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George Washington's Farewell Address: Summary, Analysis & Quotes

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  • 0:02 Introduction to Addresses
  • 0:40 Background to the…
  • 1:46 Refusal of Third Term
  • 2:52 National Unity and…
  • 4:37 Other Themes of the Address
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the farewell address of America's first president, George Washington, who never actually delivered the address but published it in a Philadelphia newspaper.

Introduction to Addresses

The Gettysburg Address. Kennedy's inauguration speech. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The history of the United States is littered with important addresses and speeches that marked an important moment or era for the nation. One of the first was George Washington's Farewell Address, the final address given to the American people by George Washington. In this lesson we will explore the text of the address, its context, and the themes that made it so important then and today.

Background to the Farewell Address

George Washington's Farewell Address was delivered in 1796, and was not formally spoken by the first president, but rather was published in the American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia, which was the nation's capital at that time. It's ironic that the speech - which warns against factionalism and political parties - was republished a week later by the Independent Chronicle in Boston, which went on to become the mouthpiece of the Republican Party in New England.

The Farewell Address was a collaborative effort, and most scholars believe it to be the best embodiment of Washington's political principles and his hopes for the young nation. The basis of the Farewell Address was the remarks prepared for Washington by James Madison in 1792, near the end of the President's first term. Washington, Madison, and Alexander Hamilton then heavily revised the address. Washington wrote the final version, and the 32 pages of handwritten manuscript still reside at the New York Public Library.

Let's now look at the major themes Washington highlighted in his speech.

Refusal of Third Term

The main reason for writing the speech, and also the first topic Washington addresses, is his refusal to stand for election to a third presidential term. Unlike today, the amount of terms a president could serve was not limited to two at that time. This limit did not occur until 1947 with the passage of the 22nd Amendment, which set a term limit to two for presidents, after the death in office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had recently been elected to his fourth term. In fact, many historians point to Washington's refusal to stand for a third term as the precedent that helped shape the 22nd Amendment.

In his address, Washington states that he had only accepted the office because it appeared to be the will and desire of the people that he served as president. He states that not only does he look forward to retirement, but at this point feels it is the most prudent thing for him to do both physically and mentally. Furthermore, he believes he has done his duty, stating that 'while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.'

National Unity and Political Parties

In addition to refusing a third term, Washington lays out his belief in a strong national union, and he implores the American people to resist those who would use factionalism and regionalism to pull the nation apart. In one section, he lays out how each region of the country is dependent on the others and how vital it is to maintain good relations between different regions. 'Every part of our country,' Washington states, 'thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union.'

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