Washington Day Address to the General AssemblyWritten by Johnny O on February 26, 2012
WASHINGTON DAY ADDRESS
DELEGATE JOHN A. OLSZEWSKI, JR.
20 February 2012
Good evening Mr. Speaker, colleagues, and friends. I’d like to give a special thank you to all of my friends and family that took the time to be here tonight. They travel well, and on short notice.
In 1989, Robert Fulghum penned the modern best-seller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Some of his snippets of wisdom included: “Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people.” He also wonders aloud “what a better world it would be if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.”
While many can relate to Fulghum’s sentiments on government, he was almost 200 years too late. George Washington had already beaten him to the punch in his farewell to the nation.
The United States Senate has a tradition of reading Washington’s Farewell address every year, dating back to the Civil War era in 1862. I guess it turns out that the Senate can get something right every once and awhile, after all.
In fact, it was residents of Philadelphia who petitioned our national government to commemorate Washington’s upcoming 130th birthday celebration. Their efforts culminated in the reading of the address in a joint session of Congress. That year, members passed a display of captured Confederate battle flags on their way to the joint session. Abraham Lincoln, with whom Washington has come to share Presidents day, was not in attendance – still mourning the loss of his son Willie, who had died two days earlier.
At the time, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who introduced the petition in the Senate for a reading of Washington’s address, noted the extent to which he felt the former President’s words might be useful in times of trouble and difficulty. As the country was facing the “darkest days of the Civil War,” Johnson noted that, “‘In view of the perilous condition of the country, I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.”
The address was read again in 1888 – the centennial year of the Constitution’s ratification – and has been recited annually in the Senate since 1896 in observance of Washington’s birthday. In true Washington fashion – George Washington, that is – the Senate has alternating parties read the statement.
Maryland’s own Charles “Mac” Mathias had the honor of reading the speech in 1973. Following the reading, Senators are asked to inscribe a book indicating their efforts. At the time, Senator Mathias wrote: “To many it may seem anachronistic to repeat the words with which George Washington bade farewell to the nation. But to them, the Constitution itself may seem an equal anachronism. The paradox is that both, so deeply imbued with the philosophy, spirit, and style of the 18th century, are so relevant today. It is, of course, true that some passages in both documents are clearly dated. But the spirit of liberty, guaranteed by a government of law and preserved by respect for the accepted rules, is a vital today as it was in 1796. ’”
And so, as it was when Washington’s remarks were first read in 1796; as it was when they were read aloud for the first time in the United States Congress in 1862; as it was when Maryland Senator Mathias read them again in 1973; Washington’s words continue to inspire us, guide us, and remind of the great political traditions of which we are now the keepers.
While these days are certainly not the darkest days of the Civil War, we do live in troubled times of our own. The challenges facing our country and this state are daunting.
For Washington, the principal motivation was the preservation of the nascent Republic over which he had been presiding, with a ruling document that had yet to see its second decade of existence.
He articulated threats to the Constitution, and was more than clear about ways in which governments should be able to, like kindergartners, put things back where they found them and to clean up after their messes.
Ironically, Washington never delivered his farewell address in public. Rather, it was published in newspapers around the country. In removing himself from consideration of a third term of office, he reminds us that he offers his advice with “more freedom” than ever before – only serving as the “disinterested warnings of a parting friend” with “no personal motive.”
He did not mince words when reminding readers just how fragile our unity of government – and the seed of our independence and liberty – was, and I would suggest in many respects still is. He reminds us that we must “properly estimate the immense value” of our national Union to our collective – and individual – happiness. That we must keep a “cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it.”
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Washington writes that we should be “Indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest” … that “the very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
That is the essence and the beauty of our democratic experiment: no matter our country’s faults, we have a duty to it and each other first. To obey the outcomes produced by our governmental institutions. As free people that established the framework and govern with the consent of our neighbors, we must respect the decisions that framework creates – even as we labor to change the structures of it and representatives in it with whom we may so strongly disagree.
