“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action—and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.“
— George Washington resigns from the military, December 23, 1783
The Founding Fathers tend to be shrouded in a certain mystique in the minds of modern Americans. We learn about all of the key characters in elementary school, but most take on an almost superhuman form, frozen forever in time like figures in a larger than life statue. Part of this is simply due to the two centuries that have passed since the last of the founders left the scene, but it is also related to the lack of visual and auditory clues regarding who these men really were. Without photographs and videos, a generation raised on YouTube has trouble relating to these men who seem totally alien and artificial.
Within a generation of men who seem larger than life, George Washington towers even higher. Yet Washington seems particularly inaccessible to modern Americans. We know the story of his refusal to lie about damaging a cherry tree as a child, his legendary military history and service to the country during the American Revolution, and of course, everyone knows that he served as the first President of the United States. Beyond that, a random citizen is unlikely to have much of feel for exactly who George Washington really was or what he believed. In contrast, Benjamin Franklin seems far more human, far more accessible, and we imagine that we really know what he might have been like at a dinner party or after having a few too many drinks at a cocktail party. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of Ben Franklin making sarcastic comments on Twitter about the follies of the day. One can imagine John Adams replying in an angry and serious tone. Alexander Hamilton would be the master of (very) lengthy Twitter threads. But George Washington? Perhaps he would occasionally publish a link to a press release on Twitter from an account managed by an aide.
All of the history of the world might be a click away, but the conventional wisdom of modernity all too often relies on artificially construed caricatures. In my mind, I can imagine these men acting in certain ways based on decades of impressions I have accumulated regarding their characters. But how can we really know people who lived long ago who we cannot actually see or hear? Only through the records they have left behind — books, letters, speeches, and other artifacts known as primary sources of information.
So should we look to primary sources exclusively? The risk of doing so is that we construe the words of men who lived long ago in a way that they did not intend, or attempt to apply their words to modern situations that they had no conception of. To avoid this peril, we need to use common sense and also read widely so we can understand the context of the times of these individuals. Otherwise, we risk twisting the words of the long dead to fit some preconceived political agenda or personal bias.
What can we learn from George Washington’s writing? It seems to me that a great deal of his famous Farewell Address contains insights that continue to apply to the United States in the early twenty-first century. The reader should be aware that the following selection of excerpts and commentary necessarily incorporates my own view of history and my interpretation of George Washington’s words will inevitably be colored by my own political ideology, even as I make a good-faith effort to honestly assess what his intentions were and how his sentiments apply to modern times.
Washington Gives Up Power
The voluntary and peaceful transfer of power is something Americans have come to take for granted thanks to over two centuries of precedent and self-restraint. So it is difficult to imagine the novelty of a man who was nearly universally acknowledged as a national hero giving up his military commission at the age of fifty-one in 1783 in order to retire to his plantation. It is conventional wisdom that George Washington could have easily been crowned King at that point, and this is one example of conventional wisdom being true.
George Washington’s idyllic retirement on the grounds of Mt. Vernon didn’t last very long.
Under heavy pressure by his peers to take an active role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Washington reluctantly returned to public life knowing that the union faced a moment of existential peril. It quickly became obvious that no other man could credibly serve as the first President. Washington again reluctantly acceded to the wishes of the people but tried to retire after one term, only to again relent and serve a second term.
By 1796, Washington really wanted to retire and finally insisted on stepping down, releasing his famous Farewell Address on September 19, 1796. He opens with a lengthy section that is almost apologetic in tone:
“The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me, have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea.
I rejoice that the state of your concerns, external as well as internal, no longer renders the pursuit of inclination incompatible with the sentiment of duty or propriety, and am persuaded whatever partiality may be retained for my services, that in the present circumstances of our country, you will not disapprove my determination to retire.”
To modern eyes, the tone of Washington’s statement might seem contrived and self-serving. After all, how many modern sixty-four year old politicians at the peak of power would pine for retirement? However, in the context of Washington’s life and long-established desire to return to a life of domestic tranquility, it seems justified to take him at his word.
By 1796, Washington was simply tired and worn out by the “increasing weight of years”:
Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe, that while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.
It is worth noting that in our times, a man in his mid-sixties might expect to live another two decades, but such was not the baseline expectation in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, Washington would have only a brief retirement before dying in 1799 at the age of sixty-seven.
A formulaic farewell letter might have stopped after expressing a sense of gratitude and well wishes for the future. However, Washington still had more to say, and felt a duty to say it:
Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.
The Perils of Factionalism and Parties
Political parties were not conceived of at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The nearly universal respect for George Washington had a unifying effect on the country during his two terms in office, but beneath the surface, the emergence of political factions began almost immediately.
