NY Washington Farewell Address Exhibit

George Washington's Farewell Address, written in his own hand, on display in February 2013 at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y. "Washington foresaw both the importance of the peaceful transition and the ease with which it could be breached," writes Eagle columnist Carole Owens.

Relinquishing power in response to the will of the people is fundamental to democracy.

In a democracy, the peaceful transition of power is an idea made manifest: Power is the people’s to grant, no individual’s to seize or hold. In fact, holding onto power by force changes the form of government from democracy to dictatorship by that single act.

George Washington and James Madison anticipated Jan. 6.

Washington foresaw both the importance of the peaceful transition and the ease with which it could be breached. In his 1796 farewell address, he wrote, “The unity of government, which constitutes you as one people, ... is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence ... of your safety, of your prosperity .... But ... much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth, as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed.”

That is, Washington feared factions. He saw avoiding political parties as one way to avoid factions and thereby avoid a threat to liberty and safety. He saw factions begin with propaganda to weaken our minds and inevitably end in violence to assert their will. Were he to walk among us today, he would nod in recognition of his greatest fear realized.

In the Federalist Paper No. 10 in 1787, Madison called it “the mischiefs of faction.” When factions formed, persuaded and turned to violence, Madison did not so much tell us what to do as he walked through a logical consideration of the possibilities.

Madison suggested: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”

He concluded: “It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. … The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise.”

Why?

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” Madison opined. However, to remove liberty to control a faction is to kill democracy in the act of trying to protect it.

He did name the place where his hope rested: “A large republic will help control factions because when more representatives are elected, there will be a greater number of opinions. Therefore, it is far less likely that there will be one majority oppressing the rest of the people.”

Maddison added that would pertain only “As long as the connection subsists between reason and opinions …”

Madison and Washington anticipated the radical change in the Republican Party, but do they explain it?

Why have Republicans abandoned principles and policies for gerrymandering, voter suppression, voter subversion, conspiracy theories, threats and violence?

The Republicans are not now, nor will they ever again be, a majority party. That’s neither spin nor hyperbole — it’s just nose-counting. The percent of voters registered as Republicans decreased to 24 percent. The last Republican presidents — George W. Bush and Donald Trump — did not win the majority of votes even as they won in the Electoral College.

It is often reported that 80 percent of Republicans support something or other; 80 percent of 24 percent is 19 percent of voters — a small and unpersuasive number of voters. That does not mean Republicans do not want to win and do not want to rule. However, in a democracy, it is more difficult for a minority to rule. Why then would Republicans support a democracy? They no longer do. There are fewer and fewer in the party like Liz Cheney wanting a party of principles and more and more like Ron DeSantis wanting power at any price.

If our Founding Fathers were here, what would they advise?

“Violence,” Madison wrote, “is the mortal disease under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Possibly true but not comforting. We all know what Franklin said: “A republic if you can keep it.” True, but now what?

Hamilton feared that people acted less often for the good of all and more often for the good of themselves. And yet Hamilton wrote, “There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.”

Let us hope.

As the midterm elections approach, remember Madison. If we lose our liberty, “No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties or his possessions.”

If we lose, we lose it all, and yet Madison agreed with Hamilton: “Equal laws protecting equal rights [are] the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country.”

Let us hope.

Let us hope for a repeat of 2020 when more people voted than ever before; when 81,000,000 people stood together, stood in long lines, stood up for love of country; when 7,000,000 more people voted for the defender of democracy, Joe Biden, than for any president before him.

Let us hope.

Carole Owens, a writer and historian, is a regular Eagle contributor.