WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., took to the Senate floor Monday to urge all Americans to reject overt partisanship, guard against the influence of foreign powers and embrace the need for an enlightened citizenry.
Those would certainly seem to be topical sentiments at a time when partisan passions run hot, authorities investigate Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election and fake news festers across social media platforms.
But the words Sasse shared Monday are actually more than two centuries old — he was reading from President George Washington’s 1796 farewell address.
In that message to “friends and citizens,” America’s first president warned about the corrosive effect of attacking people based on where they lived.
“One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts,” Sasse quoted Washington. “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
Washington’s address specifically cited geographic tensions between North and South, Atlantic and Western areas, but it’s not difficult to substitute the tension between “East Coast elites” and those in “flyover country” to capture the country’s current political divide.
Sasse was participating in an annual tradition in which one U.S. senator reads Washington’s parting words in their entirety. The task fell to Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., in 2009 — the first time a Nebraskan had fulfilled the role in more than 60 years.
The tradition began in 1862 as a “morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War,” according to Senate history.
The designated senators typically inscribe their names in a black leather-bound volume kept by the secretary of the Senate.
Following his reading, Sasse wrote in the book that there are many lessons in Washington’s words about the dangers of factionalism, the necessity of religious beliefs, the dangers of debt and the value of trade
“May we study together these virtues of self-government again!” Sasse wrote.