He had a genius for goodbyes. Washington’s first farewell occurred thirteen years before, in June 1783, as he prepared to resign his commission as commander in chief of the victorious Continental Army to return to his farm. Like a modern-day Cincinnatus, the modesty of the move guaranteed his greatness. It was a revolutionary gesture, causing King George III to remark, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
After proclaiming a day of jubilee, complete with an extra ration of rum for soldiers, bonfires on mountain-tops and fireworks thundering above the Hudson River, Washington set his mind to retirement, writing a friend that “before I retire from public life, I shall with the greatest freedom give my sentiments to the States on several political subjects.”
He marked the moment by writing a 4,000-word address to the American people, scratching out the text in a stone Dutch farmhouse perched above the Hudson in the hamlet of Newburgh, New York. Washington had lived there in something close to comfort for two years with Martha after the upheaval of combat on the run required him to sleep in more than 200 homes over eight years.
It was a time of celebration but the general called it a moment of “crisis.” Washington offered his parting advice on how to establish the foundation of an independent nation absent the common enemy that had united the thirteen colonies. The ideas flowed from his wartime experiences—struggles with a divided, dysfunctional Congress, insufficient funds, and crippling debt, compounded by a lack of resolve by the new citizens of the United States.
Washington asked that his letter be read aloud by the governors of the thirteen colonies at the commencement of the next session of their state legislatures—a means of distribution known as a Circular Letter to the States, of which he had availed himself eleven times during the course of the war.
General Washington intended this to be his Farewell Address—and it was alternately called his “Legacy” and “Farewell Address” in the decade that separated it from the end of his presidency. Here he established the roots of his concerns and remedies, articulating many of the principles and policies he would execute as president and enshrine in his final farewell.
Yes, this was a time for celebration and appreciation, but the success of the revolution had only brought the American people a heavier responsibility: “At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”
“This is the moment to establish or ruin their national character forever,” Washington continued. “It is yet to be decided whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.”
And so he delineated “four things, which I humbly conceive are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power.”
The first was “an indissoluble Union of the States under one federal head.” Washington wanted to ensure that the states would resist any separatist impulse, believing that a strong central government led by a president was the surest way to preserve the republic. He wrote this without any assumption or intimation that he would be the nominee for this national office.
Second came “a sacred regard to public justice,” by which he meant not only a fair judicial system, but more specifically a congressional commitment to pay the revolutionary soldiers what they were owed. Already, states were skirting their larger commitments once the war had been won. Paying debts was essential to the stable credit of a nation and Washington believed those debts should begin at home with the heroes whose sacrifice had made independence possible.
Third, Washington called for “the adoption of a proper peace establishment,” which was an ornate way of calling for a standing American army. This was controversial. Throughout history republics had been undone by overgrown military establishments, but in a earlier dispatch titled “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” Washington had counteracted this conventional wisdom by arguing that a permanent continental army, supplemented by state militias, could curtail individual state expense while making the prospect of reconquest less attractive to the British and other aggressive colonizers.
Fourth and finally, Washington made a passionate case for cultivating an identity as American citizens that would elevate national unity over local loyalties, inducing “them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.” In the eternal balance between individual rights and community obligations, Washington believed that there were times that the national interest trumped individual self-interest, especially in the early, unstable years of the young republic, when the failure of one could bring the destruction of the other.
“These are the pillars on which the glorious fabric of our independency and national character must be supported,” Washington wrote. He was declaring his personal political credo that would guide him for the rest of his life: the elevation of the common good over narrow self-interest, aided by an energetic central government, animated by the pursuit of justice through moderation.
The response was rapturous. One newspaper correspondent wrote, “When I read General Washington’s circular letter, I imagine myself in the presence of the great General of the twelve United States of Israel.”
Five months later, on November 25, Washington led his troops on a triumphant march from Newburgh into the city of New York—then just 4,000 homes on the southern tip of Manhattan—timing his victorious arrival with the departure of the final British troops on ships packed with loyalists and their furniture headed for the chilly hinterlands of Nova Scotia. The anniversary was celebrated for more than a century as “Evacuation Day.”
They met the first celebrating group of New Yorkers at what is today Union Square, where a statue of Washington on horseback still stands. He traveled down the Boston Post Road and sought a quick break at the Bull’s Head Tavern, a stagecoach stop and cattle market just north of the city limits near the corner of Bowery and Delancey Streets, where he raised a glass to liberty and New Yorkers did the same. A young woman who witnessed the event recalled decades later, “[As] I looked at them, and thought upon all they’d done and suffered for us, my heart and eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them all the more, because they were weather-beaten and forlorn.”
The party continued for more than a week. On December 4, hours before he was scheduled to resign his commission and return home, Washington summoned Continental Army officers to Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street for a “turtle feast” and heartfelt farewell to his patriotic band of brothers.
The tavern had been the meeting place for an early group of revolutionaries known as the Sons of Liberty, and its owner—a West Indian immigrant named Samuel Fraunces—had helped stop a poisoning plot against Washington by a member of his own security detail, a group known quite literally as “Life Guards.” Now, in the long room of his restaurant, Fraunces hosted the officers who had won the war and Washington raised a glass: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you: I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy, as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Grown men cried and even the famously self-controlled Washington got a bit teary-eyed. The scope of the party took some of the sting out of the sorrow: the 120 guests drained 135 bottles of Madeira and 60 bottles of beer.
After an early morning departure, Washington made his way by boat to Annapolis, Maryland, where he officially resigned his commission to the members of the Continental Congress, then rode to Mount Vernon.
The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations
The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations
George Washington’s Farewell Address was a prophetic letter from a “parting friend” to his fellow citizens about the forces he feared could destroy our democracy: hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, and foreign wars.
Once celebrated as civic scripture, more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence, the Farewell Address is now almost forgotten. Its message remains starkly relevant. In Washington’s Farewell, John Avlon offers a stunning portrait of our first president and his battle to save America from self-destruction.
At the end of his second term, Washington surprised Americans by publishing his Farewell message in a newspaper. The President called for unity among “citizens by birth or choice,” advocated moderation, defended religious pluralism, proposed a foreign policy of independence (not isolation), and proposed that education is essential to democracy. He established the precedent for the peaceful transfer of power.
Washington’s urgent message was adopted by Jefferson after years of opposition and quoted by Lincoln in defense of the Union. Woodrow Wilson invoked it for nation-building; Eisenhower for Cold War; Reagan for religion. Now the Farewell Address may inspire a new generation to re-center our politics and reunite our nation through the lessons rooted in Washington’s experience.
As John Avlon describes the perilous state of the new nation that Washington was preparing to leave as its leader, with enduring wisdom, he reveals him to be the indispensable Founding Father.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 368 pages |
- ISBN 9781476746463 |
- January 2017