Washington’s Farewell Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George Washington published his final address as the first president of the United States, articulating foreign and domestic policy for the young nation.

Summary of Event

On September 19, 1796, Claypoole’s Daily American Advertiser, a Philadelphia newspaper, published the valedictory remarks of retiring president George Washington. The speech promptly became known as Washington’s Farewell Address. In publishing the address rather than reading it before Congress, Washington demonstrated that his words were intended for the entire nation. These were not merely the concluding remarks of an outgoing politician, but the final advice of a much beloved and respected leader of more than twenty years, now retiring to private life. As such, the words of the Farewell Address had great impact and weight, and have been recalled by politicians and policymakers into the twenty-first century. [kw]Washington’s Farewell Address (Sept. 19, 1796) [kw]Address, Washington’s Farewell (Sept. 19, 1796) [kw]Farewell Address, Washington’s (Sept. 19, 1796) Washington, George [p]Washington, George;Farewell Address [g]United States;Sept. 19, 1796: Washington’s Farewell Address[3270] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 19, 1796: Washington’s Farewell Address[3270] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 19, 1796: Washington’s Farewell Address[3270] Adams, John (1735-1826) Adet, Pierre Genet, Edmond-Charles-Édouard Hamilton, Alexander Jay, John Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;antifederalism Madison, James

Four years earlier, when Washington had thought seriously of retiring from office, James Madison had prepared a final address for him. In 1796, however, Washington asked Alexander Hamilton, his closest adviser and a leading Federalist theorist, for assistance in writing a final political testament. Historians differ over the nature of Washington’s contribution, but it is generally agreed that the Farewell Address represents the joint labor of Hamilton and Washington. It embodies ideas to which Washington had long subscribed, but it is written in an elegant fashion that was Hamilton’s special talent.

Washington’s Farewell Address is remembered as a classic statement of U.S. Foreign policy, U.S. foreign policy, but, in fact, it concerned mostly domestic issues rather than foreign affairs. Although Washington deeply desired retirement for personal reasons, he seems to have felt keenly that the nation was potentially facing a crisis. In particular, Washington feared that sectionalism and extreme allegiance to political parties would wreck the national unity that he had worked so long to achieve. Washington had entered the presidency when there were no identifiable Political parties, U.S. political parties in the United States. By 1796, he was witnessing the formation of opposing factions in U.S. politics, a development he felt boded ill for the future. The “baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” he warned, “open the door to foreign influence and corruption.” Clearly, Washington was upset by the formation of organized opposition to the policies of his own administration, in particular Thomas Jefferson’s Antifederalists Antifederalists. His Farewell Address was intended in part to explain the necessity of a Federalist victory in the upcoming presidential election of 1796, which would, he felt, preserve the unity of the nation.

Washington’s remarks French-U.S. relations[French U.S. relations] about a suitable foreign policy for the United States have come to be known as his “Great Rule of Conduct.” His general comments were based on recent severe problems in Franco-American relations. In 1778, the United States had concluded a Amity and Commerce, Treaty of (1778) Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France, providing support that would be vital to American success in the revolution against Great Britain. In 1789, as Washington began his first term as president, France began its own revolution, receiving widespread approval from the United States. By 1793, however, successive Franco-American Treaties (1778)[Franco American Treaties] American-French relations[American French relations] revolutionary governments in France had replaced the monarchy and executed the king, who had approved funding for the American Revolution (1775-1783);French support American Revolution in 1778.

France was at war with most of Europe and demanded U.S. assistance, just as the French king had aided the colonies during their revolution against Great Britain. Events in France and the wars in Europe inspired partisanship in the United States. The Federalist Party Federalists, with their heavy commercial ties to Great Britain, had grave reservations about supporting the French in a European war. Jefferson and the Antifederalists charged that Washington had an obligation to support revolution in France because of the treaty of 1778. The arrival in 1793 of the French minister, Edmond-Charles-Édouard Genet, initially produced a wave of popular support for the French Revolution (1789-1796);George Washington[Washington] French Revolution. For a time, Genet even actively recruited soldiers for that revolution. As a Federalist, Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality—which renounced U.S. obligations to France as having been contracted under a former government—and supported Jay’s Treaty (1794)[Jays Treaty] Jay’s Treaty, which was quite favorable to France’s bitter enemy, England.

