Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. – George Washington
Yesterday, AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants made the annual pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. We paid homage to a man, and to a generation, who could and did aspire to embodying the full spectrum of science, policy and political interests in themselves as individuals. When they dealt with meteorology, or agronomy, or climate and climate variability, with floods and drought, and infrastructure, it wasn’t from a single, black-and-white point of view. Wearing their multiple hats, they found themselves internally conflicted – and therefore balanced – in their views on most issues. It showed in their thinking, their words, and their actions.
About midway through our time on the premises, Tim Schneider, one of our participants, came up to me. He’d seen Washington’s quote and it made such an impression he’d taken a picture on his smartphone. He said, “this captures the idea of the Colloquium.”
Very cool. But it set me to thinking, what was the setting? Well, it turns out it’s excerpted from Washington’s first Annual Message to Congress, January 8, 1790. The surrounding context is illuminating. Here’s an excerpt from that Message:
…Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures, of the United States, is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.
The advancement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, by all proper means, will not, I trust, need recommendation; but I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement, as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad, as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home; and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post office and post roads.
Nor am I less persuaded, that you will agree with me in opinion, that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness.[emphasis added] In one in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours, it is proportionably essential. To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways: by convincing those who are entrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people; and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigences of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the last; and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.
Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established; by the institution of a national university; or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the Legislature.
The President starts this section with emphasis on the importance of establishing and maintaining standards of measurement. (The National Bureau of Standards – today’s National Institute of Standards and Technology – comes from this imperative.) Washington then turns to innovation… stressing the need to innovate domestically, but also track and adopt the best science and technology from other countries. He argues that knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness. And finally, he emphasizes with great passion, that this is especially so for democracies.
Two closing notes: first, it would be hard to improve on these sentiments today. And second, don’t let the brevity of these paragraphs fool you. They make up something like one-third of his entire remarks, which can’t have taken more than about 5-10 minutes… a far cry from today’s addresses, which race through dozens of subjects and typically last more than an hour.
Picture this as the forerunner of today’s presidential State-of-the-Union messages (required by Article II, section 3, of the U.S. Constitution). Washington addressed a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790, in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson described the personal addresses as too monarchial – reminiscent of the practice of a “Speech from the Throne”. He initiated written addresses that were read by a clerk, a practice continued until1913.
For many years, the speech was referred to as “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”. Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the term “State of the Union” in 1934.
Isn’t it ironic that you quote these profound sentiments celebrating learning at the end of this graduation season? One in which we’ve seen more intolerance of views that dissent from the consensus, and which thus give us the best chance to test our own beliefs, and if necessary learn from these tests.