What Washington Said: The Danger of Despotism
On this Presidents Day, the warnings of George Washington and the counsel of Frederick Douglass strike with the power of prophecy
In recognition of Presidents Day, originally intended to celebrate George Washington’s birthday (February 22, 1732), I want to share a few thoughts from his stunningly prescient Farewell Address, released on September 19, 1796 and written with the contributions of two talented ghostwriters, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. I also want to share a necessary observation from Frederick Douglass, whose exact birthday was unknown (not unusual for enslaved people) but came to be celebrated on February 14 and estimated as 1818. In my view, Douglass, one of this country’s greatest Americans, represents the caliber of man and thinker we can only wish rose to the level of the highest office in the land.
Washington’s address was published in the American Daily Advertiser, which cost six cents and appeared on pages two and three. Washington—an uneasy orator who preferred this unusual forum—described it as “disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” In those early years of the new republic, he had plenty of reasons to worry about the current and future status of the country for which he had served two terms as its first president.
Over two centuries later, his stated fears about the permanence of the union, the survival of a popular government that served the whole, and other existential dangers facing democracy could not be more relevant. Chief among them: the toxic threat of factionalism and the tyranny of a minority as a dark counterforce to “the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community…they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Washington went on, as if he were sending a jeremiad—a prophetic warning shot to the bow of democracy, straight to the 21st century in which we now live. He called it despotism. More and more these days, we call it authoritarianism or even fascism.
“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. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
Please pause on that closing line—about “the chief of some prevailing faction,” who exploits the needs of people “to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual” and exploits the nation’s “disorders and miseries” for “the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.” Sound familiar?
Our first president was not done, underscoring the nature of this extreme danger and such “common and continual mischiefs” of a political party bent on sowing conflict. How might this play out? Such a party would “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.” And more, expressed in chillingly precise terms:
“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.”
What to do to avoid this corruption and crime? Referring to his own words as “counsels of an old and affectionate friend,” he hoped that such mischiefs “make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” He urged that any “sincere friend” of free government would promote “as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” He offered an equation: “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
Oh, in the age of QAnon and Fox, Trumpism and the Big Lie, were it only so. Oh, in the age when men are determined to degrade our capacity to know what’s true—to convince us to ignore our own eyes and ears—may we hear Washington’s words, as if he were still among us. Oh, in this age of uncertainty, let’s take strength from his clear counsel.
On August 3, 1857, Frederick Douglass spoke about the fought-for emancipation of the enslaved people of the British West Indies 23 years earlier in 1834. While his speech—including his self-described “philosophy of reforms”—focused on that foreign struggle, it also foreshadowed the coming struggle in America…and continue to speak to our times.
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle,” he said, then famously asserted, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
He continued speaking with the clarity and torturous experience of a formerly enslaved man who fought for his own freedom (against “slave breaker” Edward Covey) and understood the need to say enough is enough:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters…
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Democracy Snapshot: In an occasional feature, I plan to highlight the good work of organizations and people dedicated to securing democracy and justice. One of these is Democracy Forward, which over the last five years has filed over 650 legal actions and record requests to confront rising lawlessness and state-level abuses of power. In the last year, this has included filing suit on behalf of the Texas AFL-CIO and state employees to stop Governor Greg Abbott’s veto of funding for the Texas legislature in retaliation for Democratic opposition to his voting restriction bills.
“I think it’s really important that we follow what bad actors are doing in courtrooms and statehouses across the country even—perhaps especially—when it doesn’t make big headlines,” Democracy Forward’s president and CEO Skye Perryman told me in an email. “There are unfortunately many lawmakers actively working to undermine social progress and weaken our democratic institutions.”
When asked how optimistic she feels about the current state of our democracy, Perryman had this to say: “Every American has the power to do something to turn the tide and protect democracy and progress for the future. That is what we must do to ensure democracy is not nearing its final days.”
In a sentence, how does she describe the legal work of her organization? “We pay close attention to what’s happening in our nation’s courtrooms, statehouses, and communities, and we support advocates engaged in transformative work on often underexposed or overlooked issues by providing legal representation, strategy, and resources to amplify their voice in government.”
Find out more about Democracy Forward here.
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