“[No man has the] right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it. . . . Thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”
– Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address,” 1860
Gilbert Stuart “Lansdowne” portrait
image courtesy of Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington warned against faction (better known as partisanship) and sectionalism. Dividing into factions and sections, while natural, would tear at the political fabric of America. A populist would use those divisions to deprive the people of their power and place it in the hands of a few, unjust men. Further, it would undermine the common ground needed in which we can agree on those principles and matters that unite us as a people and a nation.
This mattered to Washington: We are a nation that is more than an idea, more than a dream, but where all things become possible. For this to be realized, her people must stand fast against the internal divisions and foreign meddling that would naturally follow. It would require her people to be aware and engaged. Failing to do so, we fail ourselves and we fail our nation.
A little more than eighty years later, America was facing her greatest test as the nation divided along the factional and sectional lines. The institution of slavery had become so pernicious, the constitutional process was becoming inconsequential. In his address at Cooper Union, Abraham Lincoln plainly stated “[people] will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”
Though a devastating civil war ensued, had Lincoln failed to state his case at Cooper Union, America would have become the failed experiment in self-governance. America would fracture along the factional and sectional lines Washington had warned many years before.
In the here and now, many have their own interpretation of America – choosing to believe what they want to believe and dismissing the rest as romanticized nonsense. They choose to believe America was never about an idea, was never about a dream. It is contrary to what every founding father believed what America was and could be, and they believed it regardless of their personal politics. Washington was content to serve one term as president. Democratic-Republican Jefferson and Federalist Madison made a joint appeal to Washington, asking him to serve a second term. They believed if there was no second term, America would die in her infancy.
Shortly after the inauguration a few weeks ago, actor Sam Waterston, penned an opinion editorial in which he rightly notes how lying has become a daily constancy and danger. “The great issue of today is lying — constant lying in public. Lying is the ally of faction … it is the greater danger. Yes, the word is lying — not negotiation, salesmanship, bluster, attention-getting, delusion, deception, braggadocio, exaggeration, bullying, alternative facts, or any other euphemism.”
Waterston warned of the corrosive nature of lying: “… the frequency of his lying, Trump has revealed a truth we have avoided confronting: Like partisanship, regular and habitual lying is an existential threat to us, to our institutions, our memories, our understanding of now and of the future, to the great American democratic experiment, … It blurs the truth, subverts trust, interferes with thought, and destroys clarity. It drives us to distraction.”
Washington’s warning, advice and wisdom in his farewell address remains relevant today as it did in 1797. Lincoln’s Cooper Union address remains relevant today as it did in 1860.
It becomes a matter of our willingness to listen and heed the wisdom.
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