Following his first term as the United States President, George Washington drafted a letter declining another term in office. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, men with opposing philosophies and political parties, convinced Washington to stay on the job for a second term to help sustain a fledgling democracy. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, President Trump's repeated disregard for pillars of American democracy return our nation to a juncture of instability.
In Washington's "Farewell Address," published at the end of his second term and read throughout America, the first President reminds citizens about the importance of strong checks and balances, the danger of excessive coziness with foreign governments and the value of unity toward sustaining American democratic principles.
In his "Farewell Address" Washington noted, "The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments into one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism." He notes the "necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories."
With the firing of FBI Director James Comey amidst a misconduct probe that is gravitating toward the Oval Office, President Trump continues to challenge checks and balances to his power, especially if Trump replaces Comey with a biased investigator. This action comes on top of Trump's continued refusal to dissociate from business interests around the globe or to provide financial transparency (tax records), an unprecedented and direct conflict with the overall interests of the American people whom Trump is supposed to represent.
Additionally, George Washington warns that "the Nation, which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave ... to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and interest." Straying from duty toward profiteering, or the potential of this tack, is precisely why every American citizen should support an objective FBI review of travel, business, phone, and in-person meeting records of Trump's campaign leaders (e.g. Paul Manafort) and government advisors (e.g. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn) with Russian intelligence officials.
George Washington warns against the dangers of cozy foreign relationships: "It gives to ambitious, corrupted or deluded (who devote themselves to the favorite Nations) facility to betray, or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity." Washington further admonishes, "Free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government."
A strong foe of republican government is disunity, according to Washington. "Union is the primary object of Patriotic desire." A threshold degree of unity is vital to peace at home, peace abroad, safety, prosperity, liberty and Constitutional government. In contrast, nearly all of President Trump's rhetoric and action promote divisiveness, be it tax and health inequalities, increased military spending, immigration laws or late-night Twitter rants.
Political parties, according to George Washington, exacerbate divisiveness by creating great obstacles to unity. Political factions that seek to obstruct execution of laws (see: Obamacare) or prevent the enacting of power granted by the Constitution (see: refusal to hear Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland) are fundamental dangers to a democratic state. Washington believes that a true patriot will not ignore these encroachments, and they will respect the nation with a mind and heart that is independent of political party affiliation.
In our modern age, such freedom is challenged by political divisiveness amplified by mass media. George Washington warns that misrepresentation of the opinions and aims of others is one way to acquire and abuse power. "You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection."
With greater fraternal affection, Americans should ponder the parting words of George Washington and apply them to the modern Presidency: Is Donald Trump simply an eccentric rule-bender and therefore excusable? Or is Trump a significant threat to the pillars of American democracy?
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for 15 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.