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Historical Context in Farewell Address

George Washington’s Presidency: George Washington was the first President of the United States, serving two terms from 1789 to 1797. For each of his terms, he was voted into office unanimously, a feat unrepeated since. Also unique was his unwillingness to bend to party politics, a topic he discussed at length in his “Farewell Address.” He never joined a party, preferring to serve as an independent. During his time in office, he set many important precedents, including the placement of the federal capital on the banks of the Potomac River—what would become Washington, D.C.—as well as the establishment of a cabinet of presidential advisers. Important legislation of his presidency included laws that expanded naturalization rights and copyrights, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Slave Trade Act.

The French Revolution: The French Revolution took place between 1789 and 1799, thus encompassing George Washington’s presidency. The revolution was one of the most prominent and controversial political affairs of the era, stratifying the opinion of Americans. While many wished to aid the French insurgents who, like the American founders themselves, wished to establish a democracy in the place and wake of the monarchical reign of Louis XVI, others resisted such “foreign entanglement,” including President Washington. In his “Farewell Address,” Washington devotes a good deal of effort to advancing the policy of isolationism: remaining uninvolved in the affairs of other nations.

Bipartisan Politics: George Washington noticed the rise of party politics during his time as a general and president; he did not favor this trend, which he called “sectionalism.” In the early years of the nation, the two factions were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists (later the Democratic Republicans), the former favoring a powerful centralized government, the latter favoring a small-scale, federal government that largely defers to states and individuals. These two strains, the former more liberal, the latter more conservative, have remained the predominant pair of forces in American bipartisan politics ever since, though the guises and names have often changed.

Historical Context Examples in Farewell Address:

Text of Washington's Address

14

"the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

In the final few paragraphs of his address, Washington returns with an appeal to ethos by insisting on his so-called incompetence. He draws a parallel between how his “incompetent abilities” will be forgotten and how he too will be forgotten in death. By describing death as being laid to rest in a mansion—or “in my Father’s house” according to the biblical Book of John, 14:2—Washington envisions that death will be finite. This idea of stagnancy—of resting in a mausoleum—contrasts against the vision he has for an ever-progressing nation. On December 14, 1799, only about three years after this farewell address, Washington died in Mount Vernon.

"Belligerent Powers..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

During the French Revolutionary Wars, which lasted between 1792 and 1802, France engaged in wars all across Europe and eventually, across the world. By 1796, France had waged war against several monarchies, including Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the Dutch Republic. According to Washington, all the sides involved were “Belligerent Powers” and the United States would not, under the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, interfere in any of these foreign conflicts.

"a neutral position...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington chose to remain neutral during the French Revolutionary War because he feared foreign entanglement, believing that the United States was not militarily or economically prepared to engage in a war abroad. His decision to remain neutral during the French Revolutionary War set a groundbreaking precedent of neutrality for years to come.

"In relation to the still subsisting war in Europe, my Proclamation of the 22d of April 1793, is the index to my Plan...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Following the beheading of King Louis XVI in January of 1793, the French Revolution took a drastic turn. The French declared war on Great Britain and French ambassador Edmond-Charles Genêt came to the United States to recruit Americans to fight for France. Washington, worried that the United States might become embroiled in the revolution, issued the Neutrality Proclamation on April 22, 1793 which required Americans to adopt “a conduct friendly and impartial” to foreign powers. This proclamation was a major point of contention among Americans because, while some stood with Washington, others believed in France’s revolutionary efforts and wanted to stand by the nation that had allied with them in the American Revolutionary War.

"honesty is always the best policy...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

The adage “Honesty is the best policy” is most generally attributed to Sir Edwin Sandys, an English politician who, with the Virginia Company of London, founded the first English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1606. In the context of this address, Washington argues for his own isolationist policies, stating, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Washington thought it wise to have honest pre-existing alliances, but never to extend those alliances further.

"Religion and Morality are indispensable supports...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

While the division between church and state is clearly delineated today, Washington thought that religion and morality were invaluable in politics. Unlike the Federalists, who believed that the only governmental bodies that could legislate on religious matters were the states, Washington saw the value in associating the federal government with religion. In his “Farewell Address,” he speaks at length about the importance of religion and morality to maintain and uphold “political prosperity” like “supports.”

"those overgrown military establishments..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Despite serving as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the US Revolution, Washington believed that the military should not become “overgrown.” He preferred deterrence over belligerence and believed that the national defense ought to be well-prepared for war at all times. His isolationist stance extended into his views of the military and thought it was unwise to turn to other nations for military aid.

"The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

The etymology of the word “intercourse” stems as far back as the 16th century, when it was first used to describe communication and trade between countries or localities. More recently, it has taken on other meanings including social communication or discourse. Here, Washington uses the term to describe how different regions of the United States—the North, South, East, and West—work together economically and geographically. For example, the South profits from the manufacturing capabilities of the North and the West profits from supplies provided by the East.

"external as well as internal..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

In this aside, Washington alludes to the conflicts the nation was facing externally and internally. Internally, Washington refers to the disagreements over treaty negotiations with the Creek Nation in the Southeastern territories. Externally, Washington alludes to the war France has waged against Great Britain, which he formally denounces through his neutrality policies. He mentions these crises in a pithy aside since his audience was aware of the political climate.

"unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence impelled me to abandon the idea...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

The “persons” Washington refers to here are Secretary of State Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804). These men recognized the increasing political turmoil both at home and abroad. Washington recognized these diplomatic challenges and the need for strong leadership. He reluctantly stayed on for a second term, for which he was unanimously elected. In 1796, Washington asked Hamilton to revise Madison’s first draft and amend the section on foreign affairs and neutrality.

"had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Here, Washington refers to 1792, when he wished to retire following his first term. He turned to James Madison (1751–1836), then a Representative from Virginia, to draft a message for the American people. However, this first address was never published because Washington remained in office for a second term at the urging of several politicians.

"Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

The Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was the first newspaper to publish George Washington’s “Farewell Address” on September 19, 1796. Originally named the Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, the newspaper ran between 1771 and 1839, under various names and owners until it was bought out by the North American. By publishing his “Farewell Address” in letter format, Washington was able to reach the entire nation and speak to all Americans.

"1796..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

By 1796, George Washington (1732–1799) had served two terms as President of the United States. He decided against running for a third term because, at the age of 64, he feared that he might die in office, setting the precedent that the presidency was a lifetime appointment. His decision would lay the groundwork for the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which would establish the two-term standard when it was ratified in 1951.

"to the permanency of your felicity as a people..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington states that the goal of his prescriptions is the ongoing “felicity,” or happiness, of the American people. Such a statement makes the audience more receptive to his ideas, since happiness is a nearly universally desired emotion. Moreover, Washington’s appeal to his audience’s felicity evokes the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which similarly ensures “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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