Editor's note: Today marks the birthday of George Washington, our first nation's president. Every year on February 22, the vice president selects one senator to read Washington's farewell address aloud on the floor of the Senate. Illinois Democrat Sen. Roland Burris was chosen to read the address today.

President George Washington’s Farewell Address was not really an address. Nor was it really a true farewell. The message was printed in a Philadelphia newspaper on September 19, 1796, more than five months before the nation’s first president turned over his office to its second, John Adams.

The chosen printer, David Claypoole, had been summoned to the president’s residence the previous Thursday. Claypoole set the document in type and sent it back to Washington for any last-minute changes. Then the printer prepared to publish the document on Monday afternoon. Earlier that day, the nation’s chief executive left Philadelphia for his home at Mount Vernon. He did not stay in the nation’s temporary capital to judge the impact of his words, which have remained a classic of the American political tradition.

The document, “in language that was plain and intelligible,” was intended clearly to indicate that Washington was leaving office and that another American must be elected to succeed him. The Farewell was entitled “Friends and Fellow Citizens,” and was addressed directly to the American people – not to members of Congress as most presidential documents were in those days. The paper was designed to be a definitive statement of Washington’s political beliefs and his considered advice for his fellow Americans after two terms in the presidency.

“Address to the People of the United was this day published in Claypoole’s paper notifying my intention of declining being considered a Candidate for the President of the United States,” wrote Washington in his diary that day. “Left the City this morning on my way to Mount Vernon.”
Although he did not consider himself a wordsmith, Washington understood the power of a carefully crafted message to move public opinion. The Farewell had been in preparation since 1792 when Washington first contemplated retirement from the presidency. Then, he asked fellow Virginian James Madison to prepare a draft. Madison did so, but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton prevailed on Washington to serve another term.

Four years later, Washington turned to Hamilton, then practicing law in New York, to prepare a new version of the Farewell. Hamilton prepared two versions. One was fundamentally his redraft of Madison with additional material. In another, he reworked the Madison version. Washington preferred the new Hamilton work and the two colleagues exchanged drafts over the summer of 1796. Colonel Hamilton had served as Washington’s aide during the Revolution as well as the most trusted member of his Cabinet, so he was well aware of the president’s ideas and writing style. Most historians have agreed with Jay Winik that “even if the words were largely Hamilton’s, the ideas were distinctly Washington’s.”

In his Farewell Address, President Washington foresaw the stresses which might imperil the new nation: “The Unity of Government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.”

Washington went on to knit together the strands of America’s diverse citizenry: “Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections....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 success.”

Most of all, Washington’s Farewell was a grand paean to maintain the Union to which he had devoted his life. One historian has noted that the address “remained the supreme expression of the American political community until it was surpassed by Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” The word “American,” wrote Washington, “which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

Washington had said farewell once before – in 1783 when he resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army after the American Revolution. Although Washington intended his retirement in both 1783 and 1796 to be permanent, he would be called back into service one more time – in July 1798 when war with France threatened and Washington agreed once more to command the American mobilization.

President Washington concluded his 1796 farewell with a plea against partisan acrimony: “In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.”

“But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism,” wrote Washington of his advice, “this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.”

Lewis E. Lehrman is co-founder of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History and author of “Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point” (Stackpole Books, 2008).

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