This week (Sept. 19) in 1796 George Washington delivered his Farewell Address. Simply put, its message to an American public that had never known life without him was, “You’re on your own.”
Actually, Washington never “delivered” the address. He sent it to a Philadelphia newspaper, The American Daily Advertiser, which published it on September 19th. Newspapers nationwide quickly re-printed it, alerting a stunned populace that this time Washington really was relinquishing the presidency (he had wanted to, and threatened to, at the end of his first term, but his advisors convinced him the country was not yet able to do without him).
His reasons for stepping down — thereby establishing a two-term precedent for presidents that was honored until Franklin Roosevelt — were myriad. First, he was getting old and his health was an issue. He wanted to live out his last years in the bosom of his family and his Mt. Vernon home. Second, he was tired of the job. Internecine struggles among his advisors had wearied him and constant sniping by opposition newspapers had angered him. In fact, the original draft of his farewell message was so maudlin and self-pitying that he sent it to his top advisor, Alexander Hamilton, for help with a re-write. This Hamilton did, which ever since has sparked a historic debate over whether the Farewell Address is Washington’s or Hamilton’s. (It’s mostly Hamilton’s language but unquestionably Washington’s thoughts and ideas).
But the main reason Washington said farewell was his unshaken belief in republican principles. As many historians have noted, Washington was not only America’s first president, but in many ways its first and only monarch. His god-like status among the people, combined with the fact that so much of his presidency involved setting precedents that would be honored by all who followed, gave him executive power far beyond what the Framers had envisioned, and Washington knew it. He could think of no gesture that would better affirm his allegiance to republicanism than the voluntary surrender of power.
As for the message itself, it contained two major themes. First, Washington warned against the danger of faction, especially faction generated by political parties. Partisan politics was a “fire not to be quenched,” he admitted, but “it demands a uniform vigilance lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” In other words, unity was paramount for the nation to prosper.
Second, Washington cautioned against America involving itself in foreign causes. Foreign policy, he insisted, should be based on America’s interests and none other.
The address was a critical triumph and contributed mightily to Washington’s legend. America would soon be without Washington, but thanks in part to his Farewell Address, it would not be without a guidepost to the future.