Presidential farewell addresses, like inaugurations, are often conversations across the generations. They aim to connect the past and the present with a vision of the future.
President Obama went out of his way Tuesday night in Chicago to root his farewell address in the Founding Fathers, name-checking the Enlightenment era, quoting the Declaration of Independence (while adding the pointed note that "these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing") and praising those revolutionary patriots who chose “republic over tyranny.”
But the most direct communion with his presidential predecessors came in the form of an extended quote from the founder of the farewell address tradition, George Washington. Here's what Obama said: "In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity and liberty, but 'from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken . . . to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.' And so we have to preserve this truth with 'jealous anxiety'; that we should reject 'the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties' that make us one."
These selections from Washington's 6,088-word farewell were part of the first president's core warning to defend national unity against all conniving dividers, both foreign and domestic. It reminds us how many of our own struggles have precedents that can give us perspective.
When Washington set to work on his farewell address, first with James Madison and then with Alexander Hamilton - the greatest team of ghostwriters in history - he wanted to do more than just offer a valedictory victory lap while he established the two-term tradition. Only 20 years after the Declaration of Independence, it was far from assured that the American experiment would survive. There was already talk of civil war, as regional divisions formed the basis of bitter partisan battles even within Washington's own Cabinet, exacerbated by what he called “infamous scribblers” in the newspapers of the day. And so Washington decided to deploy his hard-won wisdom, informed by a half-century of service in war and peace, to offer a set of guiding principles that might save our young democratic republic from self-destruction after his departure from the civic stage.
Washington warned about the forces that had toppled democratic republics in the past: hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars. Two specific warnings seem ripped from today's headlines. Washington, an independent president, feared that self-interested political factions, divided along regional or ideological lines, could turn citizens against one another, agitating “the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms.” Frustration with dysfunctional democracy could open the door to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions: “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.” This danger is the cost of declining trust in our civic institutions and one another, which Obama highlighted when he spoke of how many Americans now see people we disagree with “not just as misguided, but as malevolent.”
Russian hacking would seem to be a frontier that Washington could not have anticipated. But he devoted considerable energy to warning about the dangers of foreign influence in domestic politics. Ancient Greek city-states had been undermined by foreign powers, and in the 1790s, Poland's parliamentary democracy found itself crippled after politicians seduced by Russia agreed to disastrous partitions that reduced it to a skeletal state.
Washington bore fresh scars from his onetime revolutionary ally, France, deploying agents to undermine his principle of neutrality in its war with Britain, while Jefferson and Madison unwisely sided with the guillotine enthusiasts in the Jacobin regime. Washington warned that “history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,”aiming to “islead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils.” That's a neat description of what Russian hacks and fake news have attempted to do to our political debates and election results.
Both Washington and Obama found the solution to these divisive forces in vigorous citizenship and an overriding focus on national unity, balancing individual liberty with generational responsibility. Washington declared that “here being constant danger of excess”from hyper-partisanship, “he effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.”Obama said: “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. . . . Because for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: citizen."
For all their differences, the presidents who bookend the 240-year history of our republic understood that our independence is inseparable from our inter-dependence.
Avlon is the editor in chief of the Daily Beast and a CNN political analyst.