Washington’s Farewell Address: the closing

Posted on April 2, 2012. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders | Tags: |

In our last post in a series on Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, we come to the conclusion of this message to the nation and its posterity. Here Washington sums up his main points in a very personal way, using “I” repeatedly to emphasize that these are his own thoughts, his personal conclusions; we’re getting a look inside the man who has been our President for eight years, getting a chance to see the workings of his mind and thus an understanding of why he has made the decisions he has made. For a private man like Washington, this must have been hard. But he knew it was his final message to the nation, and he wanted to be transparent—in large part, so that if its audience read the Address and felt that Washington’s reasoning had been faulty, they could change course for something better, and not be tied to any bad policies simply because they were Washington’s. He knew how the country venerated him; he did not want it to be tied to his mistakes. And so he sums up his thoughts, actions, and motives:

“In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.

How far in the discharge of my official duties I have been guided by the principles which have been delineated, the public records and other evidences of my conduct must witness to you and to the world. To myself, the assurance of my own conscience is, that I have at least believed myself to be guided by them.”

—Part of the appeal of the Address is its eerie focus on the future—on us. Washington was aware that his presidency set precedents, simply by being the first, and he wanted to take the best parts of what he had accomplished and pass them on. He knows that the advice of one man, no matter how great, can’t change human nature. He is not a dictator. But if we heed his warnings about “[moderating] the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”, that will be enough to keep us aware of the right path, and see it as right not because it was his, but because it works to keep us strong.

“In relation to the still subsisting war in Europe, my proclamation of the twenty-second of April, 1793, is the index of my plan. Sanctioned by your approving voice, and by that of your representatives in both houses of Congress, the spirit of that measure has continually governed me, uninfluenced by any attempts to deter or divert me from it. After deliberate examination, with the aid of the best lights I could obtain, I was well satisfied that our country, under all the circumstances of the case, had a right to take, and was bound in duty and interest to take, a neutral position. Having taken it, I determined, as far as should depend upon me, to maintain it, with moderation, perseverance, and firmness.”

—Again, here Washington is letting us in behind closed doors to understand why he went for neutrality in 1793, and why he stuck with that position despite opposition.

“The considerations which respect the right to hold this conduct, it is not necessary on this occasion to detail. I will only observe that, according to my understanding of the matter, that right, so far from being denied by any of the belligerent powers, has been virtually admitted by all. The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations.

The inducements of interest for observing that conduct will best be referred to your own reflections and experience. With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.”

—The choice to remain neutral has paid off, both in foreign powers honoring that neutrality and in giving the U.S. time to grow and stabilize without being derailed by war. Indeed, U.S. neutrality has been a noble obligation to “maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations”. Jumping into war for no good reason, into wars that don’t involve you, is as bad as starting useless wars. The U.S. is a good example to other nations if it can stay out of war on principle, and fight only when there is good reason for it to fight.

“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”

—This is so reminiscent of Washington reading a letter from Congress in 1782 to his men after the Revolution, when the coffers were so depleted that the soldiers were about to be sent home without months of back pay, and the officers were mulling over a revolt and a coup that would place Washington at the head of government. Washington had found out about the plot and addressed the men, but not quite convinced them not to assault the liberty they had just fought for. So he went to read the letter, to bolster his case, but he could not find his glasses. When he found them he paused, then said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

As a Major Samuel Shaw put it in his journal, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.” The mutiny fell apart immediately, and the men reproached themselves with their own greed when their leader was ready to sacrifice all that he had for the cause of American liberty.

And here in the Address we see that Washington once more. What American could read this line in the Address and not feel a tremble of emotion: “I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”

“Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love towards it, which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations, I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”

—What American would not give her all to make this happen for Washington? To make it possible for him to live out his life in the happy enjoyment of a job well-done, of a peaceful, free nation, a good government, and the knowledge that his good work would not be thrown away? To protect and preserve the founding principles of this nation is to honor Washington. He would be proud to see that connection, just as we are inifinitely lucky and proud to have had a first president who did so much to make us a proud nation.

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