1796 Two Hundred Years Ago

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At first glance the September 19 issue of Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser looked no different from any other. Its front page was tiled with the usual assortment of notices from tradesmen and merchants, and with Congress in the middle of a six-month recess, there was no reason to expect any important government news inside. At the top of page 2 was an unobtrusive heading, “To the PEOPLE of the United States/Friends and fellow citizens,” followed by an expanse of solid type. Readers had to look halfway into the following page to learn the author’s identity: “G. Washington, United States, September 17, 1796.”

The President’s intention not to seek a third term had been well known in Philadelphia (then the seat of government) for months, but this letter was his first official announcement. Washington began by saying how little he had wanted the job, a standard protestation of the era’s politicians that Washington, perhaps unique in history, actually meant. He went on to express relief at leaving, confidence that others could fill the office as well as he, and gratitude to his countrymen for their support and indulgence. Then, in time-honored rhetorical fashion, he continued: “Here, perhaps, I ought to stop.—But a solicitude for your welfare. . . .” There followed a Polonian series of exhortations and admonitions that in the two centuries since have amply fulfilled Washington’s desire for a document that would be “importantly and lastingly useful . . . progress in approbation with time, and redound to future reputation.”

Washington’s first draft had been an angry self-justification that at times sounded almost Nixonesque: “As this address, fellow citizens, will be the last I shall ever make to you, and as some of the gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent. . . .” At the President’s request Alexander Hamilton composed a more measured draft that cloaked subtle arguments for the emerging Federalist party in the guise of universal republican sentiments. Washington adopted Hamilton’s version with a fair amount of editing that removed the more controversial sections, such as Hamilton’s call for a stronger central government.

The caution to “steer clear of permanent alliances” is the part of the address quoted most frequently, if not always accurately. Elsewhere Washington urges loyalty to the Union and respect for its laws; gives an Ike-like warning to “avoid . . . overgrown Military establishments”; counsels against excessive government spending; stresses the importance of religion and education; lauds the Constitution’s system of checks and balances; and wistfully, in view of the vicious factional strife already afflicting the country, decries “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party.”

Within weeks the letter was reprinted in scores of newspapers. Comments were overwhelmingly positive, with only a few die-hard anti-Federalists daring to criticize it. The President did not linger to bask in the praise. He left for Mount Vernon before the letter was published, after asking a friend to keep him informed on its reception. Nor was it the final public statement of his career; in December, as usual, he delivered his annual message to Congress. John Adams later said the Farewell Address (as it eventually became known) had contained “nothing but obvious Truths that all Men would at once approve,” and a few passages do sound like the lessons Washington had copied as a schoolboy (“Cultivate peace and harmony with all. . . . Honesty is the best policy”). Still, besides being an excellent summation of the Federalist faith at its most benign, the address stands out today as an early distillation of the world’s first experience with democracy on a large scale.