What Would George Washington Do?
Although Americans celebrate the birth of our nation on the Fourth of July, what we actually celebrate is the spirit of liberty and revolution that led to its founding. We do not have a holiday dedicated to the actual creation of the United States, but our celebration of President's Day is close enough.
President's Day is truly a combination of the birthdays of two presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It is through Washington's leadership that our nation was born, and it was through Lincoln's leadership that we became united once more. With our nation currently seeking a new direction, we must look to the example of the past to guide us through the present, and there is no better summary of the course we must take than that described by Washington in his first Annual Message to a Joint Session of Congress, now known as the State of the Union Address.
After mentioning the acceptance of North Carolina into the union, Washington describes what lays before the Congress, “In reforming your consultations for the general good, you cannot but derive encouragement from the reflection, the measures of the last session have been as satisfactory to your constituents as the novelty and difficulty of the work allowed you to hope.–Still further to realize their expectations, and to secure the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach, will in the course of the present important session, call for the cool and deliberate exertion of your patriotism, firmness and wisdom.”
Of these items, he places a primary regard on an overhaul of the nation's military, “Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Our nation now faces the same need to reform both national and international defenses to meet the challenges of the future. However, a strong military is not the only defense: “A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.”
As Adam Smith stressed throughout his Wealth of Nations, capitalism is not merely free trade but a consumer based approach that maximizes the buying power of the citizen. A nation must safeguard resources and supplies to ensure that deceitful international trade practices do not threaten the citizenry. This can be accomplished through treaties, but only if those treaties are beneficial to the people.
Washington moves on to mention the security of the nation's borders from various threats and the need to protect the “frontiers” of the nation. This was a primary concern of the first president, and he sought from Congress the power and funds to protect the nation from others: “The interests of the United States require, that our intercourse with other nations should be facilitated by such provisions as will enable me to fulfill my duty, in that respect, in the manner which circumstances may render most conducive to the publick good: And to this end, that the compensations to be made to the persons who may be employed, should, according to the nature of their appointments, be defined by law; and a competent fund designated for defraying the expenses incident to the conduct of our foreign affairs.”
Of these, he wanted the authority to regulate immigration to protect the rights of the American citizenry instead of a haphazard system that admits anyone who comes: “Various considerations also render it expedient, that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of Citizens, should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization. Uniformity in the currency, weights and measures of the United States, is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.”
Beyond international relationships, Washington stressed the need to promote the three pillars of the American economy: the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing sectors: “The advancement of agriculture, commerce and manufactures, by all proper means, will not, I trust, need recommendation. But I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad, as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home; and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the Post Office and Post Roads.”
The Constitution set forth the need for roads, a postal system, copyright, and patent laws all to ensure that the United States had a network to promote and the resources to protect advancement. It is in our nation's economic and military interest to take what is good from other nations but to protect the interest and rights of our own. The nation requires a careful mix of protectionism and openness to give a competitive advantage to American scholars and entrepreneurs without isolating them from important innovations that would help them compete at a greater level.
To add further in promoting American achievement, Washington encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would help promote education and academic pursuits: “Nor am I less persuaded, that you will agree with me in opinion, that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature.”
However, education does not exist merely to assist in obtaining jobs or to make scientific discoveries. Instead, education aids in the creation of citizens and promotes the American culture: “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness. In one, in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community, as in our's, it is proportionately essential.”
An informed public is a free public, and intellectually empowered people are able to fully participate in and guide their government: “To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: By convincing those who are entrusted with the publick administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: And by teaching the people themselves to know, and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.”
Education, therefore, is not just facts or “learning.” It is the promotion of the American spirit, that combination of individual liberty and stubborn determination which encourages our citizens to do what previous generations thought impossible. There is no one way to accomplish this, which Washington admits, “Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the Legislature.”
In striving to accomplish these goals, many will seek to promote only themselves or their own interests. They will create systems that are unproven or try to divert funds to special interests. These individuals are self-interested, and they are not fit to guide the nation. Instead, the leaders must set the general course while also acting to empower the people and to ensure their liberty in equal measure.
To this point, Washington concludes, “The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed.–And I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you, in the pleasing though arduous task of ensuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect, from a free and equal government.”
From our nation's founding, and from our Founding Father Washington, we are given the principles to make our nation great. We must protect the nation from foreign threats by securing our military strength and our borders. We must promote the entrepreneur by giving them an equal amount of protection and access. We must protect the citizen by empowering them to understand what it means to be a citizen and give them the knowledge to fully participate in their government.
President's Day is devoted to these principles, and they are what a free people must embody if they want to continue to be free.
Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.