John Avlon addressing the audience of Politics and Prose.
By Alex Seibel
WASHINGTON – Foreign influence over our government, hyper partisanship dividing the country and setting the stage for a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions to take power, the dangers of excessive debt, the importance of public education, the need for religious diversity.
These may sound like political talking points in the 2017 headlines, but they were also issues the nation’s first president warned about in his farewell address, according to journalist and political commentator John Avlon in his new book “Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations”.
Avlon, who is editor-in-chief and managing director of the Daily Beast and a CNN political analyst, spoke to an audience of people at Washington D.C. book store Politics & Prose on Thursday about his book and listed the various connections between the warnings George Washington wrote into his 32 page farewell address at the end of his term, based upon history and the issues facing the country at the time, and today’s political climate.
One of these warnings, that Avlon considers one of the most important ones pertaining to today, was about the danger of partisanship and how hyper partisanship could cause problems.
“The founders would have called it political factions, but basically narrow self interested groups that would try to scheme and hijack a national representative government to achieve their own ends”, Avlon said. “And that process would eventually lead to a dysfunctional democracy that would increase angst on a citizen level to such an extent that it would erode faith in the effectiveness and efficiency of government, and that would open the door to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions.”
This statement was met with light laughter from members of the audience. On Wednesday, the Economist Intelligence Unit dropped the United States grade of its democracy from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” due to a long term decline in trust in the system. This past weekend there have been protests in airports across the nation against Donald Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries to much controversy on both sides of the aisle, with one senior Democrat aid saying “Trump shredded the Constitution” and several Republicans expressing frustration of not being informed about it beforehand.
“Washington was warning, even twenty years into the American experiment, that we are not immune from history”, Avlon said.
According to Avlon,Washington’s view on partisanship was informed by his own experience with how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison set out to attack him in partisan papers over the issue of their support for the French Revolution and Washington’s insistence of remaining neutral between Britain and France during the Anglo-French War.
“[Washington] did that because he understood that we needed to walk a middle path between monarchy and the mob and that already, and to Jefferson’s great eternal discredit, after it was revealed that the French Revolution was a monstrous new type of tyranny with heads being lopped off in the streets of Paris, roughly one every minute at the height of the Terror, Jefferson and Madison still bought into a romanticization of the French Revolution.”
This divide in opinion, and the influence that France tried to exert through ambassador Edmond-Charles Genêt who had orders to foment support of the French Revolution, was the basis of the partisan system, according to Avlon.
The fact that Genêt also had orders to cause riots and try to bring the American system down if Washington’s government tried to remain neutral in the war also tied into current events in a way Avlon said he could not foresee when writing the book.
“Washington’s real concern was foreign powers trying to influence domestic politics to undermine national sovereignty, so it’s a little ripped from the headlines, isn’t it?”” Avlon said to more laughter. “Vladimir Putin didn’t make this stuff up, it is an old playbook.”
Washington’s farewell address, which was published in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser in 1796, was not a document that only caters to Trump’s critics. Excessive debt was another issue that Washington and Alexander Hamilton, as first president and treasury secretary, had come to know while trying to get the Revolutionary War financed and maintaining the Continental Congress, according to Avlon. Washington himself also had a great deal of personal debt during his life, despite belief to the contrary that he was wealthy, according to Avlon. Today, the national debt has long been a Republican talking point.
“What’s fascinating about Washington’s farewell is that it is a document that can appeal to people on different sides of the political spectrum”, Avlon said. “I think it is important in that regard; it can remind us that there is such a thing as common ground and common purpose.”
Avlon talked about how various historical figures used the speech to promote their agendas. President Abraham Lincoln used it to argue against secession and overemphasizing states rights over federal legality ahead of the Civil War. Lyndon Johnson quoted the parts about the importance of public education during his efforts to expand education during his administration. Ronald Reagan used it to talk about the importance of religion.
Obama recently quoted it in his own farewell address to emphasize the importance of self governance and the need to avoid alienating parts of the population and becoming divided.
Avlon, who mentioned a recent article in the New York Times that revealed that Trump “does not read books”, is concerned about the president’s understanding of history. Avlon suspects that this may mean Trump has not read a presidential autobiography.
Avlon thinks the most important thing about Washington’s Farewell is that it was a letter to future generations rather than an oral speech to a few elites.
“Inaugural addresses, farewell addresses, they are conversations between the generations, and if you do not know the conversation, it is not going to end very well,” Avlon said.