George Washington’s farewell address

Published 1:07 pm Thursday, July 14, 2022

By Bob Holt

As we celebrated this past Monday, the 246th anniversary of Independence Day, it reminds us of the enduring wisdom and forethought of the Founding Fathers. Most historians rate Thomas Jefferson as the most intellectual and sophisticated, Benjamin Franklin as the most inventive, James Madison as the most politically astute, Alexander Hamilton as the smartest, and John Adams as the most well-read. But when times were tough and things looked bleak, who did they turn to for leadership? — George Washington, not once but twice.

Washington first created the Colonial Army initially with only 16,000 troops composed of militiamen who were citizen soldiers, much like today’s National Guard and Army Reserve. They had no uniforms and provided their own firearms and ammunition in the early days of the Revolutionary War. The soft spoken Washington was asked to form, train, and lead this army in 1775 against at that time the world’s most powerful military force – the British army and navy. The British forces were large in number, well-equipped, battle-tested, and highly trained. They were seasoned soldiers and sailors.

After defeating the British ending the war, the new nation felt Washington was the one best qualified to lead it and elected him as the first president for a four-year term. He established several precedents still done today – an inaugural address, messages to Congress, and the formation of a cabinet composed of key advisors.

Washington wanted to serve only one term but agreed to a second term when he began to see political factions forming and felt a need to keep those in check. Also, he did not want to die in office establishing the thought that the presidency was a lifetime appointment. Upon leaving office in 1797, he felt the need to give those coming after him advice regarding the future of the nation.

His “Farewell Address” is not mentioned often by historians, nevertheless it provides cautions that are still relevant today. James Madison did the initial draft, Alexander Hamilton made revisions, and Washington made the final edits. He stated that the nation must have a national identity and remain united to protect its freedom and prosperity. Partisanship and “foreign entanglements” will lead to division, he stated. The “name of AMERICAN (his caps)…must always exalt the just pride of patriotism.” Washington began to see the beginnings of political parties and cautioned the country to “move beyond partisanship for the common good.” He said that the nation should “concentrate on its own interests.” He warned against foreign alliances and their influences in domestic affairs. Finally, he stated that “religion and morality are indispensable supports in a republic.”

Unfortunately, there is a tendency today to judge the actions of those who lived in the 18th Century by the standards of the 21st Century. These assessments, that are taken out of context, are extremely unfair. One thing is certain — George Washington’s Farewell Address advice is just as relevant today as it was in 1797, perhaps more so.

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is hrobert@vt.edu.