Washington’s Farewell Address – A Contemporary Synopsis

On September 19, 1796, retiring President George Washington established the American precedent of giving a Farewell Address. The 32-page, over 6,000-word handwritten address was printed in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser. Below is a synopsis of President Washington’s thoughts, concerns, warnings, and love for his country.

Washington’s Retirement. (Paragraphs 1-7)

After explaining that he would not serve a third term, and had actually wanted to retire after his first term, he thanked the nation for its support that had encouraged him in the face of challenges and criticism. With the transition of leadership, Washington promised that he would pray for the country for the rest of his life that the union would be preserved under the Constitution, administered by wise leaders who would preserve liberty. He primarily wanted to give his advice concerning lurking dangers and the top priorities for national wellbeing.

The Need for National Unity. (Paragraphs 8-16)

Knowing that the new nation loved liberty, he insisted that national unity was necessary to preserve American independence and peace. Unity was facilitated by America’s common religious, cultural and political values. The main reasons he identified for maintaining American unity included patriotism, the great benefits of each section supporting the others to share in the success of commerce, and the reduced need for an expensive army since civil war would then not be likely. Thus the things that separate like regional interests and misrepresenting the aims of others should be avoided. United government is necessary for an effective permanent union rather than a mere alliance as this is why the Articles of Confederation were set aside. The Constitution should be kept until consciously changed by the vote of the people.

Partisan Politics Endangers National Unity under the Constitution. (Paragraphs 17-25).

Obstruction of authority is destructive to constitutional government and will lead to its demise. Thereby minorities gain artificial political power over the delegated power of government. These methods aid unscrupulous politicians to subvert popular rule by usurping power. If the Constitution cannot be overthrown, some will attempt to bring innovations to weaken the Constitution. A wise nation will guard against partisan politics. Rival factions often seek revenge producing tragedies that lead to permanent despotism and the loss of liberty as people yield absolute power to an individual so that they can be relieved of their disorder and misery. Partisan politics distracts and weakens government by agitation, fomenting riots and even insurrection that enables foreign influence and corruption. Partisanship is like fire—it is valuable for warmth, but if it gets out of control it will burn down everything.

Encroachment of One Branch of Government upon Another (Paragraph 26)

Each branch of government should confine itself to its respective constitutional sphere. When one branch seeks to consolidate power, it leads to despotism. The human love of power leads to the abuse of power and history shows this tendency of one part of government to encroach on the responsibilities of another part. Be on guard for this and be sure only to change the Constitution by constitutional means as usurpation of power will ultimately lead to evil results.

The Necessity of Religion, Morality and Education. (Paragraphs 27-29)

Political success must have the support of religion and morality. No patriot can stand against these as they lead to happiness and aid citizens to do their duties. Both the politician and the devout should cherish them as they are vastly important to personal and national wellbeing. Without them, our courts will fail in justice. Some scholars may claim that religion is not needed for moral conduct but reason and experience prevent us from expecting national morality to prosper if the morally correct behavior taught by religion is excluded from society. Moral behavior is necessary for a free government. We cannot be neutral to attacks on national morality as it is an attack on the foundation of our government. Thus we also need educational institutions to disseminate knowledge and shape public opinion.

Good Credit and Paying National Debt. (Paragraph 30)

The government should value its right to borrow by using the right sparingly and promptly paying its debts. Wars are expensive and should be avoided. In peace, debt should be paid off as quickly as possible. We should not make future generations pay the debt that we have incurred. But remember, to pay off debt, there must be taxes. The government should be candid about its taxation and we must be willing to accept what is necessary to pay the public debt.

Honesty and Justice in International Relationships (Paragraphs 31-32)

The nation must keep its word and be just toward all nations which is the way to seek peace and is required by religion, morality and good policy. This is worthy of a free, enlightened and soon to be great nation. This may be costly but will pay off in the long run as providence blesses high moral standards. We must not have permanent opposition to some nations and passionate attachment to others. Instead, pursue a just friendship toward all, lest we become enslaved to hatred, leading to war and the loss of liberty.

Caution Concerning Pretended Patriotism and Foreign Influence (Paragraphs 33-41).

Having favorite nations creates an illusion of common interest when there may be none and raises the potential for taking on those nations’ hostilities. It not only facilitates giving away what should be kept but also creates jealousy among less favored nations. Devious citizens use the favored nation status to betray their own nation in the name of national interest. Foreign influence stirs domestic factions. So a free people must be vigilant against the subtle and dangerous stratagems of foreign influence, even as we remain unbiased to avoid manipulation by differing nations. The rule for foreign policy should be commerce rather than politics. While we must keep existing commitments, let us stop here. Europe’s controversies are foreign to our concerns so it is unwise to join their struggles. Our unique geographical advantages lead to independent neutrality so we will soon be immune from invasion to pursue peace or war as we alone decide best. Steer clear as much as possible from permanent alliances with foreign powers, although temporary alliances for defense in extraordinary emergencies are acceptable. Our international commerce should be fair, establishing business rules for stable trade and the rights of merchants. Such rules must be re-evaluated from time to time since there are no unselfish nations and each seeks its own best interests.

Conclusion (Paragraphs 42-50).

My countrymen, this friendly advice will likely not make the impact I wish given human nature and the usual course of nations. But I hope it will help to moderate partisan rivalry, warn against foreign intrigue and guard against pretended patriotism. If such is the case, I will be amply paid for my efforts. I have sought to follow these principles but only the records of history can establish whether I have succeeded. I have unswervingly remained neutral in the current war in Europe as I proclaimed in April, 1793 in spite of efforts to change my mind. Every nation involved has essentially admitted that we have the right to take this course. The main reason for neutrality has been to gain time for our national institutions to mature, so we could chart our own course.

I have never intentionally erred, although I have likely erred often due to my inexperience. I am praying that God will avert any evil which may result from such errors. After 45 years of service to the nation, I hope that it will be gracious in forgetting my errors as undoubtedly; I will soon be lain to rest. I am relying on America’s kindness and am motivated by deep love for my native soil as I return to Mount Vernon. There I will share with you the benefits of good laws under our free government. This is the favorite object of my heart and the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors and dangers.

– Geo. Washington


A Note:

Along with this synopsis of Washington’s Farewell Address, the following are also available on the website of The Providence Forum:

The full original text of Washington’s Farewell Address

An outline on the Farewell Address with modernized language

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