Item of the Day: George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

Full Title: A Letter to the People of America, from General Washington, on His Resignation of the Office of President of the United States. Printed in London by Cooper and Graham, 1796.

[Washington attempted to retire after one term in 1792. With James Madison he even drafted a farewell “Valedictory Address.” Instead of delivering it, however, he was persuaded to remain in office a second term. By 1796 Washington insisted upon retiring from public life. He dusted off the Valedictory and sent the draft to Alexander Hamilton to rewrite in a “plain stile.” Although historians have debated if it was Madison, Hamilton, or Washington who authored the Farewell Address, the current consensus is that it was a true collaboration. Although the words are Hamilton’s, the ideas and the sentiment are all Washington’s. In the Address Washington articulates once more his political philosophy that the continuation of the American experiment depends upon a united virtuous, educated citizenry and a strong central government to hold disparate groups together. To Washington, the rise of partisan politics threatened national unity. Permanent foreign alliances were dangerous because they constricted American interests and dampened independence. Above all, Washington offered himself to the American people as the model of the classically conservative republican: deferential, virtuous, selfless, and responsible to the rule of law as expressed by the Constitution. Washington never delivered his Farewell Address publicly, rather it was circulated in newspapers printed first in the Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796.]

Friends and Fellow 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 cloathed 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 no apprize 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. . . .

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 tranquillity at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty, which you so highly prize. . . .

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 councils, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings and successes . . . This government, the offspring of our own choice uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its Laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. . . . The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government, presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.

Observe good faith and justice toward all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. . . .

In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for other should be excluded; and this in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred or an 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. . . .

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. . . .

‘T is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.

. . . 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 controul the usual current of the passions, or present 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 of your welfare, by which they have been dictated. . . .

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 favourite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labours, and dangers.


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Filed under 1790's, Legal, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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