- John Avlon says we shouldn't deify the Founding Fathers — it puts their lessons on an inaccessible pedestal.
The address, which was over 6,000 words long, was immediately reprinted in pamphlet form, and more copies of it were printed than copies of the Declaration of Independence. It stood as one of the pillars of American political thought for almost 70 years, until it was eventually usurped by President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which at only 272 words long was more easily memorized by schoolchildren, and more positive in its message of faith and the promise of the afterlife.
In the early 20th century, Washington's address became a bi-partisan weapon, used as an argument both for and against America’s entry into World War I by Woodrow Wilson (for) and Henry Cabot Lodge (against). After the themes of the speech, and an image of Washington himself, were appropriated in 1939 by the American Nazi party at a Madison Square Garden rally, the address was rarely mentioned in mainstream politics or history classes again.
But John Avlon, editor-in-chief and managing director of the political news website The Daily Beast, CNN political analyst, and author of a book called Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations is a longtime fan of the address, and after the 2012 election, he began to see parallels between what Washington wrote about and what was happening in American politics.
“I think if you take a look at what’s happening now and the problems we’re facing as a nation, Washington’s warnings are so prophetic and stark and urgent,” Avlon says. “And that’s why it’s time to rediscover the address. At the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, I was interested in a lot of the anxieties that were present about America as a civilization and the question of whether we were in decline.”
Washington warned against the forces that could indeed cause that decline, and as the post-2012 political climate became more contentious, Avlon saw our first president’s fears becoming reality. “Washington was our first and only independent president, and he was very concerned about the danger of hyper-partisanship,” Avlon says. “He warned against it in really explicit terms. Our citizens would become so frustrated by the resulting inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the government that it would lead to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions coming to power.”
But it wasn’t through some vision of the future that Washington saw this possibility. It came from knowledge of the past. “What are the forces that have taken down democratic nations in the past?” Avlon says. “That is one of the questions that the Founding Fathers asked. They were studying the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and really trying to learn and apply those lessons.”
And don’t think that Avlon read Washington’s address and had a vision of the future, either. “You look at Washington's warnings about partisanship, debt, and entangling alliances, and they seem ripped out of today’s headlines,” he says. “But in no shape or form did I see or predict the rise of Donald Trump.”
Often, the Founding Fathers are spoken about almost as deities; men who saw beyond their time and place and were able to foresee the challenges that democracy would face. But Avlon argues that seeing them that way actually makes it harder to truly digest the lessons they hoped to teach us.
“I wrote this book in part because I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we deify the founding fathers,” he says. “That makes their wisdom more distant and less accessible. When we put them on a pedestal and make their wisdom distant, we in effect cut ourselves off from it. They assumed new generations would come up with new ideas. When you appreciate them as human beings, as flawed men trying to do their best, they become much more accessible and approachable, and therefore more durable sources of information that we can aspire to.”
Another perspective that America can perhaps find comfort in is that history can always teach us lessons about the future, and the present. “You need to draw on history in order to avoid falling into old traps,” he says. And that’s why I think we do ourselves a disservice and put ourselves in a degree of danger when we ignore the lessons of history. The biggest trick is simply the awareness that we need to find ways to bridge the past with the present and the future, and that’s explicitly what Washington was working on in his address. He created a transcendent document that’s both timely and timeless. And now is the time to rediscover it.