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Prepared by the United States Senate Historical Office
In September 1796, worn out by burdens of the presidency and attacks of political foes, George Washington announced his decision not to seek a third term. With the assistance of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington composed in a "Farewell Address” his political testament to the nation. Designed to inspire and guide future generations, the address also set forth Washington's defense of his administration's record and embodied a classic statement of Federalist doctrine.
Washington's principal concern was for the safety of the eight-yearold Constitution. He believed that the stability of the Republic was threatened by the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation's domestic affairs. He urged Americans to subordinate sectional jealousies to common national interests. Writing at a time before political parties had become accepted as vital extraconstitutional, opinion-focusing agencies, Washington feared that they carried the seeds of the nation's destruction through petty factionalism. Although Washington was in no sense the father of American isolationism, since he recognized the necessity of temporary associations for “extraordinary emergencies," he did counsel against the establishment of “permanent alliances with other countries,” connections that he warned would inevitably be subversive of America's national interest.
Washington did not publicly deliver his Farewell Address. It first appeared on September 19, 1796, in the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser and then in papers around the country.
In January 1862, with the Constitution endangered by civil war, a thousand citizens of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to commemorate the forthcoming 130th anniversary of George Washington's birth by providing that “the Farewell Address of Washington be read aloud on the morning of that day in one or the other of the Houses of Congress.” Both houses agreed and assembled in the House of Representatives' chamber on February 22, 1862, where Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney "rendered “The Farewell Address' very effectively,” as one observer recalled.
The practice of reading the Farewell Address did not immediately become a tradition. The address was first read in regular legislative sessions of the Senate in 1888 and the House in 1899. (The House continued the practice until 1984.) Since 1893 the Senate has observed Washington's birthday by selecting one of its members to read the Farewell Address. The assignment alternates between members of each political party. At the conclusion of each reading, the appointed senator inscribes his or her name and brief remarks in a black, leatherbound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate.
The version of the address printed here is taken from the original of the final manuscript in the New York Public Library provided courtesy of The Papers of George Washington. The only changes have been to modernize spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.