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Rhetorical Devices in Farewell Address

Appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos: In his “Farewell Address,” George Washington makes liberal use of the three forms of rhetorical appeal laid forth by Aristotle: ethos, pathos, and logos. Through ethos, Washington takes on a tone of humility in an effort to underscore the integrity of his own character and therefore more persuasively convey his ideas. He uses pathos to play to his audiences emotions by using emotionally charged language and by deferring to the essential goodness, intelligence, and importance of his audience. Finally, Washington uses logical arguments to defend his views, arguing against foreign involvements and bickersome party politics.

Rhetorical Devices Examples in Farewell Address:

Text of Washington's Address


"mutual cares, labors, and dangers...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

In this final paragraph, composed of one long sentence, Washington weaves together his anticipations for retirement with his hopes to live under a free government. In an appeal to pathos, he asks his audience to consider their shared missions and values. He concedes that this ideal government, or “happy reward,” can only be achieved with every American’s concerted efforts to care and to labor.

"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.

"my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, ..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

For the first time in the address, Washington calls his readers his “countrymen.” This is one of the most personal portions of the address because he seems to be speaking directly to his readers as if he were their “old and affectionate friend.” This strategy connects Washington to them through a more personal bond, and in turn, it makes them more willing to listen and take heed of his advice.

"Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? ..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

This series of rhetorical questioning clarifies why Washington is so hesitant to interfere with foreign powers. Essentially, through these questions he asks why the US would want to interfere abroad and implicate themselves in crisis. This list of questions highlights the absurdity, in Washington’s eyes, of jeopardizing the nation and entanging themselves in European “toils.”

"Here let us stop...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

With this pithy remark, Washington asserts that the nation’s involvement abroad must extend only so far. This remark stands out against the otherwise meandering language Washington uses, and it causes readers to pause at the end of the paragraph. With this phrase, Washington argues that the United States may continue to engage with already-established allies and no others. It is not in the nation’s best interest to form new bonds.

"(I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens,)..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington uses asides, or breaks in the narration designed to make it feel as though he is speaking more directly to readers, throughout his Farewell Address. In this case, he appeals to his own reputation as a trustworthy public figure as well as his status as a “fellow citizen” in order to build trust for his arguments. Asides also break the flow of the narration, allowing readers time to pause and engage with the text.

"Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices ?..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington’s list of rhetorical questions appeal to the pathos of his readers. He implores them to continue to fight for a free nation, despite the vices, difficulties, or challenges they might encounter. With the interjection “Alas!” that punctuates the last rhetorical question of this paragraph, Washington expresses grief or concern for the nation should they allow their vices to prevent them from progressing.

"Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric ?..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Here, Washington employs two rhetorical devices to convey the importance of morality in government. First, he uses a rhetorical question to ask who would be so immoral as to remain impartial to attempts to tear the nation apart. Second, he compares the nation to a piece of fabric, which conveys a sense of oneness and unity. These combination of literary techniques serves as an appeal to his readers’ sympathies.

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

Here, Washington employs anaphora, a literary device whereby he repeats the first word or clause to add emphasis. Following each semicolon, Washington uses the word “that” to list his hopes for the nation.

"Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Despite serving as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and President of the United States for two terms, Washington maintains that he may be underqualified for the task of offering advice to fellow Americans. This supposed meekness or shyness serves as a rhetorical strategy because it appeals to ethos, establishing the credibility of his character. By stating that “the inferiority of [his] qualifications” has caused him self-doubt or “diffidence,” Washington conveys that, like his audience, he is only a modest American. He understands that this appeal to ethos will cause his audience to more readily accept his advice.

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

By employing the word “deference”—meaning respect for a superior’s wishes—Washington casts himself as inferior to the American people. He says that he is at the will of the nation’s “desire.” Despite his persistent yearnings to retire to his hometown of Mount Vernon, Virginia, he recognizes and voices the need for a strong leader during this time of factionalism and sectionalism, which was tearing at the seams of the nation.

" since history and experience prove, that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington takes a strongly isolationist stance in this address, going so far as to say that the influence of other nations is “one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.” The word “baneful,” meaning “murderous,” suggests that the fate of the United States is at stake during negotiations about foreign policy. By using such life-and-death language, Washington appeals to his audience’s emotions in an effort to change their opinions toward policy.

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

Washington takes a stance of skepticism towards the agendas of other nations, even those that would approach the United States with overtures of friendship and “common interest.” In Washington’s view, there is only “imaginary common interest” between any two nations. The benefits are spoiled by the risk that the problems of one nation will spill into the other with no guards in place. Furthermore, foreign alliances give rise to individuals with mixed motives who, feigning a virtuous attitude of international magnanimity, seek personal gain. The arguments Washington sets forth in this paragraph appeal to reason, attempting to sway the audience through logic.

"acquiescence in its measures..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

In this passage about taxes, Washington calls on the American people to summon up a “spirit of acquiescence” with regards to the dreaded practice. The noun “acquiescence” refers to the contented acceptance of something undesirable. By admitting that taxes are “more or less inconvenient and unpleasant,” Washington comes across as an honest, relatable, and credible figure whose ideas are realistic.

"The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

In this sentence, Washington discusses the mechanics of democratic power, much of which lies balanced between the population itself and the politicians who represent them. Washington accurately points out that while the representatives are ultimately those who make the decisions, their choices are swayed by the citizens they represent. Therefore, the president is appealing to his audience’s emotions by underscoring the power they possess and and then offering them counsel as if he were playing court advisor to their king.

"There is an opinion, that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the Government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true;..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

In this paragraph, Washington weighs the counterargument to his critique of two-party politics. According to this opposing opinion, the presence of multiple parties provides checks and balances to the reigning administration. Washington concedes that such a party system is vital when placing checks on a monarch but states that this is not the case in democratic nations such as the United States. Washington’s tactic of considering and judging the counter claim is an example of an appeal to ethos, winning the audience’s favor by displaying his open-mindedness and breadth of knowledge.

"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.”

"which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation..."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington prefaces his ideas by describing the care and attention he put into them. They supposedly arose “of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation.” This is a clear appeal to ethos, for Washington seeks to make his ideas appear more legitimate by emphasizing their rigor.

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

Washington begins the main body of the address with a distinct rhetorical move. He remarks that “Here, perhaps I ought to stop” before embarking on a series of prescriptions for the country, which he shares out of concern “for your welfare.” By framing his thoughts as motivated entirely by his sense of duty and his care for the audience, he gives his ideas more credibility.

"the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Here Washington foregrounds the virtues of the American people, citing the central role their support played in the successes he oversaw. This is an example of an appeal to pathos, for Washington is playing to the emotions of the audience with his insistent praise.

"patriotism does not forbid it...."   (Text of Washington's Address)

Washington strives to make his exit from public office as dignified as possible. He offers numerous reasons for his decision to leave, remarking that “choice and prudence” invite him to do so. Perhaps most importantly of all, patriotism—his love for the United States—“does not forbid it.” By figuring patriotism as an external agent, Washington makes his position more credible. It is important to Washington that he maintain his reputation as a dedicated patriot, even after retirement.

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