With the inauguration of a new president, it seems timely to study the words of the first one, who set the mechanism of our presidential process into motion.
It is often believed that style is a superficial attribute. But it is also an outward expression of character, a fact made evident in a close reading of George Washington's 1796 Farewell Address. One sees the man in the language he chooses to use. His integrity and wisdom are made manifest through his words.
The speech begins with an explanation of Washington's decision to retire from office: his two terms as President have involved "a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty." Having performed the "duty," he concludes, he is now free to follow his "inclination."
Washington's argument is personal and not prescriptive. Yet by saying that two terms sufficed for him in the performance of his duty, he set a precedent that would be imitated by his successors (with one exception), and would eventually be codified into law.
Washington follows his announcement of retirement by another struggle between inclination and duty. He continues:
"Here, perhaps I ought to stop. - But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life ... urge me on an occasion like the present, to offer to you solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments ..."
A desire to end his remarks - "Here perhaps I ought to stop" - is superseded by the need to give counsel. Paternalism has come under fire in recent years as condescending or coercive, but the paternal instinct expressed by Washington here seems entirely admirable: "a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life ..."
Of the advice that ensues, the most relevant to us today involves warnings against military over-expansion, undue involvement with other nations, and the "baneful effects of the Spirit of Party." On the last point in particular, the style once again seems profoundly connected with the content:
"You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings, which spring from [party] misrepresentations; - they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection."
It is one thing to say that extreme party loyalty can be destructive; another that it tends "to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection." The phrasing, in its gracefulness alone, stands opposed to what Washington calls the "rankness" of party zealotry. It reminds us that "affection" is a value in human life - and that the social contract that underpins our birth as a nation should operate more broadly in our relations with each other.
Washington ends on a note of uncertainty that points to the future:
"I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression, I could wish, - that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our Nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of Nations."
His tone here is both philosophical and cautionary. As a student of history, he knows the course of nations. But as a man who loves his country, he obviously hopes for a different outcome.
What can we learn from this address? Washington's syntax is not simple, though his ideas are always clear. There is a tendency to qualification, even fussiness, in his style. He expresses the highest ideals and aspirations but without sound bytes that flatten or distort meaning.
Washington was writing when the country was new and full of promise. If only we could return to that sense of possibility. Perhaps we can begin with a stylistic return, by reintroducing words favored by Washington - magnanimity, duty, justice, and affection - and by being open to nuance and complexity. If we do this, perhaps the elevated values represented by this kind of expression will infuse our spirit as a nation.