George Washington's Presidency

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In Washington's address, did the US listen to his advice? Why or why not?

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In retrospect, one can see Washington's advice as being more than a tad unrealistic. At the time he gave his Farewell Address, American politics was already in the process of becoming deeply partisan. Washington figured that in warning against the dangers of party and faction he could somehow hold back the rising tide of partisanship. If so, he was profoundly mistaken. In any mature political society it's inevitable that people will have different ideas on how to run the country and on which policies should be adopted to serve those ends.

Although the American colonists had, for the most part, put aside their differences in fighting the British, those differences still remained. And in the post-war environment, with the British safely defeated, it was inevitable that those differences would re-emerge and find expression in the formation of political parties.

Much the same could be said of Washington's strictures against forming foreign alliances. His advice has been ignored because America, of its very nature, has throughout its history needed to get involved in world affairs to defend its own interests. In Washington's defense, one could say that neither he nor anyone else at the time could possibly have foreseen how much smaller the world would become, how much more closely integrated through commerce, trade, and developments in technology. But even at the time he made his Farewell Address, the United States did not—and could not—exist in a vacuum. Even then it was imperative for the United States to form alliances to ensure its continued independence and long-term prosperity.

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In his final address of 1796, Washington gave advice to the fledgling country that was largely ignored. His most critical advice was to avoid foreign wars and entanglements. We have repeatedly become involved in foreign wars and alliances; our first major conflict after the Revolution was the War of 1812, and we have repeatedly chosen to ally ourselves with other nations and to position ourselves against others. We have also become involved in foreign wars, including the two major world wars.

Washington also warned the nation about forming political parties and geographical alliances. However, the nation immediately began coalescing into the Federalist and anti-Federalist camps (the latter became the Democratic-Republicans). These parties formed the first of our three party systems, and we continue to be divided by political parties today. In addition, the different geographical sections of the nation developed different agendas and economic systems as the South became committed to slavery while the North began to industrialize in the run-up to the Civil War. Therefore, the nation largely ignored Washington's sage advice.

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In Washington’s Farewell Address, he gave three pieces of advice to our country. For the most part, we didn’t heed his advice.

The first thing Washington said was that we should avoid political parties. Washington knew that political parties would divide the country. He believed people would make decisions based on what the party wanted instead of on what was good for the country. Since we were already dividing along party lines by the time Washington was leaving office, his advice was already not being heeded. People wanted groups that would work to support their needs.

A second thing Washington said was to avoid making long-term agreements. We were a young country, and our needs were changing. A long-term agreement may be beneficial in the short-term but not necessarily in the long run. As we began to grow as a country, we did make long-term agreements because we were more established and could better identify our needs.

A final thing Washington said was to stay neutral in world affairs. He believed choosing sides would cause more harm than good. He believed if we chose sides, we would then have enemies. As we grew as a country, there were times we had little option but to choose sides. It has caused us problems, but it also has had benefits for us.

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