Like many people these days, I’m reading about our nation’s history and its government. Some of this is a repeat; some of it is new. Reading documents written at the founding is sometimes challenging because the language is dated. At the risk of being disrespectful, I rewrote Pres. Washington’s Farewell Address in modern vernacular. The language is still formal, but that is probably appropriate given the importance of the document. I hope, though, this makes his letter easier to read. Any misinterpretation or mischaracterization of his original sentiments are entirely my fault.
How sad that we have not followed his advice. What would our country be like if we had? Is it too late to start trying?
Friends and Fellow-Citizens:
Since the time is near for a new election of a Citizen to administer the Executive Branch of the United States, and since you are currently thinking about whom that important person should be, it seems proper for me, especially since it will allow the public to make a clear choice, that I let you know that I have decided to decline being considered for the office.
Please kindly be assured that I have considered this decision carefully with a clear eye to my duties as a citizen of this country, and by withdrawing from consideration when silence might imply my willingness, I still wish you great future success and am grateful for your past kindness to me. I fully believe that my decision is compatible with both.
My acceptance and holding of this office to which you have twice elected me have been a uniform sacrifice even though it was to meet the call of duty and to meet your desires. I constantly hoped that I could retire much earlier, consistent with the sense of duty I could not ignore, so that I could return to the retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my desire to do this, before the last election, even led me to prepare an address to declare my intentions to you. A careful consideration of the tenuous and critical state of our relations with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of people I trust, compelled me to abandon the idea.
I’m happy that the state of your affairs, both external and internal, allow me to pursue a desire that is compatible with duty and propriety. I am persuaded that whatever desire you have for my continued service, under the present circumstances you will approve of my decision to retire.
I previously explained my reasons for taking on the arduous trust. In carrying out this trust, I will only say that I have with good intentions helped organize and administer the government with the best effort that a very fallible judgment was capable. Conscious at the outset of my inferior qualifications, my own experience, and perhaps the opinions of others, has increased my distrust of my own strengths, and every day the weight of the years convinces me that retirement is both necessary and welcome. Satisfied that if any of my efforts were valuable, they were temporary, and I have the consolation to believe that while choice and prudence invite me to quit politics, patriotism does not prohibit it.
In looking forward to the end of my public career, I must acknowledge the profound debt I owe to my beloved country. It has given me many honors. It has consistently supported me with its confidence. It has given me the opportunity to show my undying love even though my skills were unequal to my enthusiasm. If our country has benefited from my service, it should always be attributed to you, and remembered as a good lesson in our history. Our effort succeeded under trying circumstances when it was easy to become confused, when there was no clear sign of success, when fortune was discouraging, and when lack of success often brought much second-guessing, Your constant support was essential to guaranteeing our plans. I shall carry this idea with me to my grave, and shall pray to Heaven that it continues to give you its benefits. I pray that your union and brotherly affection will be perpetual. I pray that the free Constitution you created will be sacredly maintained, and that its administration will be wise and virtuous so that the happiness of the people of these States, with the guidance of liberty, will be complete. By carefully preserving and prudently using this blessing, future generations will receive the glory of recommending it to every nation which is unfamiliar with it.
Perhaps I should stop here. My hopes for your welfare, which will only end with my life, and my natural fear for your future, urge me on this occasion to offer you some solemn thoughts which I hope you will review frequently. I have thought about these things for a long time. They are the result of considerable observation, and they appear to me to be important for your future happiness as a People. I offer these thoughts freely. They are only the disinterested warnings of a parting friend who cannot have any personal motive to lead you astray. Nor can I forget, as further encouragement, your kind reception of my thoughts on a former, similar occasion.
Just as the love of liberty is woven into your hearts, no words from me are necessary to strengthen or confirm our mutual attachment.
