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Politics & Policy

George Washington on Respecting the Constitution as Written

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

George Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the most famous speeches (actually, an address published in the newspapers) in American history. It is usually remembered for its warnings against foreign entanglements, against descent into partisan faction, and against the loss of morality, virtue, and their grounding in religion. We do not think so often of Washington’s views on the Constitution, but he was, after all, the presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention, the document’s first signer, and the man who gave form to 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 for the creation of the Supreme Court and was thus ineligible for the job until there was an intervening election. He also took seriously the norms of behavior that allow the written law to prevail; he set the norm of presidents leaving office after two terms, and not until the 1940s was that norm violated, requiring a constitutional amendment to enforce it.

In the Farewell Address, Washington first urged the American people to respect and obey their constitution and oppose any effort to undermine the execution of federal law:

You have improved upon your first essay [the Articles of Confederation], by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. 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. All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.

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

Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what 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; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent 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 disturbing the separation of powers and other features of the constitutional order by temporary emergencies or any other method besides an amendment approved by the people:

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which 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 customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

Many of the words here were those of Alexander Hamilton, who drafted the address, as well as perhaps those of James Madison, who submitted an earlier draft. But the final draft reflected Washington’s own views. Washington recognized the need for changes; in his lifetime, he had been a leader both of the Revolution against British rule and the replacement of the Articles of Confederation. He acknowledged that innovations might sometimes be for a good purpose in the short term. And he repeatedly endorsed the amendment process. But he intended his words on this topic, as on others, as a standing 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 amending it.


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