Although commonly referred to as “Presidents’ Day,” Feb. 18 is legally recognized as “Washington’s Birthday” (his actual birthday is Feb. 22).
However, as the Washington Examiner notes, we don’t dedicate this day to Washington because he is the greatest U.S. general (he isn’t) or even the greatest president (the case can certainly be made for others). No, though Washington’s performance in both categories is deserving of high praise, we honor him for the precedent and example he set.
“He held the proverbial ring of power, and he gave it up of his own accord,” the Washington Examiner notes.
“Washington’s selflessness separates him from lesser men who won much greater military victories but were vanquished by the temptation of power — Julius Caesar before him and Napoleon Bonaparte afterward.”
He refused this power because he believed in the cause of the republic.
Understanding the pitfalls of organized government, Washington in his 1796 farewell address to Congress urged U.S. lawmakers to guard against unnecessary wars and racking up unsustainable public debt, among other things.
Considering the fact that the nation’s capital has in recent years become a spectacle more deserving of mockery than praise, perhaps it’s worth revisiting some of his warnings to Congress.
On the Constitution:
This government … has a just claim to your confidence and your support.
Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.
But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
On ‘Progressive’ Ideas:
Towards the preservation of your government … resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.
In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.
On Political Parties:
Let me now … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
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.
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.
The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. … The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.
The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.
The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.
On Public Debt:
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.
The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.
So there you have it. Enjoy “Washington’s Birthday” (which is technically Feb. 22). Without him, we probably wouldn’t have the Constitution or, you know, a United States of America:
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Featured image Getty Images. This post has been updated.