The Unity of Government that makes you one people is also dear to you now. This is appropriate because it is main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence. It supports your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, your safety, your prosperity, and the very Liberty that you cherish so highly. But it is easy to foresee that in many different ways and from many different directions, great efforts will be taken and many tricks will be used to weaken this truth in your minds. This conviction is the point against which internal and external enemies will, often secretly and insidiously, direct their constant activities. Therefore, it is paramount that you properly understand the importance of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness. You should foster a friendly, habitual, and unyielding attachment to it. You should think and speak of it as the Monument of your political safety and prosperity. You should jealously watch over its preservation and reject anything that even hints that it can be abandoned, and indignantly frown on the first sign of every attempt to alienate any portion of the Country from the rest or to weaken the sacred ties that link together the parts of our country.
You have every reason to do this. You are Citizens by birth or by choice of a common country, and that country deserves your affection. The name AMERICAN, which belongs to you as a nation, must always praise the pride of Patriotism, more than any name based on local considerations. With some differences, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and Political Principles. You have fought and triumphed together for a common cause. The Independence and Liberty you possess are the result of joint decisions and joint efforts – of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.
But these considerations, however powerful, are greatly outweighed by more immediate Interests. Every portion of our country has compelling reasons for carefully guarding and preserving the Union of the whole.
The North having unrestrained relations with the South protected by equal Laws of common government, has access to additional resources for maritime and commercial activity and precious material for manufacturing. The South in turn benefits from access to the North allowing its agriculture and commerce to expand. Directing into its own waterways the seamen of the North, it finds its own navigation increased, and while it contributes in different ways to nourish and increase the nation’s navigation generally, it looks forward to the added protection of maritime strength to which it is not adapted. The East in relationship to the West has already found, and will continue to find, through improved communication and transportation a valuable market for the goods it brings from abroad or manufactures at home. The West gets from the East supplies necessary to its growth and comfort, and perhaps more importantly, it owes the secure access for its own products to the weight, influence, and the future maritime strength of the Atlantic side of the Union based on an unbreakable, shared interest as one Nation. Any other path by which the West can hold this advantage, whether through its own strength or some cynical and unnatural connection with a foreign power, is intrinsically precarious.
While every part of our Country feels an immediate and particular interest in Union, all of the parts combined cannot fail to find greater strength, greater resource, greater security from external threat, and less chance of attack by foreign Nations. What is most precious is that their Union must free them from the quarrels and wars between themselves that frequently happen between neighboring countries not connected by the same government. Your own rivalries are sufficient to produce these, but are even more likely with foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues. Furthermore, you will avoid overgrown Military establishments, which are harmful to liberty under any form of government, and are particularly hostile to Republican Liberty. In this sense, your Union should be considered the main support for your liberty, and the love of the one should endear you to the preservation of the other.
These ideas are persuasive to the thoughtful and virtuous mind, and show that the continuation of the UNION is the primary objective of Patriotism. Can a common government embrace such a large sphere? Let the future determine that. To speculate at this point is criminal. We can hope that proper organization of the whole, with the help of local governments, will result in a happy ending. It is well worth a fair and full experiment. With such powerful and obvious motives to maintain the Union for the entire country, assuming experience does not prove it unworkable, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who try to weaken its bands.
In thinking about the causes that might disrupt our Union, it is a serious matter of concern that we not give credence to parties based on geography – Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western. Cunning men may use this to foster a belief that there are real differences between local interests and views. One of the tricks of Parties to acquire influence within particular groups is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other groups. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and resentments that spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to alienate those who should be bound together by fraternal affection. The inhabitants in the West recently learned a valuable lesson on this point. They have seen with the negotiation of the treaty with Spain by the Executive, with the unanimous ratification by the Senate, and the universal satisfaction throughout the United States, decisive proof that their suspicions were unfounded that there was a policy unfriendly to their interests on the MISSISSIPPI within the General Government and the Atlantic States. Will it not be wise for them to rely for the preservation of these advantages on the Union that obtained them? Will they not turn a deaf ear to any advisors, should they exist, who will separate them from their Brethren and connect them with Aliens?
For the effectiveness and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable. No alliances, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute. They will inevitably suffer the frictions and interruptions that all alliances in all times have experienced. Mindful of this momentous truth, you have adopted for an intimate Union a Constitution of Government that is even better designed than the first. It will allow for the efficient management of your common concerns. The government, the free creation of your own choice, adopted after full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of power, uniting security with energy, and containing provisions for its own amendment, can justly claim your confidence and support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its Laws, acquiescence to its measures, are duties required by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution that exists at any time, until it is changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is a sacred obligation on all of us. The very idea of the power and the right of the People to establish Government assumes the duty of everyone to obey the established Government.
