George Washington’s Farewell Address: A Close Reading, part 1

Posted on March 20, 2012. Filed under: American history, The Founders | Tags: |

In the second installment of our series on George Washington’s Farewell Address, we do a close reading of the first section of the first president’s parting remarks as he left office in 1796, to get at the heart of his message to Americans of his own day and their posterity—us. I have reproduced about 75% of the text here, omitting some of the elaborations on core ideas.

“Friends and Citizens:

The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.

I beg you, at the same time, to do me the justice to be assured that this resolution has not been taken without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation which binds a dutiful citizen to his country; and that in withdrawing the tender of service, which silence in my situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.”

—We are forced to recall, right off the bat, that President Washington was a dedicated student of etiquette all his life, and therefore his writing style reflects the proper style of the day, which is to be a little circuitous in coming to the point. Long sentences, multiple clauses, all well-executed but foreign to us for the most part today. What he is saying here is that he wants to explain why he’s not running for a third term, in part so that people will focus their attention on new candidates and not say, I think Washington should run and I’m holding out for him. He also doesn’t want other candidates to feel uncomfortable in creating their own platforms (“it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice”). In the second paragraph, Washington wants to make clear that it’s not that he feels he’s unpopular or unwanted, or that he no longer cares about the welfare of the nation. That said, he will explain his refusal to run for another term as president.

“The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea.

I rejoice that the state of your concerns, external as well as internal, no longer renders the pursuit of inclination incompatible with the sentiment of duty or propriety, and am persuaded, whatever partiality may be retained for my services, that, in the present circumstances of our country, you will not disapprove my determination to retire.”

—Here Washington is fairly blunt: serving as President has been a burden, and he longed to refuse a second term, but from “motives I was not at liberty to disregard” he sucked it up and served another four years. In particular, he worried about “our affairs with foreign nations”—England and France, each of whom was continually angling to involve the U.S. in their war. He does not mention it explicitly, but Washington was also concerned about “internal” rebellion, such as he faced in the Whiskey Rebellion, and wanted to remain in office to help strengthen the authority of the federal government. That accomplished, and foreign affairs stable for the moment, he is, happily, now able to “retire”.

“The impressions with which I first undertook the arduous trust were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.”

—While he had all the goodwill in the world and did his best, Washington is no politician, and he feels his lack of experience at every turn. Every issue he has dealt with as president has reminded him of what he doesn’t know, and as he gets older that burden gets heavier. Any special appeal he has as president is temporary, and (though he doesn’t come out and say this) the result of his status as a war hero. All that said, he has done his duty as best he could, and thus done all that patriotism requires.

“…If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”

—A valuable lesson to learn from his terms of service is that even though the public were divided at times, and argued about the right thing to do, they did two crucial things: they supported a president who was acting in good faith, and they voluntarily chose to abide by the terms of the Constitution. When they disagreed with Washington, they did not rise up, or react with violence—they worked within the law, and continuing to put the Constitution first will be what makes the U.S. great.

“Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion.

Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.”

—He’s going to give us some advice, which we should take as the objective advice from a loving friend that it is. He’s not trying to influence later U.S. policy, or the men who serve as President after him. He’s just going to speak from the heart.

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. 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.”

—You love your democracy and your democratic government, and you should. But remember that it is a painfully new idea, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy, and get you to go back to the old ways. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

“But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.

The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common government, finds in the productions of the latter great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South, in the same intercourse, benefiting by the agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand. …The East, in a like intercourse with the West, already finds, and in the progressive improvement of interior communications by land and water, will more and more find a valuable vent for the commodities which it brings from abroad, or manufactures at home. The West derives from the East supplies requisite to its growth and comfort, and, what is perhaps of still greater consequence, it must of necessity owe the secure enjoyment of indispensable outlets for its own productions to the weight, influence, and the future maritime strength of the Atlantic side of the Union, directed by an indissoluble community of interest as one nation…

While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments… Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”

—Here Washington addresses the regional factions that were growing in the nation between North and South, East and West. You all benefit from each other; you’re all mutually dependent, he says; recognize this and embrace it. Remember that if you start to fight amongst yourselves, you make the nation vulnerable to outside attack. If you’re all united, you won’t be threatened by internal disputes or external attack, and so you won’t have to support an “overgrown military establishment”, which so often leads to military rule.

“These considerations speak a persuasive language to every reflecting and virtuous mind, and exhibit the continuance of the Union as a primary object of patriotic desire. Is there a doubt whether a common government can embrace so large a sphere? Let experience solve it. To listen to mere speculation in such a case were criminal. We are authorized to hope that a proper organization of the whole with the auxiliary agency of governments for the respective subdivisions, will afford a happy issue to the experiment. It is well worth a fair and full experiment. With such powerful and obvious motives to union, affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.”

—Washington elaborates on this principle for a few more paragraphs, imploring Americans to turn to their government for help with regional problems, and to remember that they are unified by nothing more than their desire to live in a democracy and their willingness to obey the Constitution they have created. They have begun an experiment, Washington says, and devotion to a great result is both carrot and stick to Americans as they face the internal divisions that will inevitably come to such a large nation.

Having warned Americans to treasure their political and philosophical unity, Washington will turn to other threats.

Next time: the danger of party politics

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