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This Day in History: George Washington bids the nation farewell (again)

On this day in 1796, George Washington bids the nation farewell. He was retiring from the presidency and making his last exit from public life.

His move was astonishing! How many people voluntarily give up power and return to civilian life? Remember: Washington could probably have been a King, if he’d really wanted to. Yet, at the end of the day, all he wanted was to return to his beloved Mount Vernon.

Washington had written many goodbyes to the American people, but he surely knew that this would be his last. He spent a great deal of time editing his Farewell Address and thinking about what he wanted to say. The lessons that he wanted to impart to the American people, he wrote, “are the result of much reflection . . . [and] appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a People.”

Indeed, Washington was so intent on his task that he was still editing the Address, even as it went to press. He was working hard to get it exactly right.

The final product reflected the intensity of Washington’s effort. Did you know that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson considered Washington’s Farewell Address to be one of the best guides to American government?

We know this because of an incident that occurred in 1825.

Thomas Jefferson was then working to create a list of “text and documents” for use at the University of Virginia law school. Jefferson asked Madison for help in generating his list, and Madison was quick to suggest Washington’s Farewell Address. Jefferson loved it, pronouncing himself “particularly pleased with your inclusion of Genl. Wash’s addresses, which had not occurred to me or I should have referred to them also.”

Ultimately, the list approved by the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia named Washington’s Farewell Address as one of the “best guides” for understanding the “distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States.”

Did you know that the Address is still read on the Senate floor once every year? The Address is read on George Washington’s birthday. In 2021, Republican Rob Portman read the Farewell. In 2022, it will be the Democrats’ turn to pick a reader.

How appropriate. The Address is not only a distinctive guide to understanding American government, but it is also a reminder of the amazing step that George Washington took: By retiring, he set a precedent for peaceful transitions of power from one President to the next. If he’d died in office, that important precedent might never have been set.

Yet again, one is left wondering what this nation would look like if anyone other than George Washington had served as its first President and its first Commander-in-Chief.

More on George Washington and his Farewell Address can be found in the book that I co-authored with Joseph C. Smith, Jr., Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State.



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