All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations whatever they may be that are designed to direct, control, counteract, or bully the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities are detrimental to this principle and ultimately fatal. They serve to organize faction and give it an artificial and extraordinary force to replace the delegated will of the nation with the will of a party – often a small but cunning and enterprising minority. With the alternating victories of different parties, the public administration begins to mirror the disjointed and inconsistent projects of factions rather than the instrument of consistent and wholesome plans of common councils with mutual interests. Even though combinations and associations as described above may now and then answer popular demands, they are likely over the course of time to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men can subvert the Power of the People, and usurp for themselves the reins of Government – destroying afterward the very engines that lifted them to unjust power.
For the preservation of your Government and the continuation of your present happiness, it is essential that you not only continuously disapprove of periodic opposition to its acknowledged authority, but that you also resist the urge to tinker with its principles, however tempting the pretexts. One way may be to introduce changes that impair its vitality, and thus undermine what can’t be overthrown. Especially remember that for efficient management of your common interests in a country as large as ours, it is indispensible to have a Government with as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of Liberty. Liberty itself will find a Guardian in a government with powers that are properly distributed and adjusted. It will be little more than a name, if the Government is too feeble to withstand the efforts of faction, to confine members of society within the limits of the law, and to maintain for all the security and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
I have already implied the danger associated with parties in the State, with particular reference to those based on Geography. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you solemnly against the horrible effects in general of the Party Spirit.
This Spirit is, unfortunately, part of our nature with roots in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, even though it may be stifled, controlled, or repressed. But it is at its most foul in popular forms of government, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternating domination of one party over the other, heightened by the spirit of getting even natural to such a contest, which historically has created the most horrible atrocities, is by itself a frightful despotism. But as time goes on, this leads to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorder and misery which result gradually push the minds of men to seek the security and comfort of absolute rule by an Individual. Sooner or later the chief of some victorious faction, who is more able or more lucky than his competitors, takes advantage of this tendency so that he can elevate himself, ruining Public Liberty in the process.
Without predicting this extreme, which should never be entirely out of sight, the common and continuous mischief associated with Parties are enough to justify wise people discouraging and restraining them.
It always distracts the Public Councils, and weakens the Public administration. It stirs up the community with false jealousies and alarms. It kindles the hatred of one group against another, and occasionally fosters riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find easy access to the Government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There are some who believe that parties in free countries are useful checks on the Administration of Government, and help keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This is to some extent probably true, and in constitutional Monarchies, Patriotism may indulge, if not favor, the party spirit. But in popular Governments that are elected, party spirit should not be encouraged. From our natural tendencies, there will certainly be enough of that spirit for every good purpose. Since there is a constant danger of excess, the effort should be to restrain it by force of public opinion. It is a fire that cannot be quenched; it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent it from bursting into flames that instead of warming us, consume us.
It is important, too, that conventional thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with government power so that they confine themselves to their constitutional responsibilities and not encroach on other areas of responsibility. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate all power into one department, and thus create, no matter what form of government, real despotism. The love of power, and the tendency to abuse it, which dominates the human heart, is sufficient to prove this. The need for checks and balances in the exercise of political power, by separating them into different branches, and constituting each the Guardian of the Public Welfare against invasion by the others, has been tested in ancient and modern times – some in our own country under our own eyes. To preserve them is just as necessary as to institute them. If the People decide the separation or distribution of the Constitutional powers is wrong in any way, then let it be corrected with an amendment as the Constitution designates. But don’t let there be any change by usurpation. Even though this may in one instance be for good reasons, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent will always outweigh in permanent evil any small or temporary benefit which can be gained.
Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable. A man who claims the tribute of Patriotism will labor in vain if he subverts these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, as well as the pious man, should respect and cherish them. No volume can trace all of their connections with private and public happiness. Simply ask yourself where is security for property, for reputation, for life, if there is no religious obligation behind an oath, the basis of examination in Court? And let us carefully consider the thought that morality can exist without religion. Whatever we may concede are the benefits of education, reason and experience lead us to expect that national morality cannot prevail without religious principle.
