George Washington’s Farewell Address to the people of the United States appeared in newspapers across the nation; then was republished in booklet form. The address was never intended to be spoken; it was planned as a printed piece that would reach thousands of Americans. It appeared first on September 19, 1796, in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia. The document is eloquent in its plea for the maintenance of the union and farsighted in its warnings against political strife and foreign entanglement. For those reasons it was read in the House of Delegates on Washington’s birthday from 1899 until 1984, and it continues to be read annually in the U.S. Senate. It is as relevant today as it ever was.
Four years earlier, in 1792 at the close of his first presidential term, Washington had longed to retire from public service, which had consumed so much of his time and energy for 17 years. But the outbreak in 1789 of the French Revolution brought instability to Europe, and political strife within the nation and within his cabinet. He felt compelled to remain in office. In 1794, he avoided war with England’s powerful navy by signing the Jay Treaty, to the displeasure of French supporters, notably his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson. The internal strife was orchestrated by Jefferson and Washington’s treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson and James Madison founded the Republican party to counter the Federalist party that was guided by Hamilton. Jefferson envisioned an agrarian society free from the evils of urban life, while Hamilton championed the North’s merchants and burgeoning industrialists. Jefferson wrote that he and Hamilton “were pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.” Vicious political battles between the two parties erupted during Washington’s second presidential term and were spread across the pages of partisan newspapers. Except during the Civil War years, the vindictiveness of the 1790s remained largely unmatched in American politics until, perhaps, today.