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Reflections from History and Faith

Washington’s Farewell Address

By Jeff Olson

Washington’s Farewell Address is one of America’s great historical documents and is considered the most important address ever given by a U.S. President. It was required reading in history courses throughout America’s public schools up until the mid-20th century. Many of us believe it still should be.

The Farewell Address has long been recognized as a towering statement of American political purpose and a repository of knowledge and wisdom originating from Washington’s extensive experience of public service. He also drew from the lessons of history of other nations and empires, including those of the Greek city states, the Roman republic, Great Britain and of America’s 170 years of colonial experience. George Washington was described by Henry Lee as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He faithfully served his country for more than 40 years: through his community, on the battlefield, in the Constitutional Convention, and as our first President – despite his well-known preference for private life. The Address was the final part of an enduring legacy from a great man to his beloved country as he prepared to at last retire to his beloved Mount Vernon for the remaining three years of his life. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address constitutes the central statement of the American purpose.

Washington’s letter was significant in several ways. It signaled that he would not seek re-election for a 3rd term as president. For such a great and popular leader to voluntarily relinquish political power was all but unprecedented and as such spoke volumes about Washington’s virtue and character. It also clearly expressed Washington’s sense that duty and interest must be combined in all human concerns whether on an individual level or in the collective action of the nation. He warned of the dangers facing the young republic, but also hailed the greatness that could come from an American unity founded on necessity and prosperity, and further enhanced by the character of her citizens. The Farewell Address was first published as The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States in the American Daily Advertiser, a major Philadelphia newspaper, two hundred twenty-five years ago this week, September 19, 1796. It was later reprinted in newspapers throughout the country.

In June 1792, as Washington was on the brink of retiring at the end of his first term as president, he asked James Madison to prepare a first draft of a farewell address incorporating the President’s ideas, core beliefs and philosophy. However, as it turned out, Washington chose to run for a second term because of heated disputes between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Washington was deeply concerned that such growing tensions at the national level could also have broader and lasting effects of divisiveness for much of the country and perhaps more so without his leadership. As his second term was coming to a close, he returned to his idea of issuing a valedictory address to the American people. Starting with Madison’s draft of 1792, he prepared a rewrite of the letter and asked Hamilton to redress this new first draft predicated on Washington’s ideas and “sentiments” as well as elements of Madison’s and Hamilton’s contributions. In the final analysis, Washington was his own editor; and what his Farewell Address was in its final form and content is what he had chosen to make it. By this procedure every idea became his own without equivocation.

Probably, the two most well-known statements in the Farewell Address have to do with political parties and foreign alliances. He did not like the idea of political parties which he called “baneful.” As he stated about factions, “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” In regard to foreign alliances, he thought that the United States should “observe good faith and justice towards all Nations.” Though Washington did not call for America to withdraw or be isolated from the world, he did caution us that “The Nation, which indulges towards another in habitual hatred, or habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave, and …..the great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible, consistent with its treaty obligations, and to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” As for religion [Christianity], “the great Pillars of human happiness and the firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens are Religion and morality. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports….Let it simply be asked where is the security for prosperity, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” In regard to our Constitution he stated, “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 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. 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.” On the subject of unity, he stated: “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.”

Washington’s Farewell Address has powerful implications that are applicable today and should continue to resonate. It was his sincere purpose and hope that Americans in succeeding generations would read and reread it in the years to come so that it might lead Americans to “controul the usual current of the passions” and “prevent our Nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the Destiny of Nations.” Evidently, we have not read or reread the Farewell Address near enough, or perhaps not at all. Whatever the case may be, it is well past time we do so and consume its wisdom on a personal level and collectively on a national scale.

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