Getting George Washington Wrong: Obama's Cynical History Lesson

Those listening to President Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden yesterday may have been hoping for remarks outlining a comprehensive debt reducing package from the nation’s chief executive, but what they got was yet another class warfare screed. Replete with admonitions that the wealthy need to pay their “fair share” (as defined by Him of course) and sprinkled with his patented scare tactics rooted in the fallacy of the false alternative (either hedge fund managers pay more or seniors will go hungry) the president to me revealed more of himself even than he has in the past about what really makes him tick, both philosophically as psychologically.

He is, at heart, an ardent believer that the wealth of a nation’s citizenry is in the end the property of their government into which the haves pay and bureaucrats then distribute out as social justice in the form or largess to the have-nots. His increasing vibe of anger, that seems to conversely rise as his poll numbers fall, reveals to me a rather petulant man, unable to grasp the notion that he may not actually be the smartest guy in the room (despite the assurances of his orbiting satellites of sycophants in and out of the MSM media) and that there are those who disagree with him not because they haven’t heard his message, but rather because they have and have found it wanting.

I found myself listening to his speech and thinking that I’d heard most of it before. Most but not all. One new tact that the historian in me found fascinating, and quite cynical, was his reaching down into the soil of Mount Vernon to summon the ghost of our most esteemed first president, George Washington, to help make his case. Mr. Obama offered up this snippet from Washington’s September 19, 1796 Farwell Address to the nation to bolster his tax raising stance:

“…towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; and no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.”

Here is how Mr. Obama’s speech-writers interpreted our first president’s advice, Said our current president:

“It’s always more popular to promise the moon and leave the bill for after the next election or the election after that. That’s been true since our founding. George Washington grappled with this problem. He understood that dealing with the debt is — these are his words – ‘always a choice of difficulties.’ But he also knew that public servants weren’t elected to do what was easy; they weren’t elected to do what was politically advantageous.”

I wonder if anyone in the Obama administration studied history because to reach back to Washington to support, in effect, raising already burdensome income taxes to sustain a massive federal bureaucracy and social welfare state is about as far a reach as one can stretch before toppling over into the abyss of utter nonsense.

In 1796 the federal government over which Washington presided was infinitesimally small when juxtaposed against today’s behemoth in size, power and scope of responsibilities–as the Framers originally intended–especially Washington who was quite leery of a powerful state, having just waged war against a distant yet overbearing central authority in London.

Interestingly, Mr. Obama never mentions that in Washington’s day there was no income tax as we know it. The revenues to which Mr. Washington referred were in the form of, as explicitly stated the Article I, Section 8, Clause I, “taxes, duties, imposts and excises…but all duties [explicitly defined by contemporary Luther Martin as ‘duties on stamps, parchment, and vellum’], imposts [customs], and excises [consumption, such as wines, manufactured goods] shall be uniform throughout the United States.” In short, tariffs and consumption taxes provided the federal government what it needed.

Although the idea of what may loosely resemble our post-1913 concept of an income tax had been floated for many years (as deemed “necessary and proper” by Hamilton in Federalist 33) and could be excused in the generic “taxes” language cited, Washington was most probably loathe to the idea of direct taxes on the wealthy (like himself) levied by a powerful central authority to then be used to sustain a multi-trillion dollar entitlement state trillions in the red and getting worse. Such a notion I think would have been as impossible for him and his peers to imagine as space travel…even for statists like Hamilton.

Let’s take a look at Washington’s entire paragraph from which Obama’s speech-writers cherry-picked soothing words…under the assumption I guess that most Americans would take his “Washington was pro-taxes too” stance at face value. Washington’s full quote is hardly an endorsement of either the president’s stimulus policies or even his vision of the role of government in our lives. Here is what Washington said first:

“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it, is to use it sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense, by cultivating peace, but remembering also, that timely disbursements, to prepare for dangers, frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous assertions, in time of peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidably wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden, which we ourselves ought to bear.”

So what we see is Washington’s vision of a federal government whose primary role is national defense; it certainly was not the redistribution of wealth through the machine of a massive federal government. For the Framers, the U.S. tax code (what there was of it then) existed to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty. It was not to be an engine from which detached bureaucrats could use the public treasure to mete out their vision of social justice through income and benefits redistribution.

Also we see from Washington’s (omitted) remarks a man who would have been appalled by Obama’s spending spree over the past two years–and, to be fair, other presidents’ before him. And, in all likelihood, even more repelled by a confiscatory income tax apparatus, imposed by a hectoring IRS, through which to pay for it.

Obviously the world has turned over many times since Washington offered his sage advice to the nation in 1796, and what was once considered unimaginable federal overreach in his day has become entitlement and, for many, the accepted role, even duty, of the centralizes state in our daily lives. But nonetheless the debate as to how broad or narrow the government’s power and influence should be within these new parameters still rages. Mr. Obama clearly sees an America in which the federal government continues to play the central role in delivering social justice, and it is the wealthy’s duty to support his vision by turning over an even larger portion of the fruits of their labor, the percentage to be set by him, over to Washington for proper dispensation. Whether or not this vision will come to pass I do not know. But one thing I believe I can say with utter confidence is that the first man to occupy the office would certainly not support Mr. Obama’s efforts to perpetuate his failing presidency and stubborn adherence to a failed economic and political dogma, financed on the backs of the very people this country needs most to pull us out of this economic morass. Perhaps he should study Washington more before offering him up as a supporter of redistribution of wealth and running up the credit card even more to support his next stimulus and financially ruinous welfare state. Washington’s memory deserves better than this.


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