In the 21st century, we may think someone in the 18th century doesn’t have much wisdom to impart on us today. That there can’t possibly be something practical and useful for Americans, whether in our body politic or culturally. But John Avlon’s 2017 book (which I did through audiobook; I should note, Avlon himself read the book and he did great.), Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations, shows that aforementioned conventional wisdom to be unfounded in the case of George Washington, the United States’ first president.
Through examining Washington’s farewell address to the nation after serving two terms, Avlon gives not only a quasi-biography of Washington, but also a quasi-origin story for America itself, both the messiness of its gestation and the way in which Washington’s farewell fared throughout the succeeding presidents and centuries.
First, it’s worth spending time on that act itself: After serving two four-year terms, Washington voluntarily stepped down. Someone else in his position could have kept serving. But Washington didn’t. Because he believed the nation needed to live and breathe beyond him, his reach and his influence. In the 18th century, that was a radical notion. In an 18th century replete with kings and queens and monarchial thinking, the idea of someone voluntarily relinquishing power is incredible and as much the story of America as anything else. Washington transitioned his power to someone else to take the helm. Peacefully.
(That’s precisely why people are so offended by the January 6, 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol because it was the first time someone had made a serious attempt to impede that peaceful transition of power.)
I’ve never quite been somebody who is a “rah-rah, go America” kinda person, but I do believe that our foundational principles of self-government and liberty are beautiful, even if flawed and contradictory for all sorts of reasons, primarily that of the existence and maintenance of the institution of slavery. In short, the Founding Fathers, including Washington, believed, as Lincoln later would 70 years later, that the union of the United States itself was more important than risking civil war over slavery. Thus, they compromised. But, of course, that compromise was always a “can-kicking” measure that would eventually lead to civil war at some point.
Something else interesting to consider is that when Washington ascended to the presidency, he presided over 4 million Americans. Cincinnati, where I preside now, was considered the Western United States. Consider that today, the president presides over 320 million Americans and San Jose, California is the most western part of the continental United States, more than 2,400 miles from Cincinnati. I would offer the theory that perhaps that governing over such a lot body of people, consisting of their individual parts, as well as literally in terms of the geography, an impossible task, or at least, that we expect too much of one man or woman.
Or even that Washington’s administration and cabinet consisted of something like 50 people? Between Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury, with most of those 50 people belonging to the Treasury. Today’s government has 15 cabinet positions and many more subcategories, with about 2.1 million people serving in the federal workforce.
Not only is the country bigger, but the government is much bigger for the executive (the president) to “manage.” Washington also showed as the first president how much being president ages the officeholder, and Washington was old for his time, no less.
Another defining feature of America from the founding days is that of the character of the American people: Even then, Americans made fun of Washington for his pomp and circumstance. Again, it doesn’t seem radical today to make fun of the president, but back then? To make fun of the head of government? Radical. And beautifully American. (And Washington, like most presidents, hated it. Too bad.)
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Avlon’s book is the nitty-gritty he goes into with the battles over the Constitution, the set-up of the American government and Washington’s role in those debates. I think we’ve lost sight of just how tenuous it is to build a country, with a sustaining unity across regional differences (that existed then as they do now), ideological differences, religious differences and so on. Heck, it was fraught then! I think we sometimes gloss over the divisions then, thinking the Founding Fathers were on the same page on every issue and that the Constitution was recognized as this beautiful document and unanimously approved, but that wasn’t remotely the case! Avlon’s treatment of those divisions is well-worth the listen alone.
Again, as I said, the Founding Fathers were kicking the slavery question down the road, but even then, secession was on the lips of some American figures and the public. Keeping the peace, literally, was Washington’s primary preoccupation.
I also learned more about Washington and his beliefs. For instance, that Washington believed fiercely in religious pluralism and bringing people from all over the world to our shores was in and of itself a strong bulwark against tyranny. If you were to be a country of one religion or one kind of people, that creates the chance for one-man rule or one-sort of rule. Granted, again, this is all caveated by the fact that black people were living under tyranny of white people. In an amusing moment in the context of his religious pluralism beliefs, Washington seemed offended by the idea of being thought a bigot while also owning hundreds of slaves.
Another interesting push from Washington was that of education and his belief that the United States needed a national university. The logic goes, we are a representative democracy built on the minds of the people and therefore, the minds of the people need to be properly civically shaped and prepared. Fortunately in my opinion, that idea never took off. I already shudder at the idea of the government playing a role in K-12 education under the same premise.
Also, I had the misconception that it was Washington who said in his farewell address, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none,” but that great quote comes from Thomas Jefferson and his first inaugural address in 1801. That said, Jefferson was basically echoing Washington’s sentiments. It wasn’t that Washington was an isolationist, but that he wanted the United States to grow and prosper independently since it was a nascent country and because he worried greatly about foreign influence. That’s why he kept an arm’s length from the French Revolution, much to the consternation of other political leaders of the time. With the advent of globalism and the shrinking of the world, particularly in the post-WWII world, people think Washington’s idea of avoiding entangling alliances is out of fashion, but I think there’s still something to be said for keeping America independently minded and instead of isolation, being “non-interventionist.”
In the previous audiobook about presidential assassinations I reviewed, I mentioned how remarkable it is that regular Americans today clearly, obviously have better access to quality medicine than even presidents of yesteryear, including in the case of George Washington. For all intents and purposes, Washington died of a sore throat or some sort of inflammation of his throat. The cure at the time was yet again, bloodletting! I couldn’t not mention that silliness.
Washington and the other Founding Fathers, because of being Founding Fathers, came to mean whatever someone wanted them to mean and to project upon them, as these almost deity-like figures. Avlon’s book toward the latter half deals with this, tracing how Washington’s farewell and warning to future generations about debt, education, entangling alliances and primarily, avoiding the corrosive partisanship and factionalism that could destroy the union, was used by presidents and figures thereafter.
For an ugly example, the infamous Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939, with World War II on the precipice of beginning, the leaders there took Washington as their own, believing his sentiment about isolationism to mean staying out of German affairs. They even said Washington was the “first Nazi.”
Or another ugly example, with those seceding from the Union to form the Confederacy believing that Washington’s words applied to their cause. That’s disgusting. It disgusts me that the traitorous Robert E. Lee, the antithesis of everything Washington stood for as president and in his farewell warning, shared a family tree with him and the name of a university.
Nonetheless, there were positive examples, like Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s using the farewell warning blueprint to do his own farewell warning about the military industrial complex.
Overall, I thought this book from Avlon was well-researched, comprehensive, and a fascinating examination of history, both intimate in the little, but important, details regarding the fights over the founding of the United States, and the broad sweep through history thereafter to see how Washington’s influence waxed and waned.
Avlon doesn’t sugarcoat Washington’s hypocrisy or contradictions. In fact, that’s sort of the point? That the Founding Fathers were human, not deities, but it was those flawed humans who created what would become our beautiful inheritance, flawed as it is, but fixable. There’s beauty in that struggle. There’s beauty in that promise. There’s beauty in that ability to fix, to amend.
And in today’s world of hyper-partisanship and divisiveness, something Washington warned against as the first and only independent president, Avlon is correct that Washington’s warnings from the 18th century still have relevance to us today, if only we’d listen and heed.