September 19, 1796 — George Washington gave his farewell address as president today. Historians consider it a classic statement of republicanism, for it warned Americans of the political dangers they can and must avoid if they are to remain true to their values.
The speech was actually a letter written by Washington, to “The People of the United States of America.” He penned it near the end of his second term as President, before his retirement to his home Mount Vernon.
James Madison helped prepare the original letter when Washington prepared to retire following a single term in office. However, he set aside the letter and ran for a second term after the rancor between his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, convinced him that the growing divisions between the newly formed Federalist and Republican parties, along with the current state of foreign affairs, would rip the country apart in the absence of his leadership.
As his second term came to a close, Washington revisited the letter and, with the help of Hamilton, prepared a revision of the original draft to announce his intention to decline a third term in office. He also reflects on the emerging issues of the American political landscape in 1796, expresses his support for the government eight years after the adoption of the Constitution, defends his administration’s record, and gives valedictory advice to the American people.
Words of Wisdom
The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.
I beg you, at the same time, to do me the justice to be assured that this resolution has not been taken without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation which binds a dutiful citizen to his country; and that in withdrawing the tender of service, which silence in my situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.