The Wisdom of George Washington: Have we deviated from the sound principles of his Farewell Address?
July 29, 2012
The world’s most generous prize money is attached not to the Nobel Prize but to the Mo Ibrahim Prize, awarded for good governance in Africa, as determined by a very simple test: a democratically elected leader who actually leaves office at the end of his term. The winner receives five million dollars plus two hundred thousand dollars a year for life. The 53 African nations yielded one claimant in 2011, but none for the two years previous. The precedent set by George Washington has not been easy to establish elsewhere, prize money or not.
George Washington is justly famous for his retirements: his republican refusal of perpetual power on two all-important occasions, first when he resigned supreme military authority in 1783 and then again when he relinquished presidential authority in 1796. Although he went willingly, it can’t be said that he went quietly. Not, of course, that he made any sort of fuss and bother—that was not his style—but he did on both occasions take the opportunity to speak to his fellow citizens about the perils ahead. This impulse to extend his guiding presence over the generations indicates, I think, how difficult it actually was for the most competent man on the stage to exit of his own accord and turn the nation’s performance over to an ensemble cast.
“Silence in Me Would Be a Crime”
In Washington’s first valedictory, the “Circular to the States,” the General had noted that there were some who might object to his even offering political counsel for the future, viewing it as an act of arrogant presumption, “stepping out of the proper line of . . . duty.” Washington responded by saying, “silence in me would be a crime.” Why a crime? —because although the war had been won, it was yet to be determined, according to Washington, “whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse.” (We speak today of the Arab “Spring”—a hopeful metaphor, but also misleading since political life is not regular like the seasons. Washington was aware that what follows the revolution counts most and there are never any guarantees of what that might be.)
In view of what he called “the present Crisis,” Washington was convinced it was not only permissible but also incumbent on him to set forth his thoughts on government, which he proceeded to do by describing four “Pillars” that were needed to support “the glorious Fabrick of our Independency and National Character.”
Three years later, Washington was distressed both by the state of the Union and by his countrymen’s disregard of his parting words. In a letter to John Jay, Washington lamented that “my sentiments and opinions . . . have been neglected, tho’ given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner.” Of course, as it turned out, the Circular of 1783 was not his last legacy. After serving two terms as president under the new Constitution, Washington had a chance to compose another Farewell Address, now with higher expectations of finding a receptive and lasting audience.
Like the Circular, the Farewell Address was never delivered as a speech; it was, from the first, a written document, intended to be read not heard, pondered not applauded. Its audience and mode of distribution, however, were strikingly different from the Circular’s. The Circular was directed to the respective governors of the states. It bore the salutation “Sir” and called upon “your Excellency” to communicate the contents to “your Legislature.” The “Citizens of America” were mentioned, but always in the third person as “they.”
By contrast, the Farewell was published via the popular medium of the newspapers. It was an open letter, bearing the salutation “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens.” The second-person “you” now embraced the people, rather than the functionaries of the states. By the close of the Farewell, even the gap between “I,” George Washington, and “you,” my fellow citizens, was de-emphasized, as Washington shifted increasingly to the first-person plural possessive: as in “our country,” “our interest,” “our foreign relations,” “our destiny,” culminating in the evocative closing reference to “our mutual cares, labours, and dangers.”
By the way, this salutation, “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens,” is unique in Washington’s writings. Throughout his presidency, each Annual Message had been addressed to “Fellow-citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.” So, too, the First Inaugural, although the Second Inaugural was addressed more broadly to “Fellow-citizens.” The Farewell takes this a step further. The addition of the word “Friends” sounds a new, more intimate note—a note that develops into one of the speech’s recurring motifs. Whereas the formal voice of the Circular had been actuated by duty—remember, “silence would be a crime”—the warmer voice of the Farewell is prompted by love. As Washington himself puts it, his counsels are those of “an old and affectionate friend.”
The Counsel of an Affectionate and Parting Friend
So what did the nation’s “parting friend” offer as his last legacy for our “solemn contemplation” and “frequent review”? The 50 paragraphs of the address are carefully structured. The primary divisions are an opening section of 6 paragraphs which constitutes the resignation proper, a central section of 36 paragraphs which delineates Washington’s maxims and warnings, and a concluding section of 8 paragraphs which measures Washington’s own administration against his expressed principles and solicits pardon for any shortcomings.
The language of the opening section, with its ostentatious modesty, is now alien to us. Our self-trumpeting politicians would never dream of drawing attention, as Washington does, to his “very fallible judgment” or “the inferiority of my qualifications.” For himself, Washington claims only “good intentions.” Of course, maybe it’s easier to appear humble when one’s actions have spoken as irrefutably as Washington’s have. The great man in the infant republic effaces himself, and deflects the credit onto his fellow citizens. “If benefits have resulted to our country from these services,” Washington insists, “let it always be remembered to your praise,” since “the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts.”
The converse of Washington’s humility is his gratitude; he leaves office deeply indebted to “my beloved country.” He closes the opening section with a prayer—a carefully itemized prayer—hoping that the nation will be blessed with the favor of Heaven, perpetual Union, fidelity to the Constitution, the wise Administration of government, and a completion of national Happiness that will inspire the worldwide spread of liberty…