It is substantially true that virtue and morality are necessary for popular government. The rule is important for every form of Free Government. Who that sincerely believes this can be indifferent to any attempts to shake this foundation?
It is very important, then, that you should promote institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. Since the government turns public opinion into force, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One way to preserve it is to use it as little as possible. Avoid expenses by cultivating peace, while also remembering that preparing for danger frequently prevents much greater costs to repel it. Also avoid the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning chances to spend, but by working hard during times of Peace to pay down debts brought about by unavoidable wars so you don’t force upon future generations burdens that we should bear. Your Representatives are responsible for executing these maxims, but it is also necessary that the public cooperate. To help them perform this duty, it is essential that you bear in mind that to pay debt there must be Revenue. To have Revenue, there must be taxes, and all taxes are inconvenient or unpleasant to some degree. The intrinsic discomfort, inseparable from the selection of the method (which is always a difficult choice), should be a decisive factor for the Government candidly establishing it, and for a spirit of acceptance of the measures necessary to generate the Revenue necessary for the public needs that exist at any time.
Deal in good faith and respect all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality require this conduct, and isn’t it true that good policy requires it also? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and soon a great nation, to give mankind the gracious and too novel example of a People always guided by justice and goodwill. Who can doubt that over time the fruits of such a plan will more than repay any short-term advantages that might be lost by always following such a plan? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent happiness of a Nation with its virtue? Every noble sentiment of human nature encourages us to try. Alas! do our vices prevent us from trying?
In following such a plan, nothing is more essential than avoiding permanent hatred against certain nations and passionate attachment to others. In place of them, just and friendly feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation that indulges habitual hatred or habitual fondness is to some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection. Either of these feelings is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty or its interest. Hatred of one nation against another disposes each to more easily offer insult and injury, to take offence from little matters, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or minor disputes occur, leading to frequent collisions, obstinate, venomous and bloody conflicts. The Nation motivated by ill-will and resentment sometimes pushes the Government to War, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national fervor, and emotionally adopts what reason would reject. At other times, the Government makes the hatred of the Nation serve hostile projects instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, and sometimes perhaps the Liberty, of Nations has been the victim.
So too the passionate attachment of one Nation for another also produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for a favorite nation, implying an imaginary common interest where none exists, and transmitting the hatreds from one to the other, betrays the first into participating in the quarrels and wars of the second without reason or justification. It also leads to concessions to the favorite Nation that are denied to others. This is likely to doubly injure the Nation making the concessions by unnecessarily parting with what should be kept, by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a tendency to retaliate in the parties that aren’t favored, and to give ambitious, corrupt, and deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite Nation) the opportunity to betray or sacrifice their country’s own interest, without condemnation, and even sometimes with popularity. They are able to do this by gilding their devotion with the appearance of virtuous obligation, a commendable deference to public opinion, or a laudable enthusiasm for public good and the base or foolish compliance of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
Such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent Patriot because they serve as innumerable avenues to foreign influence. How many opportunities do they give to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the art of seduction, to mislead public opinion, and to influence and sway public discourse! The attachment of a small or weak nation to a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the later.
Against the insidious guile of foreign influence, I implore you, fellow citizens, to believe me that free people should be constantly vigilant. History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most cursed foes of republican Government. But your vigilance must be impartial to be useful. Otherwise it becomes the instrument of the very influence you are trying to avoid, rather than a defense against it. Excessive favoritism for one foreign nation, and an excessive dislike of another, motivate those that see danger only on one side and veil and even empower the influence on the other side. Real Patriots who resist the intrigues of the favored, are liable to be shunned and outcast, while their tools and dupes steal the applause and confidence of the people in order to hand over their interests.
The great rule of conduct with regard to foreign Nations, while extending our commercial relations, is to have as little Political connection with them as possible. In so far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. After that, let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests, which have little or no connection to us. Hence she is engaged in frequent controversies whose causes are essentially foreign to our concerns. Therefore, it is unwise for us to become involved through artificial ties in the course of her politics or the everyday combinations and collisions of her friendships and quarrels.
