• Exploring American History

A presidential farewell

On September 19, 1796, President George Washington bid farewell to the people of the United States with respect to being their president. Having led the young nation through its struggle for independence, the establishment of its government and acting as her first Chief Executive, it was now time to step back and let someone else take over.

For historical reference, at the time Washington was elected, one did not actively seek the office of president. Instead, the candidates were selected, typically due to the individual’s reputation as a national hero, and votes were then cast. Members of the Electoral College would each cast two votes. In the two elections involving Washington, he received one vote from each Elector. As such, he remains the only President to receive a unanimous election. Despite the fact his administration was under fire at the close of his second term; there is little, if any, doubt he would have won a third election should he have decided to again participate.

As he prepared to depart, Washington delivered to the nation his farewell address. Within the text of his speech, he warned the young republic of dangers it would encounter. The two greatest dangers he mentioned centered on internal factions and foreign nations.

Though now political rivals, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton helped to draft Washington’s address. It was published in Philadelphia’s largest newspaper, Andrew Bradford's American Weekly Mercury, on the same day Washington delivered it to the nation.

Coupled with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address can easily be considered the third leg of the stool on which rests the central statement of the American purpose. Prior to the 1970s, Washington’s Farewell Address was read annually in Congress in celebration of the first president’s birthday. Despite the fact this event no longer occurs, the speech deserves close attention.

As Washington began speaking, he mentioned his original desire was to serve only one term; however, as that term drew to a close, he sensed the wisdom of remaining for one more. Now, however, he stated, “. . . choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” His greatest desire, in addition to returning home to Mt. Vernon, was to see the guiding principles he offered to the young nation in his address take hold and move the United States into the future.

Washington’s greatest emphasis was placed on the idea of “national union”. This he described as the foundation of “collective and individual happiness” with respect to the citizens of the United States. While emphasizing national unity, he also called attention to the greatness that could result from a unity founded on necessity and prosperity, which is graced by the character of its citizens. The address itself illustrated unity.

Washington also mentioned:

Sectionalism - Describing it as the destroyer of national character and the common interest; Washington stated the ties of the Union and the Constitution that made the various parts a whole was to be esteemed as sacred: “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.”

Factions - “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party”— is one of the two most famous recommendations found in the Farewell Address (the second being permanent alliances). Washington’s definition of ‘party’ referred to factious groups focused only on their own good, to the detriment of the common good and the rights of others. The rise of division or party in this sense was a dominant question of Washington’s presidency. He spoke of scheming men, seeking to divide sections of the country as a means to achieving political power. Rejection of his warning would later lead to the Civil War.

Religion and Morality. Washington considered the “great Pillars of human happiness” and the “firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens” to be religion and morality. In an effort to sustain a self-governing nation, the clarification of formal institutions of education and of civic education is required for a unifying public opinion. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

America’s Role in the World. Washington told the nation that America’s foreign policy required both principles and prudence. The United States should “observe good faith and justice towards all nations.” He asked that moving into the future, Americans remember “it will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” In doing so, America’s place in the world will elevate and distinguish its national character.

As a great rule of conduct, Washington recommended the United State’s primary pursuit regarding commercial relations with other nations contain “as little political connection as possible” with respect to its treaty obligations. His intent was not for the United States to withdraw from the world; but instead to be cautious of political connections and permanent alliances. Using situations from the French Revolution as examples, Washington advised the young nation to, “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” His goal was for the United States to maintain a clear head with respect to its own capacities during changing circumstances, in addition to considering the example it was setting for the world.

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