I was honored to be joined by several Mount Vernon residents and other elected officials at the Mount Vernon Estate on Monday, as we placed wreaths at George Washington’s tomb and at the Slave Memorial, in recognition of our first President’s birthday. As I prepared for my remarks, I came across Washington’s Farewell Address to the Nation and found his remarks particularly poignant in today’s current political climate. Washington believed deeply in the preservation of our great nation through national unity.
In his final address to the Nation, Washington pointed out the importance of a unified government to protect our independence, peace, safety, prosperity and liberty. He noted the people of these United States should never underestimate the “immense value of [our] national union to [our] collective and individual happiness.” He forewarned of the danger of a divided union and the employment of mistruths to alienate parts of our country or its people.
Two generations later, my hero, Abraham Lincoln, saw exactly this premonition coming true as war loomed during the 1860 Presidential campaign. He cited Washington’s Farewell Address frequently, calling out the divisiveness that had lead the country to the brink of war. Lincoln noted Washington’s warning against sectionalism, and as the war began and government unity was torn apart, Washington’s worst fears came true.
In 1862, Lincoln rallied the Union by issuing a presidential decree to commemorate Washington’s birthday with readings of the Farewell Address nationwide, including “at every military post and at the head of the several regiments and corps of the Army.” Lincoln chose excerpts from the speech that focused on the need to maintain a strong national union. I’d like to share with you one such excerpt: “The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize … it is of infinite moment that you 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; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest.”
As we pause in observation this President’s Day, we should all be concerned that our national unity is in danger and we must all act to protect it. Mistruths are becoming too common, the freedom of the press is being undermined, entire nationalities and ways of life are being alienated every day in our country. It is time that “We the People” stand up for and protect our “more perfect union” and not allow bullies and bigots to endanger our “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”