What became known as George Washington’s Farewell Address was originally published September 19, 1796.
After two terms in office as the nation’s first president, George Washington decided not to seek a third term. With that decision, Washington set a precedent that was rare in world history. The peaceful transition of power. To announce his intentions, Washington published an address in a Philadelphia newspaper known as the American Daily Advertiser to “the People of the United States.” His address was quickly republished around the country. History would eventually call Washington’s words his “Farewell Address.”
Touching on several subjects and full of stirring rhetoric, Washington’s work focused on a few central themes throughout. They can be summarized as unity at home and independence abroad.
Washington begins by stating his love for his country and his responsibilities in service to it. He tells his readers, the American people, that his decision to not seek another term as president was not made without difficult contemplation. After a lifetime of service to America, as the leader of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, as president of the Constitutional Convention and after two terms as president, Washington was ready to retire from public life. Had he sought a third term, there is little to suggest he would not have been re-elected. There was no bigger figure in early America than George Washington.
Washington then begins touching on the theme of unity. “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…” He then transitions into a discussion warning against political parties or factions as they were described at the time. He believed parties would subvert the will of the people and produce leaders who acted only in their own self interest. Thus, liberty would be threatened.
In a theme that echoed past Washington speeches, including his first inaugural address, he makes a point that leaders have to possess good character. These leaders must follow the Constitution and respect the separation of powers. To not do so would lead to despotism. “But let there be no change by usurpation; for through this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” He then writes a paragraph on religion’s indispensable role in American life:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, out to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let is simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? 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.”
Much of the remainder of the Farewell Address is dedicated to foreign policy. Washington argued for independence from foreign influence. Writing at a time when Great Britain and France were the world’s dominate powers, Washington knew that America needed time to develop its own institutions and government before it could afford involvement in the affairs of Europe. Alliances with other nations were subject to the self-interest of those countries, rather than what was in America’s best interest. Washington argued that commercial relations should be America’s focus. This way, America could avoid being involved in wars it was ill-prepared for, fought in the interest of other nations.
A proper discussion of the Farewell Address is difficult without a full reading of it. Every American needs to do so.
Below is a link to George Washington’s Farewell Address: