The Farewell Address
Read more about Washington's Farewell Address in our Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.
Washington’s Farewell Address, published at the end of his second term, stands today as a timeless warning about the forces that threaten American democracy.
In 1796, President Washington decided it was time to retire from public life. After two terms in office, and decades of public service, the 64-year-old was careworn, weary, and frustrated by the attacks of his political enemies. He would not seek a third term in office.
Washington was not required to leave office; it wasn’t until 1951 that the Twenty-second Amendment was ratified, limiting a president to two terms. In fact, many hoped he would remain president indefinitely.
But Washington had always intended to depart the presidency once he felt the Constitution was well-established and the country was on solid footing. To Washington, that time had come.
The president was no doubt influenced in this decision by the attacks of an increasingly hostile press, particularly the Republican newspaper the Aurora General Advertiser. The paper’s relentless criticism of Washington’s administration, and its handling of the Jay Treaty, weighed heavily on the president. One observer from this period noted that Washington “seemed considerably older. The innumerable vexations he has met with in his different public capacities have very sensibly impaired the vigor of his constitution and given him an aged appearance.”1 He longed for Mount Vernon and the life awaiting him as a citizen farmer.
Though Washington felt the country was stable, many feared it would be torn apart without his leadership. The Farewell Address, therefore, was Washington’s way of offering encouragement and advice to the citizens of the country.
For the task of converting his ideas into words, Washington turned to his wordsmith, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
The president had actually done this once before. Four years earlier, at the end of his first term in office, Washington, contemplating retirement, had asked James Madison to draft a farewell address. But when Washington was convinced to serve another term, this address was stashed away in a drawer.
Now, Washington gave Hamilton two options: update and revise Madison’s address or start from scratch. In the end, Hamilton decided to write a new address, borrowing only a few paragraphs from Madison’s draft.
Hamilton worked in secrecy, with Washington sending his reactions and edits by way of personal couriers rather than the mail, which he suspected was being monitored. He encouraged Hamilton to shorten the address and to keep its language plain and unadorned. Washington provided the final edits, down to the punctuation marks.
Authorship of the Farewell Address remained a well-kept secret for several years. Perhaps in an effort to elevate Washington’s standing, Hamilton and others familiar with its origins remained silent on the subject.
Walking down Broadway in New York one day, Hamilton and his wife passed a man selling copies of the address. Purchasing one, Hamilton joked quietly to his wife, “That man does not know he has asked me to purchase my own work.”2
My mind and memory of all relating to the ‘Farewell Address’ are as fresh as they were in 1796, when it was issued. I did see the President Washington repeatedly in the act of writing the ‘Farewell Address’ in the daytime and also at night … I always passed the door of his office on my way to my grandmother’s chamber at the head of the sleep stairs, which landed close to his door—that door was generally open, and I have been sent to his room with messages, and at night have passed the door and seen him writing as I passed to ascend the stairs with Grandmama. When his work was completed, he called me from her chamber and requested me to bring him a needle with silk to sew the leaves together—the Address was in his hand when I gave him the needle and I saw him sew them in the form of a book; the only circumstance I could not take an oath on is the color of the silk.
– Ron Chernow, "Washington: A Life"
On September 16, 1796, about ten weeks before the presidential electors were to cast their votes in the 1796 election, Tobias Lear made a surprise visit to David Claypoole, a newspaper publisher in Philadelphia. Lear informed Claypoole that Washington wanted to see him, and the two men traveled straight to the executive mansion.
It was there, alone with Washington, that Claypoole learned that Washington planned to leave the presidency—and he wanted to publish his address in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser in three days’ time.
Washington never labeled it a “farewell address.” It was, instead, published under the heading “To the PEOPLE of the UNITED STATES.” As Washington biographer Ron Chernow describes it, “While Washington could have informed Congress of his resignation, he went instead to the source of all sovereignty, the people, just as the Constitutional Convention had bypassed state legislatures and asked the people to approve the document directly through ratifying conventions.”3
Intending for the address to speak for itself, Washington left Philadelphia in his coach and headed for Mount Vernon as a shocked nation absorbed the momentous news.
Washington begins his address by explaining his decision to not seek a third term as president. He had hoped to retire after his first term, he says, but for the “critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence impelled me to abandon the idea.”
But after careful consideration of “the present circumstances of our country,” Washington expresses his confidence that America is stable, and he has concluded that his countrymen will not disapprove of his return to Mount Vernon as a private citizen. He thanks his fellow citizens for the honors bestowed upon him, and he reiterates his belief that he was never qualified to be their president.
“Here, perhaps I ought to stop,” he writes. But after solemn reflection, and out of an undying love for his country, Washington doesn’t want to depart without providing the “disinterested warnings of a parting friend.”
Stepping off of history’s stage, Washington offers the following advice:
Washington knows that the success of America lies in the unity of its people, so he warns citizens to stay guarded against attempts to divide them. “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles,” he argues. “You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.”
