George Washington’s 285th birthday is two days away, my how the time flies, but today marks the federal holiday in his honor. Close to half of these United States extends the holiday to all presidents, but I live in one of the many states that sticks with the federal designation of “Washington’s Birthday” in honor of the man known as the father of this country.
Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a position he notably resigned after its stunning victory to retire to his farm in Virginia, but public service called again when he was elected as the new nation’s first president. Washington never joined a particular political party, however, and warned against “the spirit of party” in his famous Farewell Address—an interesting admonition given today’s polarized society.
Washington argued that the party spirit is natural and pervasive and produces desires for (and acts of) revenge that lead a nation away from liberty and eventually toward despotism. As a result, Washington argued that it is the “duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain” the party spirit.
“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 finds 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.”
Now it’s funny, I can picture readers from various political viewpoints reading much more into this than I intend. My critique is of all and my point is simple: Encourage coming together, and discourage choosing up sides. Unity good. Polarization bad. That would be my party platform should I have one, but ironically, a Unity Party is a contradiction in terms.
President Washington concluded his remarks on the party spirit with the following dire warning: “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.”
Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. General President Washington. And happy birthday.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged birthday, divisiveness, farewell address, george washington, holiday, partisanship, party spirit, polarization, political parties, president, reconciliation, revenge, unity
I live in a perpetual dilemma because reconciliation is possibly my most cherished value and it seems the whole world prefers to choose sides. And in the good news department, a recent study revealed that “unconscious biases are now at least as strong across political parties as they are across races.”¹ Oh goody. And just in time for a presidential race.
There is some comfort at my place of employment where we are emphasizing the celebration and engagement of diversity. Our entering class is the most racially diverse in school history, and we have great plans for the year ahead, including a celebration of the twenty-plus nationalities represented in the school, increased interfaith dialogue, and regular engagement of the most controversial national headlines.
It seems that some place should begin the difficult work of societal reconciliation, and the legal profession is as good a place as any. We have surely played a significant role in the fractures.
Before you unleash your lawyer jokes, consider the friendship of two lawyers-turned-Supreme-Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Read this L.A. Times article and tell me why the rest of us cannot get along if these two can be fast friends. There is even an opera that celebrates this unlikely friendship, and a recent review closed with the following line: “Could we please make it a constitutional requirement that no one can be sworn into office in the White House or Congress without having first seen ‘Scalia/Ginsburg’ [the opera]?”
There is a provocative article in the current issue of The Atlantic on the role of higher education in preparing students for life in this world. Form your own conclusions, but there is a passage near the end of the article that I love: “Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”
That should keep us busy for a little while.
¹ Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, THE ATLANTIC, Sept. 2015, at 45.