Within Washington’s cabinet, a stark divide soon emerged between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, serving as Secretary of the Treasury, and the Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, serving as Secretary of State.1
A detailed discussion of the differences between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans is beyond the scope of this article. However, at a high level, it is fair to say that the Federalists were far more willing to accept a larger and more robust Federal government whereas Jeffersonian Republicans preferred a smaller Federal government with individual states playing the leading role.
While nearly all of the Founders believed in the principle of subsidiarity, which is enshrined in the tenth amendment to the Constitution, there were still widely divergent opinions regarding the proper Federal role. Of course, this fundamental dispute is still a major fault line animating political discourse today!
George Washington strove to stay above the political fray, and for the most part he succeeded in doing so. His cabinet reflected both factions, although Thomas Jefferson’s retirement after Washington’s first term skewed the balance toward the Federalists.
Regardless of the divisions within his own administration, Washington counseled his fellow citizens to cherish and protect the unity of the country:
Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. 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.
With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts—of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.
At the time, regional factionalism threatened to upend the union, and there was a tendency of individual states and regions to pit themselves against people living in distant locations. Washington urged a national perspective by making explicit the mutual benefits accruing to specific regions, citing examples of how each benefits from union with the others. In addition to internal economic benefits, Washington believed that the union would prevent armed conflicts between the states:
While then every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value! they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same government; which their own rivalships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter.
Washington goes on to warn Americans of the tendency of factions to distort and misrepresent the views of their opponents. Of course, this applies equally well to twenty-first century America:
One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
Washington also saw the potential of parties to open the door to foreign influence of the government:
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
It is hard not to see the prophetic nature of George Washington’s cautions against factionalism and political parties. He saw the dangers clearly, but were his recommendations realistic?
In a large country, it is inevitable to have regional interests and philosophical disagreements. It is inevitable that a document like the United States Constitution would be interpreted differently by people based on their underlying temperament and ideology as well as financial and regional interests. It seems like the admonition against parties was something that Washington felt compelled to do, if only to serve as a warning. I think he hoped that Americans would refer back to his warnings in the future at times when partisan politics threatened to get out of hand.
Respect for the Constitution
Without respect for the Constitution, Washington believed that the country would fall apart. He alludes to the failure of the Articles of Confederation and extols the virtues of the eight year old Constitution as the law of the land. While he did not object to modifications to the Constitution passed via amendments, he had little patience for shenanigans that would subvert the law of the land as it stands at any given point in time:
Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency.
Washington saw the risk of ambitious men using factions as a tool, “by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” He tended to see a strong Federal government not as a threat to the liberty of the people but as its guarantor:
Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is indeed little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
Was George Washington an authoritarian? He counsels subservience to the extent that every citizen is duty-bound to respect the Constitution as it stands at any given point in time. While it is fine to attempt to amend the Constitution, until changes are approved by the people, he had no patience for selective obedience to the letter of the law. He uses strong language in this section of the address, but I believe it is to be taken in the spirit of the Constitution being very young and untested.
Washington’s words would soon be tested by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which asserted the right of states to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional and inapplicable in their jurisdictions. This was before the landmark Marbury v. Madison ruling of 1803 which established the principle of judicial review giving the judiciary the right to strike down laws as unconstitutional. Washington’s Farewell Address has to be read with an understanding that it predated these seminal events of American history. At the time of his writing, the determination of the constitutionality of laws was still in flux.
How are we to regard Washington’s words from our twenty-first century perspective? It seems obvious that Washington would want us to obey the Constitution as written and interpreted by the Supreme Court. What would he think of how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution’s “original intent”? We obviously cannot know the answer to that question, other than by looking for clues in Washington’s writings and statements.
Separation of Powers
George Washington took a dim view of politicians who justified ad-hoc encroachment of one branch of government in the business of another branch. The Constitution has clearly delineated roles and responsibilities for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, and Washington reminds us of the perils of setting aside the concept of separation of powers:
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.
This is not merely an academic point, but one that is necessary to prevent despotism that is possible when too much power is concentrated in the hands of a single politician. The risk of monarchism was ever-present during the early days of the country. The desire for a monarch was real among a significant number of Americans who were not yet convinced that the republican form of government could work. Washington certainly believed in the necessity of a strong executive but also believed in the checks and balances that come from a of separation of powers:
The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.
What if practical experience indicates that the definition of powers enumerated in the Constitution no longer serve our purposes? As a practical man, Washington understood this and again suggests that the Constitutional amendment process is the way to formally modify the spheres of influence of each branch:
If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.
In other words, it isn’t the thought that counts, even if in a particular situation the usurpation of power is done for what the actors honestly believe is in the national interest. Ad-hoc changes to the separation of powers creates dangerous precedents that could come back to haunt the country in the future.
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to declare war. The Constitution also names the President as Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Congress has declared war eleven times with the last formal declaration taking place during World War II. All of America’s subsequent wars were fought without a formal declaration.
Do we still believe that Congress has the power to declare war today, and that war is not to be fought without such a formal declaration? Washington would probably tell us that we should either revert to what the Constitution clearly states or amend the Constitution to better meet our current needs.
