Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

George Washington's farewell address

George Washington's farewell address was delivered in 1796 as then President Washington was leaving office.

Washington, like many of his contemporaries, did not understand or believe in political parties, and saw them as fractious agencies subversive of domestic tranquility. When political parties began forming during his administration, and in direct response to some of his policies, he failed to comprehend that parties would be the chief device through which the American people would debate and resolve major public issues. It was his fear of what parties would do to the nation that led Washington to draft his Farewell Address.

The two parties that developed in the early 1790s were the Federalists, who supported the economic and foreign policies of the Washington administration, and the Jeffersonian Republicans, who in large measure opposed them. The Federalists backed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's plan for a central bank and a tariff and tax policy that would promote domestic manufacturing; the Jeffersonians opposed the strong government inherent in the Hamiltonian plan, and favored farmers as opposed to manufacturers. In foreign affairs, both sides wanted the United States to remain neutral in the growing controversies between Great Britain and France, but the Federalists favored the English and the Jeffersonians the French. The Address derived at least in part from Washington's fear that party factionalism would drag the United States into this fray.

Two-thirds of the Address is devoted to domestic matters and the rise of political parties, and Washington set out his vision of what would make the United States a truly great nation. He called for men to put aside party and unite for the common good, an "American character" wholly free of foreign attachments. The United States must concentrate only on American interests, and while the country ought to be friendly and open its commerce to all nations, it should avoid becoming involved in foreign wars. Contrary to some opinion, Washington did not call for isolation, only the avoidance of entangling alliances. While he called for maintenance of the treaty with France signed during the American Revolution, the problems created by that treaty ought to be clear. The United States must "act for ourselves and not for others."

The Address quickly entered the realm of revealed truth. It was for decades read annually in Congress; it was printed in children's primers, engraved on watches and woven into tapestries. Many Americans, especially in subsequent generations, accepted Washington's advice as gospel, and in any debate between neutrality and involvement in foreign issues would invoke the message as dispositive of all questions. Not until 1949, in fact, would the United States again sign a treaty of alliance with a foreign nation.


Further reading