Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Washington’s Farewell Address

By Tony Williams
        When Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other board members designed the civics curriculum of the University of Virginia, they concurred that there were certain key readings that were essential to the training of statesmen and citizens.  The works of John Locke and Algernon Sidney, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist, and President George Washington’s Farewell Address were the basis for understanding the American character and system of constitutional self-government. 

          Known as a man of action rather than philosophical reflection, even among many historians today, Washington offered advice to his country that was a profound reflection in American principles of constitutional liberty and republicanism.

     Washington mainly collaborated with two trusted advisers – first Congressman James Madison in 1792, and later Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1796 – in composing the address.  This reflected the waxing and waning influence of the two men during Washington’s presidency, but it also reflected a liberality of spirit in bringing what became two warring parties together. 

        Washington’s Farewell was not delivered as a speech but rather printed in newspapers for all citizens to read or have read to them.  It was a public farewell from a patriotic, magnanimous citizen who had served the republic for half a century in the French and Indian War, Virginia House of Burgesses, the Revolutionary War, President of the Constitutional Convention, and President of the United States. 

       Washington begins the Farewell by announcing his intention to retire from the presidency.  There is a deep humility in his hope that he discharged the trust his countrymen placed in him by giving his “best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable.”  Washington describes the sense of duty that bound him as a patriotic citizen to answer the repeated call of his country in war and peace despite his longings for his farm.  He emulates the legendary Roman Cincinnatus and the main character of his favorite play, Cato, rather than an ambitious Caesar, and establishes the firm precedents of republican virtue in public service and the superiority of the civilian government. 

       Washington then offers a prayer for the well-being of the American republic as he prepares to go to his fathers.  He prays that the American people enjoy the blessings of providential liberty and self-government rooted in Union.  He gives them a classical recipe for their true happiness rooted in virtue and ordered liberty.  He ends this passage with a statement of American exceptionalism. 

I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its Administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and Virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete, by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing  as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.

Washington then offers the reflections of a “parting friend” to his country for their “felicity as a People.”  The sentiments of the “Father of His Country” were actually excellent political principles – the centrality of the Union, the danger of political parties, the significance of religion, and independence in foreign policy – upon which to found the country. 

       UNION.   Washington first discusses the importance of Union to the American experiment in liberty.  He recognized that sectional and cultural differences could imperil the nation at some future point.  He urges his fellow citizens to revere, “The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism.”  Washington reminds them that despite their local attachments, they had “the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and political Principles.”  They must remember that they have “in a common cause fought and triumphed together.” 

The Union was so central to the American nation, in Washington’s view, because it was the “main pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.”  Americans should jealously guard their lasting Union, forming a habitual and unfailing attachment to it because it was “the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity.” 

The Union has at its foundation the Constitution.  It was a framework of government reflecting the great deliberative moment of the American founding and its principles had a just claim on their confidence and support.  “Respect for its authority, compliance with its Laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty,” Washington argues.  He emphasizes that though the sovereign people can alter the Constitution through the American process, it is otherwise “sacredly obligatory upon all.” 

PARTIES.  In his discussion of political parties, Washington follows the proposition laid down in Federalist #10 that they were factions, “whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are 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.”  In the Farewell, Washington similarly warns that they were artificial designs of a “small but artful and enterprising minority” who sought to “direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the Constituted authorities,” with invariably fatal results.

Madison reflected that factions were rooted in the self-interest of human nature.  He wrote, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.”  Washington agreed that the “baneful spirit of party was unfortunately “inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind.” 

At best, however, both founders agreed that they could only be controlled not destroyed in a free government.  Madison thought a large republic would create contending factions that would limit their effects, while Washington settled for “a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into flame.”  After powerlessly witnessing the rise of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans that fiercely divided his own administration, Washington warned his countrymen of the dangers of the passions stirred by political parties. 

RELIGION AND VIRTUE.  Washington was and remains an unrecognized essential founder of American religious liberty even though he advanced the principle while general of the Continental Army and as President when he wrote letters to various congregations promising them the natural right of liberty of conscience.  He did not believe, however, that religion should be divorced from public life.  Indeed, in a logical syllogism embraced by all the Founders, Washington advanced the notion that religion was the basis for virtue and morality and a virtuous character was essential for good citizenship and republican self-government. 

Washington called religion and morality the “indispensable supports” of political prosperity, the “great Pillars of human happiness,” and the “firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.”  He warned, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”  If either religion or morality were to collapse, then the conclusion is clear that self-government could not endure.  Washington believed that, “’Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”  Self-government was not possible if its citizens were not self-governing individuals who controlled their passions with reason. 

FOREIGN POLICY.  Washington had vast experience in diplomatic affairs during his public service in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the presidency.  Britain and France were at war throughout the 1790s, and Washington proclaimed the neutrality of the fledgling republic with some opposition from the Democratic-Republicans.   The European powers consistently violated American neutral rights and threatened to drag the new nation into war.  

In the Farewell Address, Washington had a very simple formula for American foreign policy: no permanent alliances in commercial or diplomatic relations (some attribute to him the phrase “entangling alliances,” which were actually Jefferson’s words of a similar sentiment).  He warned that America should not be a “slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” 

Before one assume that he was America’s founding Machiavelli, Washington did not argue purely for a foreign policy rooted in American interest devoid of morality.  He states that, “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all Nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.”  Indeed, in this section of the address, he advises that American foreign relations be guided by good faith, justice, religion, morality, peace, harmony, free, enlightened, benevolence, and magnanimity.  In short, he believed that “just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.” 

Washington does address other topics briefly but no less importantly.  He warns against “overgrown Military establishments” that threaten liberty, defends a strict separation of powers by the branches of the national government, supports “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” for an enlightened public opinion, and advises the retiring of the public debt with necessary and prudent taxation.  And he concludes with this maxim, “no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.”

         As you can see from the principles discussed above, Washington’s Farewell Address deserves an exalted position among American founding documents, and it is vitally important for our young people in schools and American citizens to know.  In our national civic conversation, we must appeal to first principles often, and Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the pillars and best sources of those founding principles. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of four books including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character. 

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