George Washington on Respecting the Constitution as Written

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Statue of George Washington inside the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia on February 8, 2019. (Jay Paul/Reuters)

by George Washington farewell speech is one of the most famous speeches (in fact, a speech published in newspapers) in American history. He is generally remembered for his warnings against foreign entanglements, against descent into partisan faction, and against the loss of morality, virtue, and their rootedness in religion. We don’t think so often of Washington’s views on the Constitution, but he was, after all, the President of the Constitutional Convention, the document’s first signer, and the man who shaped many of its powers. Washington took the written law seriously: He once withdrew a Supreme Court nomination after it was pointed out to him that his nominee had voted to create the Supreme Court and was therefore ineligible for the post until that there is an intermediate election. He also took seriously the standards of behavior that allow the written law to prevail; it established the norm that presidents leave office after two terms, and it was not until the 1940s that this norm was violated, requiring a constitutional amendment to enforce it.

In the farewell speech, Washington first urged the American people to respect and obey their constitution and oppose any effort to undermine federal law enforcement:

You improved your first try [the Articles of Confederation], by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than yours for an intimate union, and for the effective management of your common interests. This government, the offspring of our own choosing, without influence or respect, has adopted after thorough investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing in himself a provision for his own amendment, is justly entitled to your confidence and support. Respect for its authority, obedience to its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties commanded by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of peoples to make and modify their constitutions of the government. Corn the Constitution which exists at all times, until amended by an express and authentic act of all the people, is damn binding on all. The very idea of ​​the power and the right of the people to establish the government supposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government. All hindrances to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under any plausible character whatsoever, with the real intention of directing, controlling, thwarting or intimidating the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities , are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.

He went on to explain that changes to the Constitution should only be undertaken with the utmost care and the deepest respect for experience and tradition:

For the preservation of your government and the permanence of your present happy state, it is necessary not only that you regularly reject irregular opposition to its recognized authority, but also that you carefully resist the spirit of innovation on its principlesno matter how specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect alterations in the forms of the Constitution which will weaken the energy of the system, and so undermine that which cannot be directly overthrown.. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; this experience is the surest standard to test the real tendency of a country’s existing constitution; this facility to change, on the credit of simple hypotheses and opinions, exposes to the perpetual change, of the infinite variety of hypotheses and opinions; and above all remember that for the effective management of your common interests, in a country as extensive as ours, a government as vigorous as it is compatible with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.

This brought Washington to the conclusion of his discussion of the Constitution, in which he warned against the disruption of the separation of powers and other features of the constitutional order by temporary emergencies or any other method in addition to an amendment approved by the people:

It is also important that the habits of thought of a free country inspire prudence in those who are responsible for its administration, confine themselves to their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department encroaching on another. The spirit of encroachment tends to combine the powers of all the departments into one, and thus to create, whatever be the form of government, a real despotism. A just appreciation of this love of power and this tendency to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is enough to convince us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it among different repositories, and by constituting each the guardian of the public good against the invasions of the others, has been demonstrated by ancient and modern experiences. ; some of them in our country and before our very eyes. Preserving them must be as necessary as instituting them. If, in the opinion of the people, the apportionment or modification of constitutional powers is in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in such sense as 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 usual weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always largely outweigh in permanent harm any partial or passing benefit that use may at any time yield.

Many of the words here were those of Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the address, as well as possibly those of James Madison, who submitted an earlier draft. But the final draft reflected Washington’s own views. Washington recognized the need for change; in his lifetime he had been a leader in both the revolution against British rule and the replacement of the Articles of Confederation. He acknowledged that innovations can sometimes be useful in the short term. And he repeatedly endorsed the amendment process. But he intended his words on this subject, as on others, as a permanent warning to posterity: the Constitution was his generation’s gift to future Americans, and they should never let anyone else change it, except by their own participation in its modification.

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