As he prepared to leave office, President George Washington was concerned about the increasingly partisan and militaristic path the young Republic he helped found was heading down.
Even the “Father of His Country” was not above criticism, and the military-industrial complex of the time pilloried him in the press. Although the recently retired general whom the Indians believed could not be killed suffered from the shots taken at him by these “infamous newspapers," he refused to make any response that would deny his countrymen of “the infinite blessings resulting from a free press.”
This nobility contrasts sharply with the arrogance and paranoia of his successor, John Adams. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law in an attempt to criminalize criticism of the president. The spirit of those unconstitutional acts is alive and well today as hundreds of congressmen and the president enact similar provisions and the usurped authority granted under the National Defense Authorization Act to indefinitely detain persons the president suspects of posing a threat to the security of the homeland.
In so many ways, Washington was in fact “the indispensable man” and an example to politicians in his own time and ours.
When the time came for Washington to return to Martha and to Mount Vernon, he gave one last and lasting message to his “friends and fellow citizens.” This now-famous speech, drafted principally by James Madison, is known as the Farewell Address.
September 19, 2013 marked the 217th anniversary of Washington’s Farewell Address. Deservedly so, this speech has become renowned for its prose and principles — including national unity, tolerance of political differences, and neutrality in the endless foreign conflicts.
To ensure that his remarks would strike the appropriate tone, Washington informed Madison that the speech should declare “in plain and modest terms ... that we are all children of the same country.... That our interest, however diversified in local and small matters, is the same in all the great and essential concerns of the nation.”
Although he penned a version of the address in his own words, he ultimately approved and delivered the version written by Madison.
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Image: broadside of Washington's Farewell Address from the Library of Congress