Thus, when Washington, in his address, warned “against the insidious wiles of foreign influence [to which] the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake,” his readers knew it was France that he had in mind. When the president, in the most frequently quoted passage from the address, suggested that “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,” he justified his decision that the United States should not honor its obligation to France. The dispassionate tone of his remarks may obscure their unmistakable Federalist bias from the unwary modern reader. Washington considered some political alliances, such as Jay’s Treaty, to be legitimate. He wrote, “So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith.” The 1778 treaty with France was, quite simply, no longer valid: “Here let us stop,” he wrote.

While the Farewell Address spoke to the political passions of the moment, it also seemed to offer advice about the future. It is here that the ambiguous language of the address has caused so much confusion. Washington wanted both commercial relations and political isolation. Although such a goal may have seemed desirable, the United States has never been able to avoid political involvement with other countries when it gains commercial ties to them. In 1796, the United States was a fairly weak nation, which relied considerably on Europe for trade and commerce. Washington did not rule out all political alliances, nor did he say that political alliances would never become a necessity in the future. He seemed, rather, to support a policy of Isolationism isolationism by advocating separation of the interests of the United States from those of Europe.

Significance

The ambiguity of the Farewell Address, widely considered a statement of political isolationism in political debates over foreign policy, can nevertheless be construed as supporting diverse schools of thought. It was republished in 1809 and 1819 to support the soundness of neutrality in the British-French wars. Echoes of Washington’s Farewell Address would be heard in later statements of U.S. foreign policy, beginning with the Monroe Doctrine Monroe Doctrine in 1823.

While it has been used primarily by politicians and policymakers as proof of the desirability of isolationism, it should be remembered that the Farewell Address was a message to the American people of 1796. Furthermore, Washington’s concern was as much to bring about a Federalist victory in the upcoming election as it was to guide foreign policy for the nation for the next two centuries. The words of great leaders may be repeated and interpreted to serve a variety of political purposes, as the republication of Washington’s Farewell Address in the early nineteenth century demonstrates.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowman, Albert Hall. The Struggle for Neutrality: Franco-American Diplomacy During the Federalist Era. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974. A detailed study that places the Farewell Address in the larger context of Franco-American relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Examines how the Founding Fathers met the challenges of the new nation to create a workable government. Focuses on six crucial moments in the nation’s early years, including Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. His Excellency, George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Ellis, who wrote several books about the Founding Fathers, concentrates here on the personal life and public career of Washington, providing a meticulously researched and accessible biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. A biography that discusses the conflict at the end of Washington’s second term: his deep sense of responsibility for the nation and his strong desire to return to private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. A study of the Farewell Address as an intellectual document and the culmination of eighteenth century political thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufman, Burton Ira, ed. Washington’s Farewell Address: The View from the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. A collection of articles on the Farewell Address and U.S. foreign policy through 1941. Includes the text of the address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paltsits, Victor Hugo, ed. Washington’s Farewell Address, in Facsimile, with Transliterations of All the Drafts of Washington, Madison, and Hamilton. New York: New York Public Library, 1935. All the important drafts of the address and related correspondence are included in this collection, along with a history of its origin and its public reception. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Barry. George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol. New York: Free Press, 1987. An exploration of the iconization of Washington, which is key to understanding the lasting impact of his Farewell Address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spalding, Matthew, and Patrick J. Garrity. A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington’s Farewell Address and the American Character. Introduction by Daniel J. Boorstin. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996. Analyzes the lessons the address contains for the American people, including advice about how the new nation can cultivate the habits, morals, and civic virtues needed for stable self-government.

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

France Supports the American Revolution

Declaration of Independence

Battles of Saratoga

Franco-American Treaties

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Treaty of Paris

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Publication of The Federalist

Washington’s Inauguration

Judiciary Act

First U.S. Political Parties

U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified

Jay’s Treaty

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