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Unity isn’t impossible. George Washington showed the way

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The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is seen behind a statue of George Washington as Congress leaves Washington for a week, Friday, March 15, 2019. Washington highlighted the power of unity in his farewell address.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Calls for unity can be difficult to discern and can ring hollow when surrounded by the loud bluster of partisan attacks or overwhelmed by the angry and angst-filled cries of political opponents. There is, however, a whisper, from a voice familiar, that can be heard down through the ages that unity is actually the key to both political safety and personal prosperity for the people of America.

Some have suggested we should stop pretending unity is possible and accept deep division as part of a new national norm. Those who suggest such a path don’t understand what unity is, what it means or why it is central to the continuation of liberty and freedom.

In his farewell address to the nation, President George Washington spent considerable time on the subject of unity. He challenged the citizens to speak of national unity as “the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity.”

A palladium is “something that affords effectual defense, protection and safety.” Could national unity actually provide an effectual defense, protection and safety to individual liberty and prosperity?

It is worth exploring the case for unity laid out by the first president of the United States. Washington had seen division, amongst the troops he was charged to lead, between the delegates in the constitutional convention and across the self-interested states of the fledgling nation. He knew, long before Lincoln, that the unity of the union was freedom’s last best hope on earth. 

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”

I would call that a ringing endorsement of unity. While Washington had done a lot of the hard work and heavy lifting for the new nation, I love that he ascribed the unity of America as both the desire and responsibility of the people. Washington then cautioned and expressed concern that conspiring forces would, for their own gain and purposes, strive to undermine the bonds of unity.

“But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed.”

I find it fascinating that long before social media and 24/7 cable news Washington understood the attacks that would be waged against unity. He noted the relentless nature and the extraordinary effort that would be taken by those seeking to sow discord, covertly and insidiously, to weaken the national consciousness and commitment to unity.

Every the pragmatist, Washington proffered wise counsel to his fellow citizens, “it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”

“The palladium of unity is paramount to preserving the nation.” — Boyd Matheson

Washington concluded this section of his farewell address with a clarion call to unity, “For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”

Each of the above lines from Washington are deserving of serious study, celebration and emulation. In fact, before continuing this column I strongly suggest, and humbly invite you to, go back and reread the words of Washington. I have found them to be as timely as they are timeless.

The palladium of unity is paramount to preserving the nation. Everything we love and hold dear in America is dependent on us being the United States of America. We must never allow anything or anyone to so divide the people this nation that liberty is put in peril.

Disagreements about public policy, politics or the people chosen to lead are to be expected and actually should be embraced. The unity of America is strengthened by embracing the complexity of our people and history and valuing the diversity of individual opinion and thought. 

The road ahead will test the very prospects and promises of the America Washington fought for and the fears he warned of in his farewell address. The effectual defense and protection of the Palladium of American unity must be bolstered in order to withstand the relentless and divisive assaults of our day.

It is within that calm and quiet space of unity that the whispers from history can yet be heard and headed by citizens. Hearkening to such whispers will, in the end, nudge and lead us toward the establishment of a more perfect union.