In honor of George Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, 1732, we are featuring a new book about the first president!
Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning To Future Generations by John Avlon, is an extremely readable and interesting look at George Washington’s farewell address. The book looks at Washington’s life and the events that shaped his character and beliefs, culminating in his farewell address. I had never heard of Washington’s Farewell Address, and it was very interesting to see how the issues that Washington addresses are still relevant today.
After two terms in office, Washington wanted to leave some words of wisdom for the country, so he worked with Alexander Hamilton to write an address which was published in a newspaper, rather than given as a speech.
First, he encouraged national unity and warned against factions caused by political parties or geographic location. Throughout his presidency, he had seen how politicians could be more loyal to their party than to their country, and he wanted them to put the interests of their country first.
Next, he encouraged fiscal discipline. Although he was not opposed to some national debt, he felt that there should be limits on it. Washington himself had been bankrupt, but he also saw the need for revenue. He stated that public credit should be used as “sparingly as possible” but “toward the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.”
He believed that virtue was necessary for a successful country, and that religion was the best way to inculcate virtue. He stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports….reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington attended Anglican Church regularly, but believed in religious tolerance and that virtue could be cultivated through various denominations.
Washington never had the opportunity to go to college because he had to drop out of school and work after his father’s death. However, he saw the benefits of education, pursued lifelong learning through reading classics, and made sure both his step-children had the opportunity for higher education. In the farewell address he promoted public education, especially the creation of a national university for deserving and exceptional young men (which never came to pass). However, he called for a military academy, and West Point was established after his death.
Finally, he stated that the United States should avoid entanglement in foreign affairs, and that the best way to prepare for peace is to prepare for war. Unlike Thomas Jefferson who believed that “a little rebellion can be good,” and wanted to support the French revolution, Washington had been involved in war, and knew the costs and realities of war.
The speech has been regularly read in Congress each year, and various presidents have cited it to support their policies. Through the 1950’s, the speech was taught in schools and students were expected to memorize it. The last paragraph is used word for word in the musical Hamilton in the song “One Last Time.” Especially today, Washington’s words about the dangers of factions, debt, and involvement in foreign wars, as well as the importance of education and the promotion of virtue are incredibly relevant.
*Post written by Anna Poore