September 19, 1796
George Washington’s Farewell Address to the Nation has been referred to as one of the most important documents in American history. President Washington, with the help of his friend and colleague James Madison, wrote the original draft of his letter in 1792. He planned to be president for one term only.
Concerns over foreign affairs convinced Washington to run for a second term in office. The divide between the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party was growing rapidly, and President Washington set the letter aside for another four years in an effort to provide stability for the newly formed nation.
As his second term in office ended and retirement plans at Mount Vernon drew near, the President revised his letter and had it published in the American Daily Advisor(September 19, 1796). The letter formally declined the possibility of running for a third term, and continued on to advise the nation on a number of issues. Washington addressed the importance of unity among the states within the union and discusses the ideal of a people’s government, stressing the importance of the people making changes to the government as they deem necessary. He makes it clear that changes should be made through constitutional amendment, showing his clear support for the new constitutional government in place.
President Washington warned the American people about political parties; sectionalism was of great concern, and he felt that power-hungry tendencies of political parties had the capability of destroying the nation as a whole. Support of the system of checks and balances was discussed at length, including the importance of the separation of powers.
Perhaps the most referred to section within Washington’s Address would be the importance he placed on religion and morality. President Washington was adamant that the nation could not maintain a moral code without the presence of religion. Religion was the basis for happiness and prosperity, he ascertained, and those religious principles are the very foundations of justice.
Other topics within the Address include the importance of maintaining a balanced budget, the dangers of permanent foreign alliances, defending his personal stance on his Proclamation of Neutrality (made during the French Revolution), and advocating free trade policies.
During the Civil War, the residents of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to read Washington’s Farewell Address in one of the Houses of Representatives to commemorate the 130th Anniversary of its publication. By 1899, the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address became tradition within both the House and the Senate. In 1984, the House of Representatives declined to continue the readings, though the Senate still reads the Address aloud on Washington’s birthday. The reading alternates between political parties each year.