George Washington and Self-Government

By William B. Allen
William B. Allen
William B. Allen
W.B. Allen is emeritus dean and professor at Michigan State University. His books include "Rethinking Uncle Tom: The Political Thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe" and "George Washington: America’s First Progressive."
January 20, 2022Updated: January 20, 2022


As George Washington’s first presidential administration, the first term of government under the United States Constitution, neared its end in 1793, the president found himself confronting a form of populism antithetical to stable politics in a republic. The situation emerged from the turbulent development of highly polarized partisan politics, along with efforts by France’s revolutionary government to interfere in American elections and in the expression of public opinion. In this context, there was an explosion in the formation of “democratic societies”—“so-called” democratic societies, Washington termed them—that sought to capitalize on the idea of popular sovereignty as an instrument to influence and shape government policy.

This charged political atmosphere presented a challenge to the meaning of “self-government” as a practice compatible with stable politics. Washington took up that challenge in a manner that continues to define our understanding of the concept. To understand his response, however, it is important to understand the nature of the terms involved, for self-government has both a moral meaning and a formal meaning. The moral meaning defends the right (and duty) of individual self-government as the source (through consent) of all political authority. That meaning, in turn, produces the formal concession that representative government frames the only practical initiative that can make good or operationalize political authority consistent with individual liberty—that is, freedom of conscience and self-government. As a result, the term self-government comes to apply by analogy to the institutional arrangements or mechanisms designed to implement these moral conditions.

However, there remains to be explored the question of how far the institutions of self-government operate on the basis of the opinions of the citizens—and thus remain consistent with their self-governing intentions. Two options are immediately apparent (at least in the conditions of the late 18th century): either the expression of the opinions of citizens by means of the regular election of representatives or the ephemeral and irregular expression of public opinion by means of ad hoc, informal, and spontaneous associations.

When Washington confronted the “so-called democratic societies,” he was articulating the view that the only legitimate expression of the public voice consistent with the rights and duties of self-government is through the formal activity of the people’s chosen representatives. In other words, public opinion is what the people’s representatives say it is. He asked, in a different context: “For Heaven’s sake who are Congress? Are they not the Creatures of the People, amenable to them for their Conduct, and dependent from day to day on their breath? Where then can be the danger of giving them such Powers as are adequate … to [what] concerns the Union at large”? The most authoritative response to this view was James Madison’s argument in his essay on “Public Opinion,” which held that the literal authority of public opinion was always entitled to prevail, however collected and expressed, and thus specifically as a means of intervenient or ad hoc direction between elections. These were two very different understandings about the meaning of the public expression of the popular will.

The significance of Madison’s position has often been elided by interpretation of the initiatives of the Republican Party formed to challenge Washington’s presumptive political party, the Federalists, as essentially aimed at contesting elections rather than at directing the formation of public policy. In fact, however, the principal defense of the activity of the Republican Party lay not in the organizational imperative of winning a pending election but in the programmatic imperative of shaping public policy under the trope, “vox populi; vox dei”—the voice of the people is the voice of God. Madison’s far more famous argument against “majority faction” does not contradict his position in “Public Opinion,” because Madison was persuaded that a properly constructed society could both give voice to majority rule and rule out the formation of unjust majorities. He was no crude majoritarian.

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A portrait of the 4th U.S. President James Madison (1809–1817). (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers via Getty Images)

Washington was less sanguine than Madison about the possibility of erecting stable political authority on the foundation of fluctuating public sentiment. Accordingly, his conduct of the government was based upon constant reaffirmation of the authority conveyed to representatives—as in his forceful response to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and an express argument on behalf of the rule of law, rather than fluctuating opinion—brought together with complete confidence in the ability of the people retrospectively to evaluate the performances of their representatives. Representatives must deliberate and act, and the public can evaluate their judgments and choices and hold them accountable at the appropriate time.

Washington’s view required that two things be accomplished: first, he needed to adopt and defend clearly stated policies (while deferring to the deliberation of the legislature), and, second, he needed to anticipate the faithful fulfillment of the public’s wishes, even in cases that seemed to run counter to sentiment (such as the Jay Treaty’s abandonment of the claims of slaveholders).

The first objective Washington accomplished in a masterful manner by means of his approach to managing his Cabinet—requiring of diverse officers carefully deliberated and explicit enunciation of grounds for decisions, and then making the decisions based upon his judgment of what was fitting. This was manifested over a series of contested policy crises throughout his administration (public debt, national bank, excise taxes, Proclamation of Neutrality, the Jay Treaty, etc.). The second objective was pursued through deliberate addresses to the Congress and the public, in which Washington explicitly justified his conduct, not by claims of superior wisdom but by means of a willingness to submit the test of his judgment to the subsequent evaluation of the people, upon the presumption of good intent on his part.

Washington’s “Farewell Address” of 1796 takes up this task magnificently. However, it is important to remember that throughout his career he emphasized this posture as essential to the establishment of self-government. He frequently emphasized the establishment of a “national character,” through which the people habituate themselves to acting in a certain manner. He declined ever to claim authority for himself by right, deferring to civil authority when in military command (even when that authority was feckless); he retired from authority in a timely and deferential manner, disavowing reliance upon “influence” in responding to critical urgencies (such as Shays’ Rebellion), and arguing strenuously against the practice of “instructing” representatives how to vote, a practice that abolishes true political deliberation. All these precepts of just statesmanship coalesce in a powerful exposition in the “Farewell Address,” which rehearses the highlights of Washington’s career and forms his parting admonitions on the evidence of his consistent pursuit of these goals.

