Why George Washington would not be a Republican today

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“[T]here is a contractedness, I am sorry to add, in some of the States” (George Washington, To Lafayette, February 1, 1784).

The threat that George Washington saw darkening the American horizon, which otherwise looked pretty bright to him, was not a despotic federal government; it was the tyranny of the individual states, their “unreasonable jealousy” not only of each other but of federal powers:

The disinclination of the individual States to yield competent powers to Congress for the Foederal Government —  their unreasonable jealousy of that body & of one another — & the disposition which seems to pervade each, of being all-wise & all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a change in the system, be our downfal as a Nation (letter to Benjamin Harrison,  January 18, 1784).

To Washington, the attitude of the states was one of arrogance, and it was this arrogance of the states that was despotic. Conversely, Washington was not too worried about any despotism stemming from the federal government. The ease with which he dismissed such fears is remarkable:

[A]ltho’ I am returned to, & am now mingled with the class of private citizens, & like them must suffer all the evils of a Tyranny, or of too great an extension of foederal powers, I have no fears arising from this source [ibid.].

It was the tyranny of the states that he worried about. There is a veritable profusion of instances in Washington’s letters where he points to the states as the main threat to America’s success:

We are either a United people under one head, & for Foederal purposes, or, we are thirteen independent Sovereignties, eternally counteracting each other…I can foresee no evil greater, than disunion — than the unreasonable jealousies (I say unreasonable, because I would have a proper jealousy always awake, and the United States always upon the watch, to prevent individual States from infracting the Constitution, with impunity) which are continually poisoning our minds, and filling them with imaginary evils, to the prevention of real ones (To James McHenry, August 22, 1785).

According to Washington, then, the federal government must be “always awake…always upon the watch” against the states, not the other way around. It is the very opposite of what we should have expected given the contrived historical narrative unceasingly perpetuated by the right wing, one in which Uncle Sam is always the bad guy and the states are always somehow on the side of the angels. Nothing could have been further from the thinking of our preeminent founder.

We have twice seen Washington use the word “jealousy” in reference to the states. Here he dilates upon the notion:

Illiberality, Jealousy, & local polity mix too much in all our public Councils for the good government of the Union…[It is] extraordinary…that we should Confederate for National purposes, and yet be afraid to give the rulers thereof …sufficient powers to order & direct the affairs of that Nation. By such policy as this the wheels of government are clogged…it behoves us therefore to establish it upon just principles; and this, any  more than other matters of national concern canot be done by thirteen heads, differently contracted; The [sic] necessity therefore of controuling power is obvious, and why it should be with-held is beyond comprehension.  (To James Warren, April 12, 1786). 

“By such policy as this the wheels of government are clogged.” We can with all justification lob the same complaint at Republicans today:  their policies are clogging the wheels of government.

A few months later, the “illiberality and jealousy” of the states are still on Washington’s mind. He writes to Thomas Jefferson, “Some other States are, in my opinion, falling into very foolish & wicked plans of emitting paper money. I cannot however give up my hopes & expectations that we shall ‘ere long adopt a more liberal system of policy” (August 1, 1786). You would hardly know it from today’s political rhetoric, but for Washington “liberal” is a good thing. “A more liberal system of policy” means a strengthening of the federal government and a correlated limitation on the power of the states (in other letters, it is clear that Washington also associated the word “liberal” with tolerance and with freedom itself).

Towards the states, the federal government must, to a certain extent, be coercive:

[M]en will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several States. To be fearful of vesting Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness…Congress have too frequently made use of the suppliant humble tone of requisition, in applications to the States, when they had a right to assume their imperial dignity and command obedience…[R]equisitions are a perfect nihility, where thirteen sovereign, independent, disunited States are in the habit of discussing & refusing compliance with them at their option (To John Jay, August 15, 1786).

The states should not be able to refuse compliance. Congress has to assume its “imperial dignity and command obedience” of the states. Strong words. To Washington, “the great, & most important of all objects” was the strengthening of the federal government (To James Madison November 5, 1786). “[T]he awful situation of our Affairs [results] in a great measure from the want of efficient powers in the federal head, and due respect for its Ordinances (To Edmund Randolph December 21, 1786). To Alexander Hamilton, Washington writes:

The Men who oppose a strong & energetic government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views. The apprehension expressed by them that the people will not accede to the form proposed is the ostensible, not the real cause of the opposition — but admitting that the present sentiment is as they prognosticate, the question ought nevertheless to be, is it or is it not, the best form? (July 10, 1787; Washington’s emphasis).

I submit that the same people opposing “strong & energetic government” today are not only the same type of “narrow minded politicians,” and not only motivated by the same “local views,” but are guilty of the same misrepresentation of the people’s will. These same politicians also love to declare the primacy of freedom in defense of states’ rights, to which Washington replied:

It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these States; to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all — Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest (To the Continental Congress, September 17, 1787).

Here Washington kills two conservative birds with a single stone. Not only is he challenging the very notion of state sovereignty, saying it is essentially pure fiction (if we are to be a real Union), he refuses to buy the rhetoric of freedom that is still bandied about today. The states, he says, must — not should — give up a share of liberty for the sake of the Union. “Truth is,” Washington writes,

men are too apt to be swayed by local prejudices and those who are so fond of amendments which have the particular interest of their own States in view cannot extend their ideas to the general welfare of the Union; they do not consider that for every sacrifice  which they make they receive an ample compensation by the sacrifices which are made by other States for their benefit; and that those very things, which they give up operate to their advantage through the medium of the general interest (To John Armstrong, April 25, 1788).

If Washington, with his emphasis on “the general welfare” and “the general interest,” and with his refusal to put the individual above all (“Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest”), were alive today, conservatives would accuse him of being a communist.

As we see above with his references to “local prejudices,” and as we are about to see again in the quotation below, Washington credits the creation of the United States of America to the sacrifice of local bigotry, which he saw as the major impediment to liberty and equality:

[N]othing but a genuine spirit of amity and accommodation could have induced the members to make those mutual concessions and to sacrifice (at the shrine of enlightened liberty) those local prejudices, which seemed to oppose an insurmountable barrier, to prevent them from harmonizing in any system whatsoever (To Edward Newenham, August 29, 1788).

I again submit that those local prejudices, which Washington believed were the impediments to harmony, are the same stumbling blocks that are causing so much disunity in our country today. Unless those politicians who are foisting these local prejudices upon the rest of the Union are defeated, or outvoted, we will continue to see the same terrible disharmony plaguing the nation.

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