He points out that unity among the North, South, East, and West is in everyone’s commercial interest and provides for the greatest national security. Washington warns that there will be “designing men,” thirsty for power, who will try to create distrust among the country’s different regions. Always be on guard against such efforts, he says, for “your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty.”
Washington voices his support for the new Constitution, writing that it was a big improvement over the Articles of Confederation. He notes that it is the right of the American people to alter the government as they see fit, but he reminds the people that it should only be done by constitutional amendment. Until then, the Constitution must be adhered to in its existing form.
Washington warns that political factions might try to obstruct the execution of laws. While they claim to act for the will of the people, their true intentions are to place more power in the hands of unprincipled men.
He also warns against another “method of assault” by which groups will attempt to pass constitutional amendments that weaken the government to a point where it can no longer defend itself.
His advice? Give the new government time to mature, and only pass amendments after the most careful consideration.
One of Washington’s most forceful warnings relates to political parties. During his presidency, he had witnessed the rise of two parties. The Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party.
While Washington recognizes that the “spirit of party” exists in almost every form of government, he warns that party loyalty makes nations weaker—not stronger. He worries that parties fighting for power would inspire a “spirit of revenge” in America as power swings from one party to another.
Parties tend to distract governments from their duties, create jealousies among groups and regions, raise false alarms, promote riots and insurrection, and even open the door to foreign influence and corruption.
Americans should focus on what’s best for the country, he says, not what’s best for their political party.
Washington directly links religion and morality to private and public happiness. Religious principles are the foundation of a civilized society, he writes, and he warns against the idea that the nation’s morality can be maintained without religion.
Education is essential, Washington writes. In a government based upon the will of the people, it is vital that the opinion of the people be informed and knowledgeable.
Washington writes that America should preserve its national credit by avoiding war and unnecessary borrowing. In times of peace, we should pay down debt to avoid burdening future generations. To do so, taxes will be necessary; he urges Americans to accept this fact and reminds them that “no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.”
A large amount of Washington’s address deals with the pitfalls of permanent alliances, or rivalries, between the United States and foreign nations. This will only cloud the government’s judgment and lead to unnecessary wars, he argues.
Instead, Washington encourages “good faith and justice towards all nations.” He points out that America is blessed to be geographically isolated from the wars of Europe. “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?” he asks. Trade, likewise, should be carried out impartially with all nations.
Washington concludes his address by asking his countrymen to forgive his failures—they were by no means intentional. Now that he has shared “these counsels of an old and affectionate friend,” Washington says he looks forward to joining his fellow citizens in reaping the rewards of this free government which he helped established over his 45 years of public service.
In honor of the 225th anniversary of his famed Farewell Address, an all-star panel discusses George Washington’s warnings to and hopes for future generations of Americans. Featuring CNN’s John Avlon, author Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky, and historian Dr. Joseph Ellis.
Americans mostly applauded the address. It represented a milestone for the republic—there would be a peaceful transfer of power. Just as he had done following the war, Washington was willingly handing his power back to the people, proving wrong his opponents who had spent the past two terms accusing him of monarchical desires.
Unsurprisingly, many Republicans, detecting swipes at their party, condemned the address. Writing for the Aurora, William Duane called Washington’s letter “the loathings of a sick mind.”
James Madison, writing to James Monroe, denounced Washington’s “suspicions of all who are thought to sympathise with [the French] revolution and who support the policy of extending our commerce” with France.
Virginia Senator, Tim Kaine, joins us at the Washington Library to discuss Washington as a leader, his lasting legacy and how it still impacts the Senate today.
Today, Washington’s Farewell Address is considered one of the most important documents in American history. In the years following his retirement, the address became a sort of civic scripture, more widely printed in the early days of the country than the Declaration of Independence.
The address is read annually in the United States Senate on Washington’s birthday. The origins of this tradition stretch back to February 22, 1862, (Washington’s 130th birthday) as an attempt to boost morale during the darkest days of the Civil War. The ceremony wouldn’t be repeated, however, until 1888—the centennial year of the Constitution’s ratification. Within a few years, the Senate made the practice an annual event.
And so it is that every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington's birthday by selecting one of its members, from alternating parties, to read the 7,641-word address.
According to the United States Senate, “At the conclusion of each reading, the appointed senator inscribes his or her name and brief remarks in a black, leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate. The book's first entry, dated February 22, 1900, bears the signature of Ohio Republican Joseph Foraker. Early entries in the notebook were typically brief explanations of the practice, accompanied by signature and date. Often, several entries appeared on a single page. In more recent years, entries have grown more elaborate and have included personal stories or comments on contemporary politics and policy.”
Watch a selection of United States Senators mark Washington's birthday over the years by reading his Farewell Address—an annual Senate tradition.
Senator Carol Moseley-Braun1994
Senator Craig Thomas1995
Senator Richard Burr2005
Senator Jeanne Shaheen2012
Senator John Hoeven2015
Senator Ben Sasse2017
Senator Gary Peters2018
Senator Deb Fischer2019
Senator Tammy Baldwin2020
Senator Rob Portman2021
Senator Pat Leahy2022
Senator James Lankford2023