Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Evolving of America, II

Abraham Lincoln

On February 19, 1862, which was in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that Americans mark George Washington's birthday by pausing to read Washington's "immortal Farewell Address."  This blog post will share some of what Washington included in that proclamation.    With his usual modesty, Washington suggested that listeners (or readers) regard his words as those of "the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel."

What Washington suggested was that the "common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it."  In other words, he was concerned that politicians might forget that they were cheering for the same team--for America.  Washington warned that divisiveness between parties when taken to extremes hurts the nation.  

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    The following quotes share some of Washington's warnings about the dangers to our nation caused by political extremes: "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 and insurrection.  It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.  Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

    Continuing, "There is 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..."  But, Washington reminds, that there is a "constant danger of excess."  He continues, "It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the power of one department to encroach upon another.  ...The necessity of receptacle checks on the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constructing each the guardian of that public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern..."

    Washington continued:  "To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.   If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the constitution designates."

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Once in a while, it is wise for those of us who live in a very different world from that of our ancestors, to look back at the wisdom of those in the past.  As I read Washington's words from his Farewell address, I was shocked by how important they are for us to read today.  Likewise, in the middle of a Civil War, Lincoln realized that those same words would be important at that time for the nation to read.  

In fact, he thought the wisdom of Washington was so important that his birthday should be observed every year, and that the wisdom of his immortal words in his Farewell Address should be read as a reminder of the importance of our unique country.  Out of that ideal came the creation of President's Day.  Not all states recognize President's Day as an official holiday, and Kansas is among those.  Washington's Farewell Address is recited annually in the United States Senate, a tradition that continues to follow the suggestion of Lincoln.  

As I read Washington's words, they seem as important to me in 2024 as they were when he first spoke them.  May those trusted with the honor of holding offices in our government heed Washington's warnings about the dangers of political extremes.  

Members of both the Senate and the House take the same oath:  "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take the obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully perform the duties of the office on which I am about to enter."  The Supremacy Clause makes federal law paramount over the contrary positions of state officials, and certainly paramount to any dictate of political parties.     


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