Washington’s Farewell Address: the closing

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.

Washington’s Farewell Address: avoiding foreign entanglements

In part 3 of our series on Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, we continue our close reading, picking up near the middle of this long text. So far, Washington has explained why he feels the nation is stable enough for him to safely resign the office of president, and he has urged Americans to remember these things:

—the government they live under is their own creation;

—there will be many groups, foreign and domestic, who have no faith in that representative democracy Americans have created, and they will try to tear it down. Only dedication to the principles of liberty that found our government will save the American people from disaster;

—regional in-fighting will be the death of the United States. Every region must remember its dependence on the other regions, and turn to the federal government to resolve disputes.

Now Washington turns to other threats, in a section that is eerily prophetic of our own troubled political environment today, and a proof that Washington’s Address is pertinent and valuable to us today:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.  The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

—This is the part of the Address that most people remember (the idea, if not the actual words). Here Washington is warning against political factions, and he equates the formation of political parties with inevitable dissension. This definition of what can happen when partisanship runs rampant must sound familiar to us today: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension… leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual [who] turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.” When the political process grinds to a halt because one or more political parties refuses to work with others, only a charismatic individual can take the lead, and this kind of cult of personality is antithetical to democracy.

“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another. There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

—Political factions or parties “[serve] always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Again, so familiar to us today, at a time of great partisan conflict.

“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, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it 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 ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. 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. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

—Washington says that religious belief is critically important to upholding democracy because without belief in God and the consequent devotion to goodness that it brings, we cannot perform the duties of a just government. But he never goes on to say that therefore we must have a state religion, or that anyone seeking office must be a member of a religion. And his call for “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” seems more a call for higher education—colleges—than churches.

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – 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. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

—This is a great passage, in which Washington says if we carry out the duties of government with good faith and justice, joining our sense of personal morality to a demand for political justice, we will be a free, enlightened, and someday soon a great nation. Democracy is, at this point, “too novel”, as no other nation enjoys the system of representative democracy that the U.S. does. It will be hard to maintain this very high level of personal and public morality, but the rewards are incalculable. Is it impossible? Are humans just too flawed? This was the common argument against the U.S. experiment, but Washington has faith that Americans can carry it off.

“In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”

—We must have clear heads: you can’t think clearly if you aren’t objective. You can’t just hate a certain nation and love another, overlooking evidence to the contrary, because this leads to bad foreign policy and leads Americans themselves to sell out their country’s interest to promote the interests of their favorites. Washington is thinking of the France-Britain debate in the U.S. at the time, with many Americans passionately hating the British who enslaved us and unconditionally loving the French who Britain were at war with, and other Americans passionately hating the French and loving powerful, familiar Britain. Each faction wanted the U.S. to form a lasting, binding, political alliance with its favored nation, mostly just to hurt its hated nation. But Washington says that U.S. government policy, domestic or foreign, cannot be about making one or the other foreign nation happy, or making the U.S. appealing to one or the other. We have to do what is objectively right and objectively best for us. Loving or hating other nations is just another form of dangerous partisanship.

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

—For now, while we are weak and Europe is strong, and while our political interests are so different from theirs, let’s have economic relations and trading partners, but keep it economic. No political alliances. It’s hard to do that now, when we’re weak, and other nations ignore our neutrality and impress our sailors and put garrisons on our western lands, but as we grow stronger they will start to back off, and we will be feared and respected and left alone without ever having to make an agreement with anyone. We won’t have to buy peace—we’ll command it.

That’s basically the end of the section people know about. Next time, we’ll read the gracious conclusion of the Address, and allow our Founder to express his love and concern for us once again. For he was concerned about us, he was addressing us; Washington so often says he’s talking about the nation in 1796 so that the nation that develops later will have the best counsel. We will hear what he has to tell us once more.

Next time: the conclusion

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

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

Washington’s Farewell Address

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.

Next time: the reading begins!