularized media and the Dem Party. Our next election will inevitably be a determining crossroad.

  6. “It is the duty of every citizen to obey the established government.”

    Only if the government is not acting contrary to the natural law. The government may be legitimate, but it may not always exercise power in a morally binding manner.

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