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Last Updated on June 24, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178


On September 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser , a Philadelphia newspaper, published a letter to the American people from President George Washington. The letter stated that he would not be seeking a third term as president of the United States. This letter had its genesis in a document...

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On September 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser, a Philadelphia newspaper, published a letter to the American people from President George Washington. The letter stated that he would not be seeking a third term as president of the United States. This letter had its genesis in a document submitted by James Madison to the president in June of 1792. Madison drafted it after the president disclosed that he was considering retiring after his first term in office. The Madison document was shelved after the president determined that he would serve a second term. Four years later, President Washington decided that his second term would be his last, and he began work on a final address to the American people. He worked closely with Alexander Hamilton, who wrote and revised what became the final manuscript. This document, which retained only two paragraphs of Madison’s first address, is housed in the New York City Public Library.

Summary of Washington's Farewell Address

Washington begins the address by stating that the next presidential election is approaching and he will not be seeking re-election. He says he has given this decision a great deal of consideration, and his desire to leave public office in no way reflects his lack of interest in or love for his country. He wanted to retire much sooner and alludes to the address prepared by Madison as the end of his first term approached. Washington’s decision to continue on with a second term resulted from uneasy tensions with other nations as well as the opinions of his most trusted advisors. He now believes that the international situation which merited his concern at the end of his first term has been mitigated and that the time to leave public life has arrived. Washington essentially claims that he is not young and has done his duties as well as he could, but that his personal patriotism and the end of his political career need not be mutually exclusive.

Washington expresses deep gratitude for the support of the American people and for the “free Constitution, which is the work of your hands.” He acknowledges that it might be best to end his written remarks at this point, but feels he would be remiss if he did not share some of his observations and concerns. He believes the American people will be receptive of his ideas, which he characterizes as “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.”

The unity of the young nation is the overarching subject of this address, specifically in terms of sectionalism, political parties, and foreign alliances. Washington reminds his audience that the “collective and individual happiness” of Americans depends on a unified citizenry who are loyal to a common ideal, grateful for their freedom, and alert to the forces that might dismantle what the nation’s founders painstakingly created.

Washington begins by discussing the sectional interests among geographic regions, which he simply refers to as the North, South, East and West. He cites a few key economic differences:

  • The North is developing industrially, the South agriculturally.
  • The East has access to the sea, the expanding West is landlocked.

He warns that while differing interests will certainly create tension at times, the liberty of the people depends on the unification of the nation. He warns the nation to be wary of those who would focus on their own interests to the exclusion of the country’s interests, particularly if they vilify their own countrymen, seeking to create anger and drama. The focus must be the interest of the country, and Washington is clearly worried that, sooner or later, the forces of human nature will steer some Americans toward narrow self-interest.

Washington then addresses the “sacredly obligatory” Constitution as the law of the land. He alludes briefly to its failed predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, before affirming that the Constitution, created for and by the people, equipped with its own amending process, has “a just claim to your confidence and your support.” Washington believes it to be a solid framework for government, and he is concerned that some may want to change it or dispense with it at the first sign of trouble. There will be challenges along the way, he acknowledges, but Americans should be wary of those who seek to undermine or attempt to change the law by any way other than the amendment process created by the founding fathers. Those who would do so are not to be trusted, as they are likely people of no character who would destroy the government for their own gain. Essentially, there is no reason to seek self-government if those who are self-governing will not be governed. 

Washington moves on to the topic of political parties and the dangers of partisan politics. Parties distract from the greater good, create conflict, and leave the government open to corrupting influences, not the least of which is that of other nations. Citizens must be alert, aware, and constantly cognizant of the government that protects their liberty. Governments are comprised of humans, and human nature is such that the love of and abuse of power are never far from the hearts of some men.

Washington specifically mentions religious principles as necessary to maintaining a citizenry that will act with conscience for the nation’s greater good. He states that he is not advocating against the separation of church and state but rather suggesting that justice for all requires the morality found in religious principles. Self-governance requires law and order; law and order require an assessment of right versus wrong, the precise task that religions grapple with. A fair application of the ideals of freedom and equality without moral principles and conscience is impossible. Washington’s remarks on this topic end with an observation about the need for “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” to inform and enlighten public opinion.

After some brief remarks on judicious government spending, Washington discusses the issue of foreign alliances. Avoid them at all costs, he says. History has shown that alliances create far more trouble than they are worth, and are to be avoided in republican governments such as that created by the Constitution. Washington encourages the United States to act in good faith toward all nations and to keep commercial relations separate from the political realm to whatever extent possible. Pointing to Europe’s long history of alliances and conflicts, he asks hypothetically what the United States could possibly gain by “interweaving our destiny with that of any part of . . . European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.” Perceived short term benefits to a nation notwithstanding, alliances always come with a price. Washington believes that price is an unacceptable loss of national independence.

Washington’s final thoughts are informed by humility and a brief restatement of purpose. He believes the country and its newly formed government—“the ever-favorite object of my heart”—are stable and that it is time for him to go. From his perspective, he did his best, hopes his mistakes will be forgotten, and he looks forward to retirement as an American in a free nation.

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