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The Unheeded Advice in George

Washington’s Farewell Address

By: Mike Maharrey|Published on: Sep 19, 2018|Catego-
ries: Founding Fathers, George Washington
On Sept. 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser pub-
lished George Washington’s farewell address.
When people remember or discuss the address, they most often
recall his warning against political parties, his admonition to avoid
entangling foreign alliances, and his insistence that “religion and
morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity. But
we often read right over an even more poignant warning in Wash-
ington’s address; a warning we failed to heed to our own detri-
Washington advised that we should hold tight to the original Con-
stitution and avoid giving in to the temptation to turn it into a “liv-
ing, breathing” document that changes at the whim of whoever
holds power. As Washington put it, we must “resist with care the
spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pre-
Washington wrote that “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 di-
rectly overthrown.”
We see these alterations in the Constitution all the time – mostly
courtesy of the federal courts as they have expanded various
clauses to “authorize” federal actions that were clearly left to the
states and the people. Thanks to these constitutional “altera-
tions,” the federal government has interjected itself into almost
every area of our lives, from dictating how much water flushes
down our toilets to the kinds of light bulbs we can screw into our
Of course, we can’t place blame solely on the courts. Presidents
have seized a wide range of unconstitutional powers, further al-
tering and undermining the constitutional system. As just one ex-
ample, abandoning the constitutional division of war powers and
allowing the president to initiate military operations has led to
more than two decades of endless warfare.
And Congress has done its part, punting much of its responsibil-
ity to the executive branch by passing broadly worded bills that
allow executive branch bureaucrats to essentially write the law
after the fact.
Washington warned us that these kinds of alterations would un-
dermine the system. James Madison, who wrote the first draft of
Washington’s address, offered a similar warning, emphasizing
the importance of a fixed Constitution. In a letter to Henry Lee,
Madison wrote:
“I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in
which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation.
In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that be
not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a con-
sistent and stable, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers.
If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning
of the words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attrib-
utes of the Government must partake of the changes to which
the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly sub-
ject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of
law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern
Washington wrote that “time and habit are at least as necessary
to fix the true character of governments as of other human insti-
tutions.” He warned that constantly changing the meaning of the
Constitution through government action would ultimately prevent
any kind of stable system from developing.
“Experience is the surest standard by which to test the real ten-
dency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in
changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, ex-
poses to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothe-
sis 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.”
We certainly see this tendency today. The federal government
makes up its own rules as it goes, completely untethered from
any foundational principles or absolute limits.
Washington believed that our very liberties were dependent on
keeping the government constrained within its proper constitu-
tional role. He wrote that a government “with powers properly
distributed and adjusted” would serve as liberty’s “surest guard-
“[Liberty] is, indeed, little else than a name, where the govern-
ment is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to con-
fine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by
the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment
of the rights of person and property.”
Those who embrace the idea of a “living, breathing” Constitution
argue that it must be flexible to “change with the times.” Wash-
ington wasn’t ignorant of this fact. He admitted the need for flex-
ibility, but insisted change must happen within the Constitutional
system itself through the amendment process, not via political
maneuvering by the government itself.
“It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free coun-
try should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administra-
tion, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional
spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one depart-
ment to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment
tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one,
and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real des-
potism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to
abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to
satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal
checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distrib-
uting it into different depositaries, and constituting each the
guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has
been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them
in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must
be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the peo-
ple, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers
be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment
in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be
no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance,
may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon
by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent
must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or
transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.” [Emphasis
Sadly, Washington’s advice has not been followed. Virtually
every change to America’s constitutional system has been by
usurpation. The bastardized federal government has run up over
$21 trillion in debt. It fights unconstitutional wars across the
globe. It spies on virtually everybody and violates the right to
keep and bear arms. It tells you what kind of insurance to buy
and what kind of plants you can grow in your backyard.
It reaches into every corner of your life, attacking your liberty at
every turn.
Washington was right. Whatever transient benefit the federal
government may have brought by these actions has been “over-
balanced” by evil.
Two hundred and twenty-two years ago, George Washington left
us with sage advice. Perhaps now it’s time we begin to begin to
heed it.
Tags: Constitution, farewell address, George Washington