Xenophon’s Cyropaedia famously begins with the question “How many democracies have been brought down by those who wished the governing to be done in some way other than under a democracy?” He continues to ask the question of monarchies and oligarchies. In each it is found that getting people to obey is a herculean task. Xenophon goes so far as to remark that the shepherds and herdsman have an easier time ruling their subjects. This struggle to rule means that rulers who are able to come to power and rule “for any time at all, are admired as wise and fortunate men.” The point of this beginning inquiry is to show the reader the extremely fragile nature of government throughout human history. In this, one sees that stability in governance has been a rarity for much of human existence. Turning to the United States, it must be held as a remarkable feat that this country has been ruled by the same Constitution, with only minor changes, for 234 years. Such an accomplishment deserves to be celebrated. Yet, even the Founders realized that every nation faced challenges that could ultimately lead to its destruction. Much like Xenophon, they realized that the nature of political union and stability is extremely fragile. If a nation does not realize the dangers, they would be doomed to destruction. For this reason, George Washington was sure to continually remind the people of America of the immense burden they shared in protecting America. At a time of such unrest in the country, the people of America would be well served by remembering the warnings of our first president.
For Washington, a crucial factor for stability in America was the continued unity and common spirit of the American people. In order for any union to long maintain itself, common interests must rule over the particular. Washington notes this in his “First Inaugural.” Here he promised to let “no local prejudices or attachments” overcome his concern for the common good of the whole nation. Washington does not explicitly call out faction in this speech, but his words here clearly are a reference to that most potent of poisons. In his “Farewell Address,” Washington more directly speaks to the concern of faction. He warns that “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
In other words, this tendency to allow local prejudices and individual interests drive the policy of a country eventually results in despotism. He continues to explain that even if a country does not reach this extremity, the problems of faction hinder all progress towards the good for a country. These factions seek to stop any measure they determine as harmful to them even if it is good for the nation as a whole. As such it is the “duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Washington realized that in a popular form of government, the allure of faction was even more appealing than in other forms. The nature of popular government is majority rule, and as such men naturally seek to find others who agree with them in order to reach this majority. This meant that faction was one of the greatest dangers to the stability and unity of the United States. If not properly contained, it would overwhelm and destroy the nation.
Related to this concern of faction within the nation, Washington is also sure to warn against the development of undue feelings towards foreign powers. This warning is best summed up as treating all nations fairly and equally based upon their actions toward America. Here Washington emphasises the dangers of having undue attachments to a foreign nation. As he explains, these feelings of affection for a foreign nation only lead to “opportunities” to engage with domestic factions. From this interference only problems can arise, and the same problems with domestic factions would only be amplified. These foreign nations would seek to substitute their own concerns into American deliberations. This would result in a government that works for the benefit of another nation as opposed to the benefit of those they govern.
On the other hand, a strong and unfounded dislike for a particular nation can be just as dangerous as an overfondness. Strong passions left unchecked are a problem in every nation. When they are focused on another nation and label them the enemy no matter the situation, great calamities arise. Sometimes this hate “impels to War the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.” This is Washington’s greatest concern with such feelings: that the people get caught up in them and start a war that is neither just nor good for the nation. However, such hate can also cause other harmful decisions to be made, such as stopping all trade with a nation. Much like domestic factions, the feelings for other nations can cause a country to become shortsighted and self-destructive. Instead of acting in the best interest of the country, they are giving over to acting in a particular interest.
As for warnings about the particular institutions of government, Washington was most adamant that the people be wary of any attempt to change the constitutional order. He realized that the Constitution would need to be amended, but any attempts to “impair the energy of the system” would lead to an indirect overthrow. As such, the people would be well served by keeping their government officials within the powers allotted to them by the Constitution. Washington believed that the coalescing of any two powers in one body of government would lead to despotism. The people then needed to be the ultimate check upon any such attempt by those in power.
Washington’s most important warnings were concerned with the attitude and character of the people itself. Washington argued that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Put another way, the beliefs and actions of the people matter to the health of a nation. It is not simply good laws or a well constituted system that provide happiness and liberty. In fact, the best guarantee of such blessings is the soul of the people. Washington explains this connection in his “First Inaugural” by saying “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right.” He continues by explaining that the success or failure of this nation is in the hands of the people. This is because if the people themselves become corrupted and given over to perversions, no amount of protections can save them. They will live as tyrants and the result will be tyranny.
It is important to note that both religion and morality are necessary for Washington because of their intimate relationship. Without a religious people, morality is not possible. Religion provides that common view of right and wrong which allows a foundation on which to base their actions. These actions are the morality of the people. Take away the foundation for the actions and the actions are swiftly changed. Without first religion and then morality a people is doomed to fail.
In the current situation, it is important for America to look back at the very foundation of this nation. The great men who founded this nation had seen crisis and hardship. They had been forced to make hard decisions and live with the consequences. From this, a wisdom emerged that can be used as a guide to our modern problems. Many of the warnings George Washington gave those early Americans still apply to America today. Seeing that such things have always been with us should strengthen our resolve to get through them. As shown by Xenophon, the fate of the United States hangs upon the edge of a knife. Should the people fall into the dangers elucidated by Washington it will fall to the ruin of all. Yet, Americans have navigated such treacherous waters for 234 years. With reasoned acts and a return to that which made it great, America can prosper for another 234 years.
About the Author
Samuel Stone is a Senior Contributor for American Discourse and a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.