Why populism and parties terrified George Washington

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tags: George Washington, populism



Alan Pell Crawford is the author of  "Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson."

James Madison called it “perhaps the greatest error” of George Washington’s “political life.” That he committed so few makes Washington’s speech of November 19, 1794, memorable in itself.

His words that day—his Sixth Annual Address to Congress—are all but forgotten now, which is unfortunate. There ought to be a yearly commemoration, to remind us how our political elites, from the republic’s earliest days, have regarded anyone who presumes to challenge their wisdom and probity.

The context of the speech was the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, when the 62-year-old president squeezed himself back into his old military uniform and, at the head of 13,000 troops, rode into western Pennsylvania. There Washington was prepared to fire into a gaggle of back-country tax-resisters who objected to the new federal excise on distilled spirits. Washington resented being put into that position and did not want to be provoked by such insolence ever again.

Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, riding with the president as a civilian advisor, had been prepared to wage war on their own countrymen in the interests of federal supremacy. As troubling as this episode was, the speech that followed and the thinking behind Washington’s remarks made it more worrisome still. Washington said he was forced to use the troops because “certain self-created societies” had “assumed a tone of condemnation” against the tax and therefore against the government itself.

The leaders of these “self-created societies” were encouraging something far more dangerous than opposition to a specific policy, Washington claimed: they were inciting a “spirit, inimical to all order,” violating “the fundamental principle of our constitution, which enjoins that the will of the majority shall prevail.” To put down this mischief, “to reclaim the deluded,” it would be necessary to station “a small force for a certain period” until cooler heads prevailed and the troublesome farmers went back to their plows...




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