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George Washington's Farewell Address

Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
This lesson describes George Washington's Farewell Address, in which he gives thought-provoking and practical advice for preserving the union of a young United States of America.

Summary of the Address

Sometimes steeped more in myth than fact, the life of George Washington is one not soon forgotten. The fact that people continue to revere him as a president and leader more than 200 years after he left office is a testament to the impact he had on our nation's history.

George Washington

Part of the important legacy that he left behind was the advice he imparted in his Farewell Address, which appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper on September 19, 1796. This document set the foundation for what the American purpose would be and suggested how we should grow as a nation. In fact, as a historical document, it ranks up there with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as a reflection of our core political values and beliefs. The central message behind these documents, and specifically Washington's address, was one of unity. Furthermore, the address itself was an open letter of advice and warning to the American people regarding their happiness and long-term safety.

In this lesson, we will discuss three of the main points that Washington addressed in his letter. First, he warned of the dangers facing the young republic. Second, he highlighted the threat posed by internal factions. Lastly, he suggested the path America should take in its relations with foreign powers.

The Preservation of the Union

The most important point that Washington attempted to drive home in his letter was the preservation of the Union. Washington stepped down from the presidency only nine years after the Constitution was ratified, so it was important that something so new and young be preserved. Washington warned against sectionalism or focusing on interests that only benefited a certain state or region. He felt that if states didn't come together for the good of the nation as a whole, it would put our Union in great peril. In fact, Washington's warning would become a reality as sectionalism did eventually lead to our own Civil War. Washington's defense of national unity lay not just in abstract ideals but also in practical reality. Washington felt that the strength and protection provided by a unified country was much more than any one state or region could provide on their own. This notion of preserving the Union is most notably expressed when Washington says in his letter:

The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations...Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.

The Danger of Factions

Closely related to sectionalism, Washington also feared the creation of factions. Much like Washington warned against state interests that could harm the unity of the Union, he also felt that the formation of political parties would do the same. By political party, Washington was referring to groups that sought their own good to the detriment of the common good and rights of others, which would undermine our newly formed Union. In reference to political parties, Washington felt that they:

...serve(d) always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration…(and) kindle(d) the animosity of one part against another…

This animosity between groups, Washington feared, would weaken the image of strength and unity he felt the country needed to showcase. Washington's warning apparently fell on deaf ears, as the formation of political parties would greatly increase after he left office and the hostility between political factions would be a central cause of the Civil War.

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