Thoughts on George Washington’s Farewell Address

By Krysta Walker, Ballot Director for Libertarian Party of Illinois

In 1796, after serving two terms as President of the new United States, George Washington saw his opportunity to retire from the political scene. His service to the American people was extensive, and spanned over four decades of upheaval, trial, and rebirth. But Washington uses this occasion as an opportunity for more than just formalities. His “Farewell Address” reads, in fact, more like a treatise on the paramount importance of the American government and the means by which to safeguard its many blessings. He humbly refers to these cautions as “counsels of an old affection friend”.

“Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.” Washington maintains throughout his farewell address that he was never qualified for the task he was given. Yet the aging first President does give some very sound advice regarding the viability of their new fledgling nation. This can be broken down into a few main, and exceedingly important ideas for the people of his era: Keep the Union united; always be an American first; safeguard the Constitution and preserve the checks and balances; protect the nation against the dangers of political parties, especially those along geographical lines; protect the nation against the dangers of foreign entanglements. George Washington understands that these are the hinges upon which their very liberty rests.

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people… is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence.” Washington says. He continues on to urge them, “…you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness…think and speak of it as the palladium of your political safety and prosperity…”

Throughout his farewell address, Washington urges the American people to stand as a nation, and resist those who would have them divided against one another. It isn’t enough to just have an alliance among the states as under the Articles of Confederacy, but to have a united government as the one provided by the Constitution. Of special concern is party division along geographical lines. It’s all parts that contribute to the prosperity of the whole, he says. The American people of all regions have more in common, than those who would manipulate them for political gain would have them think. He also references the recent treaties with Britain and Spain, as examples of what a unified government can provide the people: tranquility, peace, safety, and prosperity.

Washington believes that political parties in a Republican government can be the tools of evil people to gain support and usurp Constitutional power. Washington also warns against the intrusion of one sphere of power onto another. These are ways that the government could be undermined internally. He adds that these assaults will “often be covertly and insidiously directed”. Washington councils Americans to frown “upon the first dawning of every attempt alienate any portion of our country from the rest”. Other internal issues he speaks on more briefly is prudence with the national purse as well in amending the Constitution.

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

Washington also urges an “equal and impartial hand” in matters of both foreign policy and commerce. “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.” Seeing both favoritism and avarice as invitations for trouble, Washington urges against such foreign entanglements as ardently as he does against political parties. To Washington this should be simple enough to avoid. “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

It’s evident in his Farewell Address that George Washington loved his country. “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…” After so many years in both literal and figurative battles for his nation’s safety and sovereignty, one is not surprised that he would have some parting words of guidance. He’s retiring, but he still worries for the fate of his dear nation. These are the things that will tear us apart and lay to waste all the work we have jointly made in our efforts toward liberty, he seems to be saying; take this seriously, and don’t let it be in vain.

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