In 1796, towards the end of his second term, President Washington wrote a letter to the “People of the United States” in which he announced that he would not be seeking a third term. This letter to the nation was originally published in the American Daily Advertiser and then in other papers throughout the country but it was not delivered as a speech. Drafted with the help of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, President Washington used this opportunity to provide guidance to the country on the course ahead. The letter, or Farewell Address as it came to be known, began with a statement of Washington’s intent not to seek re-election and then embarked on a rather circumlocutory approach to the main topic, his advice to the new nation. The substance of this advice was to reject partisanship either within the nation by political parties or by permanently allying ourselves with other nations. Most particularly, Washington warned that the biggest threat to the union would be the formation of parties which would “render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” Unity of government and people was the key to the survival of the country:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;
Similarly Washington advised against partisanship as a nation, forming permanent alliances with a particular nation: “The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.” He advises the United States to stand apart from the political intrigues of the European nations even while we extended our commercial relations abroad. In an address which usually takes about 45 minutes to read, these are simply the broadest themes developed in greater detail and with additional warnings throughout the text of the address.
In 1862, during the Civil War, the citizens of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to have the address read in one of the Houses of Congress in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of President Washington’s birth. In response to this petition, the House and Senate met in a joint session on February 22, 1862 for the “reading of Washington’s farewell address” by Secretary of the Senate, John W. Forney. This event, however, did not lead to the immediate creation of a tradition. It was not until 1888, the centennial of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, that the Senate again read the address on Washington’s birthday. Then beginning in 1896, the Senate has read the address each year. Likewise, the House began a tradition of reading the address in 1899 and continued with this practice until 1979.
In view of this advice, it is interesting to think what the United States would look like if we had followed Washington’s advice. The give and take between the political parties, Federalist, Whig, Republican, Democrat, has come to seem an integral part of our government and political process. Still perhaps, one day someone can write an alternative history science fiction novel on the country Washington recommended to us.