But since Washington’s time, it only seems to have become more and more difficult to heed the call toward our collective interests. We are much more connected with and depended upon by the world. We are all closely watched, monitored, judged. The demands on our lives have greatly increased. We no longer have in our recent memory a war that helped us spawn a new, free nation. Over time, our country has grown larger and more diverse.
What, then, are we to do to refocus our attentions towards that commonality to which Washington calls us?
In his writing, Washington described how the North and South and the East the West benefitted from a relationship with one another – and in fact, needed each other – bound together by the eternal ties of liberty offered by our great country. We must remember that we too benefit from relationship with one another, and so too do we remain bound together by the ties of liberty.
We do afford ourselves glimpses of heeding Washington’s call. Just last week, on the same day this House discussed a difficult issue that demanded honest and respectful discourse; demanded the very best of each of us, we first honored our state heroes who have given the ultimate sacrifice with Fallen Heroes Day. Those soldiers and their service reminded us all of our common humanity, common bonds, and shared commitment to advancing the liberty which we inherited as a birthright.
Still, we are unable to have a Fallen Heroes Day everyday in this legislature. We are rarely so obviously reminded of our common bonds. In the spirit of Washington, we should then not only seek to be reminded of our common bonds, but also avoid pitfalls that can lead toward their unraveling.
In particular, Washington reminds us that one of the greatest threats to our unity is a spirit of party. He says that it, “unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” We know all too well that there are natural inclinations to gravitate towards those with whom we most agree. Or with whom we most look like, or have shared experiences.
Washington warns that party splintering leads to an alternating domination of one group over another – sharpened only by a spirit of revenge. We have all seen this. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we all have – at one time or another – been guilty of thinking this way. In many respects, the rise of parties is only natural. In fact, it was growing party factions that ultimately led Washington toward assuming a second term as President – seeking to hold the country together, despite his desire to retire, finally, to Mount Vernon.
However, natural inclinations towards, and the modern-day existence of factions should by no means serve as a convenient excuse for any of our actions. We remain responsible for how we comport ourselves – and we still retain control over what we do, what we say, and how we say it. We can keep the divisiveness in check. Washington reminds us that ‘“the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.’”
We are a wise people. It is our duty to discourage and restrain unbridled party politics. It is our duty to put the greater good first.
And even over two centuries ago, Washington provides insight into the kind of policy balance that can transcend even the dividing lines among today’s political parties.
When it comes to taxing and spending, our first President had a fairly nuanced view. He felt that the government should generally avoid borrowing money and pay off its national debt as quickly as possible – but he also said that there are also times when it is better to spend more now on things that will only cost more in the end. In those instances, Washington shares his rational connection between debt and taxes: He shares an axiom that, as legislators, we have come to know all too well: “Toward the payment of debt there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.”
Ironically, even as he admonished us not to split into party factions, he also offers advice that can and should pull the current factions of our state and country together today. What will you do tomorrow, this session, this term, and during your political career to emphasize our common bonds and guard against party fracturing?
President Washington, you should be proud of yourself. Hundreds of years ago, you wondered aloud if your advice might be “of some occasional good, that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit … to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
I stand here to tell you that there are 141 incredible men and women in this chamber that are poised to yet again affirm, in our own ways, in our own time, our acceptance of the challenge that you continually lay before us.
 Fulghum, Robert. 2003. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Ballentine Books, New York.
 Information in this paragraph retrieved from the United States Senate official webpage. Website: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm
 United States Senate. Art and History. Accessed on 19 February 2012 at: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/MathiasPage.pdf
 All quotes from Washington are pulled directly from his “Farewell Address.” It was accessed as a PDF document from the US Government Printing Office on 19 February 2012. Web address of: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-CDOC-106sdoc21/pdf/GPO-CDOC-106sdoc21.pdf
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