Thus, the “Farewell Address” might well be subtitled, “A Principled Defense of Self-Government in Practice.” In that address, Washington highlighted the people’s “love of being one people,” their love of union, as the basis of their readiness to act consistently to secure the “blessings of liberty.” He expressed this wish in several forms, beginning in 1783, when he declared forthrightly that the promise of self-government was a prospect held out to citizens who had only to claim it for themselves in order to enjoy repose under their “own vine and fig tree.” Indeed, he went on to say that if they should fail to enjoy happiness, they would have none but themselves to blame. Self-government, and political happiness, demanded civic responsibility.

What Washington meant in this and related formulations was that the eventual Constitution, than which none could better could be devised, was not the magic. It was rather the magic wand that would summon from the people the restraint—the self-control—required to secure the fruit of self-government, understood as a moral work. In the “Farewell Address,” Washington described this moral work particularly as founded in the attainment of a morality—a morality that, without religion, was only a chimera—sufficient to realize the people’s happiness. Only a rare few individuals could fulfill their moral obligations independently of religious conviction. The Constitution would enable that work by providing the foundation for commitment to the Union, within which the people themselves would do the work of living in liberty. When Washington averred in 1783 that the motive that induced him to the field was “civil and religious liberty,” he offered not a bromide but a deliberate and clear understanding of the political project that he had undertaken.

George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Engraving by John C. McRae, 1866, based on a painting by Henry Brueckner. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Engraving by John C. McRae, 1866, based on a painting by Henry Brueckner. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Washington was not a rhetorician. He was rather a deliberative statesman—a founder, indeed—who, like Lycurgus, knew that he had to remove himself in deference to the people if the Founding were to succeed. Thus, in the “Farewell Address,” he expressed in the most forceful language the admonition that the people must avoid every temptation or inducement to anything that would dissever the Union. His counsels against partisanship were not a screed against any political party but rather an appeal to the people to acknowledge that they must entrust those governing to do all necessary to sustain the Union, while accepting that it would then fall to themselves to do all necessary for it to prosper. The idea of limited government was not a mechanical or instrumental concept but rather a framework for provisioning of goods and resources for happiness by the people themselves. For, as Washington said, “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?”

The virtue Washington invoked was the persistent understanding of self-government that he never ceased articulating. It was, then, rather the moral than the formal or institutional understanding that formed the heart of American constitutionalism. Washington gave this understanding its most complete articulation at the time of the founding. In doing so, he summoned from the people not a passive submission to the decisions of office holders but an active acceptance of representatives as necessary vehicles to enable the completest exercise of liberty. His statesmanship envisioned exercising restraint—self-control—with respect to political projects or aspirations, privileging the exertions of citizens themselves above the exertions of government. In this sense, republicanism means conducting governance in such a manner as not to intrude upon the people’s own self-governing conduct. This profound insight has been all but forgotten.

In assessing Washington’s ideas, it would be only fair to inquire how effectively such restrained governance could resolve grave conflicts in a diverse society. Often, it seems that the need to surmount political divisions requires the exercise of governmental power on behalf of victims of injustice. When the notion of “discrete and insular minorities” was introduced in the jurisprudence of the United States in the 1938 Supreme Court case United States v. Carolene Products Co., the argument was premised on the assumption that the operation of republican institutions provided no protections for such exposed communities. What the Court failed to acknowledge in that case, however, was that the argument was itself a refutation of the central premise of republicanism. In short, the case meant that self-government was inadequate to the task of resolving social contradictions justly—the very expectation that Washington had.

This new understanding only creates a new problem: what political regime can resolve such difficulties? Washington’s position returns to us with double force when we acknowledge that no better solution to the problem has been devised. For it has resulted in practice that the idea of providing formal protection for “discrete minorities” only produces a regime that fosters the multiplication of “discrete minorities,” all competing to command, through political power, the instrumentalities of social advantage and necessarily always leaving some unprotected. The idea of “protected classes,” in other words, necessarily bears the reciprocal of “unprotected classes,” which denies the utility and perhaps even the possibility of political union. It dissolves the unity of a free people and creates new and dangerous sources of strife.

The political problem, therefore, remains what Washington originally described: “to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.” In other words, the political problem was to foster a people who would display the virtue of justice in the manner elaborated by Aristotle in his “Ethics.” The doing so, however, would require “an entire conformity to the Spirit of the Union.” It is fair to observe, therefore, that the idea of self-government carries with it an expectation of capacity in citizens to conduct themselves in liberty so as to resolve social contradictions. The solution is valid for as long a time as the people can preserve a commitment to political union that secures them from interference foreign or domestic in carrying on that work.

George Washington’s vision of self-government depends on the tutorial influence of government, not the nursing influence of government. It is ultimately a testament of confidence in human nature: an affirmation of the value of human liberty and the enduring possibilities of self-control and republican self-government.

From RealClearWire

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.