Washington’s Farewell Address

Today, an old Senate tradition was observed, the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address.  The speech was originally a letter written by Washington toward the end of his first term as President.  He had been planning to step down, but he realized that there was so much animosity between his Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, that Washington chose to run for a second term instead.  He set the letter aside until he was nearing the end of his second term and was preparing to return to Mount Vernon.  The letter was published in numerous newspapers and eventually became known as his farewell address.

In the letter, Washington writes of the strength that the states derive from remaining united and of the threats to that unity that will appear both internally and internationally.  He writes of the need to focus on citizens as being Americans, rather than being members of a region, state, or locale, and to focus on the qualities that bring us together, rather than the qualities that divide us.  Washington also had strong reservations about the formation and existence of political parties.  He worried that these political factions would impede the work of the government and would promote the creation of factions between various groups and regions.  In support of the newly created constitutional government, Washington felt strongly that the government should be changed or shaped through amendments to the Constitution, rather than through the use of force.  France’s descent into the Reign of Terror during Washington’s second term undoubtedly shaped this sentiment.  Washington also felt that America’s geographic isolation should be used as an advantage in maintaining neutrality internationally.

In the dark days of the Civil War in 1862, on the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth, a tradition was started to read Washington’s letter in each of the chambers of Congress to commemorate Washington’s birthday, and to remind everyone of the principles on which our country was founded.  The tradition ended in the House in 1984, but it continues to be observed in the Senate.

The honor of reading the address alternates between the two parties, and this year it was Kelly Ayotte, the junior Senator from New Hampshire, who did the honors for the Republican Party.  (Last year was Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic senior Senator from the same state.)  Those of us watching on C-Span first noticed that the President Pro Tempore, Senator Patrick Leahy, was present for this formal occasion.  We then noticed that Senator Ayotte read the address from the desk where the official parliamentarian usually sits.  My interpretation was that she was not speaking for the Senate, she was speaking to the Senate.

For all that there are virtually no scientists among the Senators, they still firmly believe in documenting this tradition to its maximum extent.  Thus I know that a typical reading lasts about 45 minutes with the longest delivery savoring every word at 68 minutes, and the fastest rendition lasting a mere 39 minutes.  There is also a book in which the Senator reading the speech is invited to sign his or her name and perhaps a few comments.  Entries have expanded significantly over the years, and I particularly enjoyed the entries from “firsts,” such as Daniel Inouye or Carol Mosely Braun, who represented the first native islander and the first African American woman.  Many Senators also added thoughtful remarks of how Washington’s address remained relevant to topics that were currently under debate.  You can read more of the story and click on links to a scanned copy of the book at http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm

I certainly found that as I was summarizing Washington’s comments for this post that his concerns about partisan politics and about focusing on regional identity rather than national identity still struck a chord.  The tradition obviously touches those who are privileged to deliver the address.  If only its effect lasted more than 45 minutes.







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2 responses to “Washington’s Farewell Address

  1. Heather Pence

    Nice post! I had no idea the tradition exists, but it’s a good one.

    • I had to do a fair amount of research to understand what was going on, and I suspect I wouldn’t have explored so much if I weren’t going to post about it, but it was definitely worth the investigation!

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