“Friends and Fellow-Citizens:
“The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.” — Washington’s Farewell Address, first paragraph
The Relinquishment of Power
There is a reason that George Washington is a scion in the annals of history. While some men may be said to have had a larger impact, few can be said to have maintained their virtue as completely as Washington while at the same time changing the world and the course of history.
Many have tried to imitate him, few, if any have succeeded.
When Washington wrote his farewell address, the United States was just getting started. Yet in another way, the United States was a stabilizing experiment that was proving to be quite successful. When Washington wrote this address, it was 20 years since that fateful Declaration of Independence had been signed. It was even longer since the first seeds of independence had been planted and begun to grow. The idea and concept that was ‘America’ was by then firmly rooted. This burgeoning country was just now getting to the point where an ambitious person could utilize its nearly limitless resources to expand, grow, conquer and enrich.
But despite all of that, Washington stepped away from the presidency. He gave up more power than most men will ever dream of having. There may be other examples of such relinquishment of power throughout the ages, but they are very few and very far between. Washington remains loved and respected even to this day in large part because of his willingness, even eagerness to relinquish the power thrust upon him.
The Motive for Service
This choice to give up power could not have been made unless he had the proper motivation for serving as president. The lure and temptation presented by a loving electorate, willing to keep voting him in until death, the power of a new nation with all its resources at his disposal, would have caused many a lesser man to stumble.
Just think of the justifications that could have run through his mind. “They want me to serve, how can I tell them no? After all, I have done a good job. If it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t even have a country! In a way, it’s only right that I stay president.”
Somehow, I doubt these thoughts ever crossed Washington’s mind. That kind of thinking would not have carried him through years of heartbreaking war, backbreaking work, mind-numbing cold, and constant uncertainty. No, Washington was a man with his eye on a goal. Not a selfish goal, but a goal that would benefit a new country and eventually the world.
His motivation for service was born out of a sense of duty. Duty to God and his fellow man. A belief that if you have the power and ability to make a change, then you have responsibility to do all you can to make that change happen. Not for yourself or your selfish reasons, but for those around you who may have no hope but you.
Service, Not Power
Washington had some help from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton while writing his final farewell address. Madison and Hamilton were both co-authors of the Federalist Papers and instrumental in the writing of the Constitution itself. All 3 men were educated, prolific letter writers, men who understood how to use words to convey the desired meaning.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that Washington specifically used the word “citizen” when referring to the person who would replace him in this “important trust”. Washington wanted to communicate that he was just a Virginia farmer turned soldier turned president who just wanted to go home and farm again. He was not an aristocrat lording power over the subjects. He wanted the people of the United States to understand that whoever replaced him ought to have the same opinion of themselves. To realize that indeed, the presidency is a trust.
America is a republic. This means that we elected people to represent us in the governing tasks that must be done. Every elected office is an “important trust”. We place a lot of faith and trust in an elected official — which they know how to govern, that they will govern properly, that they will govern in our best interest that they will govern in accordance with the Constitution, etc.
It is similar to the trust you place in a surgeon. Their job could be said to be an “important trust”. But while a surgeon may hold your life in their hands, an elected official holds the lives and liberties of an entire country in their hands.
Words like “service” and “trust” have been hijacked by corrupt politicians who would not know morality if it smacked them in the face. These politicians promise and promise and promise on the campaign trail, go to D.C. or your state capitol, do the exact opposite of their promise, come home and justify, justify, justify then make more promises so that they can get re-elected and started the whole process over again.
The blatant, obvious hypocrisy evidenced in the lives of some of our nation’s “leaders” is appalling and, I do not doubt, has real leaders like George Washington rolling in their graves.
However, while it may be hard to tell sometimes, I am not without hope. I still believe that there remains a remnant in this country of true patriots who love this country, freedom, and their fellow humans more than themselves and power. The problem is that for many, they have never seen a leader who would relinquish power (instead of stay in office for 57 years), and serve with a proper motivation of giving rather than taking.
And that’s why I want to remind America of who we started out as — a man who would give up all the power in the world to return to a farm in Virginia.