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Farewell Address

Farewell Address 1796

Toward the end of his second term as president, Washington prepared a valedictory message addressed to "Friends and Fellow-Citizens," announcing his retirement and offering "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." Originally published in newspapers in September 1796, the overriding concern of Washington's Farewell Address (as this message came to be known) was "the continuance of the Union as a primary object of patriotic desire," based on Washington's long-held conviction that the Union, and the common interests and principles it embodies, are critical to America's success.

Much of the Farewell Address is in the form of "warnings of a parting friend." Thus it contains a lengthy discussion of the threat posed to the Union by factionalism, or by the "spirit of party." A faction, as Madison defined it in Federalist 10, is a group of citizens "united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Washington warns specifically of the destructive potential of parties or causes that "now and then answer popular ends," but that over time can "become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."

The Farewell Address warns of foreign as well as domestic threats to the Union. In 1796, both France and Britain were active in empire-building in North America, at the same time they were at war worldwide. Some Americans leaned toward supporting France, others Britain. Washington, seeing in this division a grave threat, inveighed against "the invidious wiles of foreign influence," urged a general policy of neutrality, and counseled against "permanent alliances." American foreign policy, he argued, should be honest and fair on the one hand, and look to America's interest on the other.

A third major theme of Washington's Farewell Address is the maintenance of a public character conducive to the idea of a common good. "'Tis substantially true," Washington wrote, "that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." And in maintaining the virtues that underlie a free people's love of their own liberty and respect for the rights of others, religion plays a necessary role: "Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." And again: "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 man and citizens."

In 1825, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison recommended the use of Washington's Farewell Address at the University of Virginia, as one of the best guides to the principles of American government. And on February 22, 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling on Americans to mark the birthday of "the Father of his Country," with public readings of "his immortal Farewell Address." Today as then, this practical guide to maintaining a shared commitment to the principles and institutions of free government endures as one of Washington's greatest legacies.