On President’s Day: Washington’s Farewell Address

February 18th, 2019

To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we will feature two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” first published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as the “Lyceum Address”) delivered by Abraham Lincoln on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois.

Why study Washington's Farewell Address?

A little over 222 years ago, George Washington made the decision not to seek a 3rd term in office and his famous Farewell Address was published in a Philadelphia newspaper. It was a letter of valediction to the American people at that time, and one that remains a rich and forceful document, filled with counsel that is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century; in his own words, President Washington offers “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” As a founding father and the unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, George Washington was well acquainted with the perils facing the American nation, and many scholars have noted how eerily accurate his predictions have turned out to be.

Perhaps some of you have read his Address in your History classes, and maybe even with your own children or students. If your children have not yet read this Address, however, I encourage you to share it with them once they are of a suitable age (depending on the individual, 13+). George Washington’s circumspection here is an example of statesmanship at its finest. His civic duty was one he regarded with the utmost seriousness, and throughout each and every line of this letter, Washington’s love for his country rings out.

Reading the writings and speeches of early American statesmen is without doubt one of the most effective ways to acquaint any young person with traditional American values and both the content and the import of our constitution, not to mention an excellent way to expose them to exemplary rhetoric. Any serious study of our founding documents is also likely to inspire in the reader a deepened love of country, an appreciation for the care and introspection with which the constitution was crafted, and an aspiration to be a better, more thoughtful citizen. In Federalist 51, Madison asks, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature”? Through studying our government, we learn about ourselves; we are forced to admit our flaws – individual and collective – and work to correct them. Being an engaged citizen is a continual challenge, but it is also an endlessly rewarding and noble one.

In recommending this speech, I am reminded of an admonition a former professor of mine once gave to a hall of college freshman. He said (and I am paraphrasing), “The Great Books – the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, Plato’s dialogues, etc. – do not bend to human desires. They were not designed to please us, and we do not get to decide whether or not they are good enough for us and for our opinions. Instead, we must work to be good enough for them; we must rise to meet the standard they set.” In this Address, President Washington offers insight into how we may continue the work of rising to meet the standard of our constitution, how we may better strive as a people to be good enough for it.

Discussion questions and essay prompts

Lastly, if you have the desire and opportunity to discuss the Farewell Address either in a classroom or at home, the following are some questions that you might use to guide your conversation. (You could have students write about one or more of these questions, as well.)

  • Why does Washington oppose political parties? What does he perceive their danger(s) to be?
  • Why might Washington favor parties under a monarchy but not in the setting of a ‘popular’ government?
  • How do friendships differ from factions? How may citizens under a government sustain strong friendships without succumbing to the temptation of political party?
  • What does Washington mean when he says “The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield”? Why is it so important to exercise judiciousness in this regard?
  • What kind of relationship does Washington believe exists between morality and religion? Given his assertions, what role should religion play in a government that “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?
  • What is the relationship between Washington’s stance on foreign policy and his opinion of political parties? In what ways are they similar? How might they differ?
  • Why does Washington believe that a national union is “the palladium of […] political safety and prosperity”? How does he justify the importance of national unity?
  • If “to preserve [reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power] must be as necessary as to institute them,” is the work of the modern statesman any different from that of the founding fathers? Does this assertion in any way alter your understanding of what the current work of the government should be?
  • What does it mean to be a good citizen in George Washington’s eyes? What is the work of a good citizen?