Our detached and distant location invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the time will soon come when we can defy injury from an external source – when we may adopt an attitude of neutrality When belligerent nations, realizing the impossibility of overtaking us, will not lightly run the risk of provoking us into choosing peace or war, whatever our interest, guided by justice, shall dictate.
Why forego the advantages of so fortuitous a situation? Why send ourselves from our own land to stand on foreign ground? Why connect our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalry, interest, humor, or caprice?
It is our best policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the rest of the world so far as we are now free to do so. Let me be clear that I don’t condone infidelity to existing agreements. (I believe that honesty is the best policy in both public and private affairs.) I repeat that existing obligations should be fully observed. But in my opinion it is unnecessary, and would be unwise, to extend them.
Taking care always to maintain a respectable defensive posture by suitable preparations, we may rely on temporary alliances for extraordinary circumstances.
Harmony and free exchange with all nations are endorsed by policy, humanity, and our own interest. But even our commercial policy should be equal and impartial – neither seeking or granting exclusive favors or preferences. It should follow the natural course of things – diffusing and diversifying through the gentle streams of commerce without forcing anything. Establishing with amenable Powers, as best as circumstances and mutual agreement will allow, conventional rules of exchange that will result in stable trade, defined rights for Merchants, and a Government to support them. These rules, though, should be temporary, and subject to abandonment or modification as experience and circumstance dictate, constantly keeping in mind that it is folly for any nation to look for disinterested favors from another nation. Any nation must give up a portion of its independence for what it accepts under such terms, and doing so may force it give up something cheaply and being called ungrateful for not giving up more. There is no greater error than to expect or count on real favors between Nations. It is an illusion that experience must correct, and which a just pride should discard.
In offering to you, my Countrymen, these words from an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope that they will make the strong and lasting impression I wish for, that they will control the usual passions, or prevent the Nation from following the same course that marks the destiny of Nations. But if I might flatter myself that they may provide some partial benefit or some occasional good that now and then moderates the fury of party spirit, to warn against the damage of foreign intrigue, to guard against the posturing of pretended patriotism, this hope will be full compensation for the desire that motivates me to think of your welfare.
How well in the discharge of my official duties I was guided by these principles, the public Records and other evidence will serve as proof to You and the world. My own conscience has at least convinced me that I believed myself guided by them.
In relation to the ongoing War in Europe, my Proclamation of April 22, 1793, explains my plan, sanctioned by your approval and that of your Representatives in both Houses of Congress. The spirit of that measure has continually guided me, uninfluenced by any attempts to deter or divert me from it.
After deliberate examination with the aid of the best minds available, I was satisfied that our country under the present circumstances had a right, a duty, and an interest to take a Neutral position. Having taken it, I decided, to the extent that it depended on me, to maintain it with moderation, perseverance, and firmness.
It isn’t necessary at this time to go into detail on the reasons why it is right to hold this conduct. I will only say that as I understand it, none of the Belligerent Powers have denied our right to be neutral, and all of them have essentially admitted that we have that right.
The duty of remaining neutral may be inferred simply from the obligation for justice and humanity imposed on every Nation, when it is free to act, to maintain undisturbed its Peaceful and Friendly relationships toward other Nations.
The primary reason that motivated me was to buy time for our country’s institutions to settle and mature, and to progress without interruption to the point of strength and consistency necessary to give, as far as humanly possible, the command of its own fortunes.
In reviewing the conduct of my Administration, I am unaware of any intentional errors. I am too aware of my own faults, though, to not think that I probably committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently ask the Almighty to avert or lessen the evils they may create. I also hope that my country will never cease to view them graciously, and that after dedicating forty-five years of my life to its service, any mistakes due to incompetence will be relegated to oblivion, as I will be soon to the mansions of rest.
Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and inspired by a deep love which a man naturally feels toward the native soil of himself and his many forebears, I fondly look forward to the retreat in which I promise to enjoy, without reservation, the sweetness of sharing with my fellow-citizens the comfort of good Laws under a free Government, the always favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.