This post is about a well known document that has been preserved in history and has become known as Washington’s Farewell Address. I keep seeing many posts with faces of our Founding Fathers and rhetoric to support whatever interpretation some special interest group is promoting that day. When I taught American history, I always taught this farewell address at the end of the year’s study and asked my students to go back and write an essay and describe with any of the events we had studied during the year to support their thesis about the successful establishment of a “republic . . . with liberty and justice for all” and as they became voting citizens what they might do to correct anything. This was my final exam. It was not a multiple choice or short answer to test students’ knowledge of military history or the biographies of all the white Presidents. I wrote a book and continue to work in retirement trying to help the voting public understand the basic structure of a government that is a representative democracy and all of the parts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights that were written to make sure the republic continued. I think this was the sincere wish of George Washington. When he was asked to run for a third term, he declined not because of health but because he knew that giving one person too much power would threaten a successful republic. I hope you read this. These are just excerpts that are available on line. If you wish to read the entire text it is available.
George Washington's Farewell Address is a letter written by the first American President, George Washington, to "The People of the United States of America". Washington wrote the letter near the end of his second term as President, before his retirement to his home Mount Vernon. Originally published in Daved Claypole's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796, under the title "The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States," the letter was almost immediately reprinted in newspapers across the country and later in a pamphlet form. The work was later named a "Farewell Address," as it was Washington's valedictory after 20 years of service to the new nation. It is a classic statement of republicanism, warning Americans of the political dangers they can and must avoid if they are to remain true to their values.
Checks and balances and separation of powersWashington continues his defense of the Constitution by stating his belief that the system of checks and balances and separation of powers within it are important means of preventing a single person or group from seizing control of the country, and advises the American people that if they believe it is necessary to modify the powers granted to the government through the Constitution it should be done through constitutional amendments instead of through force. This statement takes on added significance from a man who commanded the armies of British colonists who waged an armed rebellion against the British Government, during the American Revolution, and helped build a plan for a new government against the wishes of the acting Articles of Confederation government during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The French Revolution, which had fallen into a Reign of Terror during Washington's second term, may have helped shape Washington's opinion that while armed rebellions may sometimes result in good; they most often lead to the fall of free governments.
Political partiesWashington continues to advance his idea of the dangers of sectionalism and expands his warning to include the dangers of political parties to the government and country as a whole. His warnings took on added significance with the recent creation of the Democratic-Republican Party by Jefferson, to oppose Hamilton's Federalist Party, which had been created a year earlier in 1791, which in many ways promoted the interest of certain regions and groups of Americans over others. A more pressing concern for Washington, which he references in this portion of the address, was the Democratic-Republican efforts to align with France and the Federalist efforts to ally the nation with Great Britain in an ongoing conflict between the two European nations brought about by the French Revolution.
While Washington accepts the fact that it is natural for people to organize and operate within groups like political parties, he also argues that every government has recognized political parties as an enemy and has sought to repress them because of their tendency to seek more power than other groups and take revenge on political opponents.
Moreover, Washington makes the case that "the alternate domination" of one party over another and coinciding efforts to exact revenge upon their opponents have led to horrible atrocities, and "is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism." From Washington's perspective and judgment, the tendency of political parties toward permanent despotism is because they eventually and "gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual."
Washington goes on and acknowledges the fact that parties are sometimes beneficial in promoting liberty in monarchies, but argues that political parties must be restrained in a popularly elected government because of their tendency to distract the government from their duties, create unfounded jealousies among groups and regions, raise false alarms amongst the people, promote riots and insurrection, and provide foreign nations and interests access to the government where they can impose their will upon the country.
Religion, morality, and educationWhatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. (Note that Washington only talks about a national morality that comes from religious tenets – not the practice of a particular religion. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution forbids this.)
Credit and government borrowingWashington provides strong support for a balanced federal budget, arguing that the nation's credit is an important source of strength and security. He urges the American people to preserve the national credit by avoiding war, avoiding unnecessary borrowing, and paying off any national debt accumulated in times of war as quickly as possible in times of peace so that future generations do not have to take on the financial burdens that others have taken on themselves. Despite his warnings to avoid taking on debt, Washington does state his belief that sometimes it is necessary to spend money to prevent dangers or wars that will in the end cost more if not properly prepared for. At these times, argues Washington, it is necessary, although unpleasant, for the people to cooperate by paying taxes created to cover these precautionary expenses.
Washington makes an extended allusion, possibly in reference to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania which he led a national army to put down, on how important it is for the government to be careful in choosing the items that will be taxed, but he also reminds the American people that no matter how hard the government tries there will never be a tax which is not inconvenient, unpleasant, or seemingly an insult to those who must pay it.