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Faith and Unity Were Washington’s Message in Farewell

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Despite our nation’s deep history, only 10 U.S. presidents have delivered formal farewell addresses.

Most of them say goodbye during their annual message to Congress or more likely a State of the Union Address, but on rare occasions, presidents have made a farewell address a very formal occasion – the most recent of which was done by Barack Obama.

Arguably the most famous of those addresses was the first, when George Washington said goodbye through a letter published in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796.

It was immediately reprinted in newspapers everywhere, and in pamphlet form.

Though his hand-written letter is mostly forgotten, historians consider it one of the most important documents in American history.

If you’ve seen the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton,” you’ll recall the song “One Last Time,” where lines from the end of the address are sung by Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who assisted in its writing.

Consider some of the prophetic and practical advice offered to a young nation in the address:

  • Washington insisted that the freedom, peace, safety and liberty of American people are all dependent upon unity among the states.
  • He asked people to look beyond slight differences in religion, habits and political principles in order to place their freedom and liberty above all else, keeping us united as one.
  • In true visionary form – especially considering today’s political climate – Washington warned that factions or political parties could become a threat to unity.
  • He suggested guidelines for U.S. foreign policy that are still cited today, inspired by his efforts to keep America neutral during the French Revolution, and that getting involved with European conflicts could affect the new republic.
  • One of his most quoted excerpts validates his strong support of religion and morality. There he argues that religious principles are the foundation of justice, and cautions against the belief that the nation’s morality can be upheld without religion. He refers to religious principle as the basis of public morality.

Perhaps most impressive is that despite his status as a premier statesman, Founding Father and American hero, Washington closes his letter by asking for forgiveness and admitting his weaknesses.

Every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington’s Birthday by reading the entire piece in legislative session. It usually takes about 45 minutes, and is delivered by one senator each year from alternating parties.

Most Americans probably aren’t even aware of his Washington’s famous goodbye, but we might all do well to study his oracular message.

In 1956, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey urged Americans to study Washington’s letter:  “It gives one a renewed sense of pride in our republic. It arouses the wholesome and creative emotions of patriotism and love of country.”

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