Books about specific presidential addresses have become commonplace. In recent decades, we have been treated to book-length studies of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. John Avlon’s Washington’s Farewell will take its place as one of the best of this expanding and increasingly popular genre.
Unlike the messages that inspired those previous studies, Washington’s Farewell Address was not delivered orally before spectators. He submitted the 6,088-word document to a newspaper in the run-up to the 1796 presidential election. Washington had an announcement of particular importance to make: that he was stepping down at the end of his second term as president. This news, certain to capture readers’ attention, provided an opportunity for Washington to pass along advice to his countrymen as to how they might best preserve the hard-gained fruits of the American experiment in self-government. A master of timing, Washington, in choosing this particular venue to attract the widest possible audience, demonstrated once again that he was every inch the “great actor” his vice president, John Adams, proclaimed him to be.
Washington, as Avlon notes, had a “genius for goodbyes.” The trial run for the Farewell Address was the “circular letter” Washington sent to the 13 governors immediately before he resigned his military commission to Congress in 1783. He asked that the letter be read aloud to the people of the respective states. In it, he argued for a strong national government, the impartial administration of justice, a permanent defense apparatus, and the submerging of sectional allegiances into a common national identity. After eight years as the nation’s first president, he would have even more advice to pass on.
Washington hoped to step down at the end of only one term in office, and near the end of that term he had asked James Madison, then in the House, to draft a message of farewell. After he decided to accept a second term, at the urging of squabbling cabinet members Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, Washington put Madison’s handiwork aside. In 1796, determined not to die before the first peaceful transfer of power in the young nation could take place, Washington retrieved Madison’s words and asked Hamilton to add to them. Then, after giving the document a careful scrubbing, he released it.
Washington’s Farewell Address is at once his most widely known and least understood message. Once treated with great reverence, it fell out of favor in the years following World War II. This was, to some degree, the result of a perhaps willful misinterpretation of it on the part of those who opposed American aid to Great Britain as it withstood Nazi bombardment. In fact, Washington’s proclamation was hardly the isolationist screed that the anti-interventionists made it out to be.
It was, rather, a warning that the United States take care not to be drawn into foreign wars as a result of alliances entered into either out of habit or owing to bonds of affection. He did not want the United States to sacrifice lives, treasure, and its own interests, security, and independence to another nation that manipulated it for its own selfish ends. Steering clear of this trap and maintaining a defense apparatus strong enough to deter foreign aggression, Washington insisted, were the best guarantors of peace.
In making the case that the U.S. enhanced its own security by keeping Britain afloat, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared to his critics as breaking faith with his most illustrious predecessor. (His critics said that he did so a second time when he sought a third term in 1940.) Yet FDR, in a famous fireside chat, urged his listeners to imagine how American security would be affected should British possessions in the Western Hemisphere come under the control of Nazi Germany and Nazi ships replace the British navy as the principal patroller of transatlantic shipping.
After World War II, when new alliances were formed to check Soviet ambitions, Roosevelt’s successors all but declared Washington’s admonition to avoid entering into “permanent alliances” out of date at a time when a rival superpower presented an existential threat to the U.S.
Turning his attention to our own times, Avlon argues rather convincingly that Washington’s advice has taken on new relevance and urgency. Washington, like most of the Founders, feared that factions would prove the ruination of the new nation. John Adams’s reading of history taught him that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”: At critical junctures in history, individuals began to invest more of their loyalties in factions than they did in their nation’s ultimate well-being, and foreign nations proved only too happy to tip the scales in favor of factions that supported their interests.
No sooner had Washington taken office than the factionalism he so much feared threatened to divide the nation into two camps. Washington was so fearful that bitter rivalries between the followers of Hamilton and of Jefferson would split the nation into two warring camps that he delayed his retirement. Most of the factionalism Washington lamented was sectional or regional in scope; were Washington writing today, he would no doubt also decry the identity politics that pushes people into “red” and “blue” camps. In an era when consensus, compromise, and bipartisanship are increasingly rare; legislative-district gerrymandering more precise; interest groups more powerful; campaigns cost-prohibitive to all but those with tremendous wealth or access to it; and politicians, courts, and citizens concerned more with “rights” than with obligations, the forces tugging away at the bonds of national unity are considerably stronger than in Washington’s day.
Placing Washington’s Farewell Address beside today’s news stories about Russian meddling in U.S. politics, one might fear that we are on the verge of a repeat performance of one of the greatest crises of Washington’s administration: the revolutionary French government’s attempt to exploit the pro-French sympathies of Jefferson’s followers to weaken, if not topple, Washington’s administration as a means of enhancing its own influence on world affairs. Avlon’s discussion of what history knows as the Citizen Genêt affair has a decidedly contemporary ring, and should be carefully studied by the current administration as well as by those investigating the extent to which a foreign government attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Avlon declares Washington’s Farewell Address a “manifesto for moderation.” The same might be said of this book and its author. If large segments of the American people take Washington’s words, and Avlon’s interpretation of their meaning, to heart, those who make policy in their name might finally find a way out of the morass that has kept American politics stymied for at least a generation.
– Mr. Felzenberg is the author of A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.