In his farewell address, President George Washington gave some advice to the new country as it went forward in the grand experiment of popular government.
Unfortunately, he might as well have been one spouse talking to another, so thoroughly was his advice ignored.
Yet to those in our age who make a great show of being dedicated to the Founding Fathers, it is worth providing a timely but inconvenient reminder of what the most prominent of them actually thought.
For one thing, Washington was highly protective of the U.S. government, so recently hard won.
He wrote that Americans "should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety ..."
Yes, it is flowery stuff, but that's how the language was in 1796 -- no LOLs in the Farewell Address. Still, the meaning was clear enough. The union was to be the "primary object of patriotic desire."
So much for politicians who have raised the hope of leaving the union because somebody is messing with Texas or whatever other state that they consider supremely sovereign. On second thought, maybe President Washington wouldn't have minded now if Texas left, if it took Gov. Rick Perry with it.
Washington didn't like political parties, without which the likes of Mr. Perry would have no natural nursery. The first president warned of the "baneful effects of the spirit of party generally," writing that for popularly elected governments it was "truly their worst enemy."
"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual ..."
Could this be Barack Obama or George W. Bush? Substitute your own political villain here. But think about the spirit of party that begot them, as Washington identified it:
"It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption ..."
This is a prophetic description of our own time, save the occasional riot and insurrection, which are nevertheless routinely threatened in the name of freedom by the under-intelligent and overly armed.
Washington did concede that it was probably true that "parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty," but they serve that purpose, he wrote, within "certain limits."
Those limits have been thrown out the historical door. Republicans hate the Democrats and Democrats hate the Republicans, and in pursuing only their party's interest, nowhere is there found any love for the national interest.
This baneful spirit of party now infects the workings of government to the point of making it nearly unworkable. These clowns couldn't organize a booze-up in a brewery, if it meant the other guys got the credit.
And this is not limited to these shores; the country's dealings with other nations are also poisoned by party allegiance.
As it happens, Washington was no fan of foreign entanglements. In regard to foreign nations, he was for having "as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns."
Kiddies, can you say Crimea?
There's much in Washington's address to disconcert modern Americans of every political stripe. He calls for strict adherence to the Constitution. He sees "religion and morality" as indispensable supports to political prosperity. But it is his words about political parties that most impress me as warnings come to pass.
What we need is less partisanship and more loyalty to the transcendent party of common sense. Or so say I, who thanks George Washington for helping write this column.
Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By REG HENRY