On Sept. 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser published 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 Washington’s address; a warning we failed to heed to our own detriment.
Washington advised that we should hold tight to the original Constitution and avoid giving in to the temptation to turn it into a “living, 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 pretexts.”
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 directly 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 “alterations,” 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 fixtures.
Of course, we can’t place blame solely on the courts. Presidents have seized a wide range of unconstitutional powers, further altering and undermining the constitutional system. As just one example, 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 responsibility 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 undermine 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 consistent 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 attributes of the Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense!”
Washington wrote that “time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions.” 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 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.”
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 constitutional role. He wrote that a government “with powers properly distributed and adjusted” would serve as liberty’s “surest guardian.”
“[Liberty] is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine 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.” Washington wasn’t ignorant of this fact. He admitted the need for flexibility, 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 country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department 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 despotism. 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 distributing 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 people, 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 added.]
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 trillions upon trillions 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 “overbalanced” 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.