Welcome to the first in a short series on President George Washington’s farewell address of 1796. Most students of American history learn a little about this address, and the one thing that usually sticks with them is that Washington warned the nation not to make permanent or even long-term alliances with other nations. While this was a guiding principle of Washington’s presidency, it’s not the only or even the main point of note in his address.
We have to say “address”, rather than “speech,” because contrary to common perception, Washington did not read his message publicly. He sent it to the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser, which printed it on September 19, 1796, and it was picked up and reprinted by other newspapers around the country. But the address has become a speech since Washington’s time: in 1862, in the depths of the Civil War, the people of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to have the address read aloud at a joint meeting of the House and Senate to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Senator Andrew Johnson presented the petition saying, “In view of the perilous condition of the country, I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.” In 1888 it was read again to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Constitution, and since 1896 it has been an annual tradition to read the address aloud to the joint session each February (and was read by Jeanne Shaheen on February 27 of this year).
In this series we’ll look at the address and do one of our usual close readings to get at the messages Washington wanted to send to the nation he had done so much to found and protect and set on the right course.