Public Debt and Taxes
I have tried not to presumptuously project George Washington’s opinion into the modern era, but I feel comfortable saying that he would look upon our current fiscal situation and the $30 trillion national debt with absolute horror:
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.
Washington understood that taxes are distasteful and universally hated, but urged citizens to recognize that taxes are the only way for the Federal government to raise revenue and to establish and maintain credit:
To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.
One can only imagine what George Washington would think about our twenty-first century monetization of the national debt by the Federal Reserve and the more general fascination with free lunches and modern monetary theory. From the mists of time, President Washington might be trying to tell us something.
We now arrive at what is perhaps the most famous part of George Washington’s farewell — that is, the section that many construe to counsel a policy of isolationism. Is this a fair assessment?
To consider this question, we must first acknowledge that Washington lived at a time when no one moved faster than a horse on land and it could take six weeks or more to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The United States was physically isolated from Europe, although heavily dependent on trade with the great European powers. Most importantly, the United States was an infant republic, not yet anywhere near a world power. Considering Washington’s views outside this context seems like a grave error.
With that caveat clearly stated, it is hard to argue with the universality of his opening statement:
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all—religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.
The United States was an infant republic in Washington’s lifetime, but he clearly saw the day when the country would be a great nation, a world power that has an obligation to act with good faith toward all. All of Washington’s foreign policy views are grounded in this basic principle.
We are also warned to avoid both unnecessary antipathy and attachments to foreign countries because both carry the hazard of being led astray in ways that frustrate the national interest. It seems that he is more worried about irrational hatred than anything else, and perhaps he would agree that hatred is futile:
In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.
Hatred muddles the mind and releases passions that reason would reject. But perhaps counterintuitively, excessive attachment to a foreign country also carries risks:
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions—by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained—and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.
As a young country, the United States also had to be on guard against establishing too-close ties with great powers lest the country become a de-facto satellite state and thereby undoing the blessings of liberty fought for during the Revolution:
As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.
Washington’s particular warning was to avoid entanglements in the affairs of Europe, and he wanted to warn Americans who had ties to European states, most importantly England and France, to understand that it was not in our interests to take sides in the wars that were taking place at the time:
Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?
Does this mean that George Washington disapproved of all alliances during his times or that he would not approve of our modern-day alliances? Not necessarily. He saw the legitimacy of temporary alliances to meet specific objectives, but he advised steering clear of permanent alliances:
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world—so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it—for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements (I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy)—I repeat it therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.
Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
Washington counseled a similar policy of neutrality and equal goodwill toward all nations when it comes to commercial trade policy. The overall message that clearly resonates is that the United States should chart its own course in the world and should remain cognizant of the fact that it was a young country still finding its way in the world. At that stage of development, there was little to gain and much to lose through an alliance with one of the great powers. The better course of action was neutrality and trade with all. Washington wanted to ensure that no impediments existed for America to be the master of its own destiny:
With me, a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.
It is almost impossible to know what George Washington would think about our foreign policy in the early twenty-first century. Obviously, the world has completely changed in terms of the speed of travel and the nature of warfare. It would be absurd to take the text of an address given in 1796 and attempt to apply it directly in the 2020s.
Yet, beneath the surface, there are indeed general principles that we can take away from Washington’s views on foreign policy. The general attitude of friendship toward all, but at a healthy distance, still rings true today. Getting overly involved in the affairs of other countries, especially when there are limited or no direct American interests at stake, is something that I think Washington would oppose even given the changes that have taken place since his time.
George Washington’s Birthday
This has been a longer than anticipated rumination on George Washington’s farewell address that was initially motivated by a desire to write something topical on what is commonly known as “Presidents Day”, which in the year 2022 falls on February 21. But actually there is no such holiday, at least as far as the Federal government is concerned. The national holiday celebrated each year on the third Monday of February is officially known as “Washington’s Birthday”.
It seems proper that America should honor George Washington and dubious that we should have a holiday to honor all Presidents collectively, especially because there are several Presidents who were clearly unworthy to follow in President Washington’s footsteps. Every American is likely to have a different list of unworthy former Presidents, so singling out which presidents are unworthy isn’t the point.
It is unfortunate that the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 designated Washington’s Birthday as the third Monday of February which means that the holiday will always fall into the date range of February 15 to 21 even though George Washington was born on February 22!
The desire to create a three day weekend and the informal designation of the day as a collective holiday for all Presidents cheapens the memory of George Washington. We should go back to celebrating Washington’s Birthday on February 22, regardless of which day of the week it falls on.
- Jefferson’s Republican Party was not the predecessor of the modern Republican Party. Today, Jeffersonian Republicans are known as members of the Democratic-Republican Party to distinguish them from the modern GOP, but they were typically referred to simply as Republicans at the time.