“…To learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington.”

September 19th, 2012

On September 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser published George Washington’s Farewell Address, a letter the president wrote to his “Friends, and Fellow-Citizens” of the United States informing them that he would not be running for re-election. In the letter, Washington also reflected on his long service to the country and the hope that he had for the young nation’s future, offering his fellow citizens the “counsels of an old and affectionate friend.” His advice was geared to protecting the union and the Constitution, and thereby the independence, tranquility, peace, safety, prosperity, and, especially, liberty that Americans “so highly prize.”

As you read the Address, consider these questions raised by the WSPWH editors: How important to our future flourishing are Washington’s positive recommendations? How dangerous to our well-being is partisan political division? Are Washington’s warnings still relevant for today’s America, a long-established superpower with global commercial connections and military alliances? What is the connection between morality, religion, and the perpetuation of our institutions? How healthy is the constitutional order today?

Also helpful is Diana Schaub’s close reading of the Address, which she delivered in February at our celebration of Washington’s birthday. She notes:

So what did the nation’s “parting friend” offer as his last legacy for our “solemn contemplation” and “frequent review”? The 50 paragraphs of the Address are carefully structured. The primary divisions are an opening section of 6 paragraphs which constitutes the resignation proper, a central section of 36 paragraphs which delineates Washington’s maxims and warnings, and a concluding section of 8 paragraphs which measures Washington’s own administration against his expressed principles and solicits pardon for any shortcomings.

The language of the opening section, with its ostentatious modesty, is now alien to us. Our self-trumpeting politicians would never dream of drawing attention, as Washington does, to his “very fallible judgment” and “incompetent abilities.” For himself, Washington claims only “good intentions.” Of course, maybe it’s easier to appear humble when one’s actions have spoken so irrefutably. The great man in the infant republic effaces himself, and deflects the credit onto his fellow citizens.  “If benefits have resulted to our country from these services,” Washington insists, “let it always be remembered to your praise,” since “the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts.” The converse of Washington’s humility is his gratitude. He closes the opening section with a prayer—a carefully itemized prayer—hoping that the nation will be blessed with the favor of Heaven; perpetual Union; fidelity to the Constitution; the wise Administration of government; and a completion of national Happiness that will inspire the worldwide spread of liberty.

Having given his notice, Washington declares “Here, perhaps, I ought to stop.” The attention of the reader is riveted both by the style of this statement (short, punchy sentences are rare in George Washington’s writing) and its implication. What could move the ever-proper George Washington to go beyond the bounds of propriety? If he “ought to stop,” why doesn’t he? Two things—“solicitude” and “apprehension”—urge him forward to present counsels that he regards as “all important.” Interestingly, he begins this central section by declaring that the love of liberty is secure in American hearts. Unlike Tocqueville, who some decades later did worry that Americans might sacrifice their liberty, Washington’s fears took a different direction. He takes liberty as a given and proceeds to show its relation to three goods that are endangered: the Union, the Constitution, and the virtuous conduct of Government.

The Union comes first. It is “a main Pillar” of independence. As such, Washington says that our “common country . . . has a right to concentrate [our] affections. The name of AMERICAN  . . . must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” Washington may be retiring to Mt. Vernon but he does so as an American not a Virginian.

For Washington, patriotism is a matter of “sympathy,” but not only sympathy. He supplements the cordial attachment of North and South, East and West, with what he calls “the most commanding motives,” namely those of immediate commercial interest which link us indissolubly as “one Nation.” This appeal to Union, compounded of both sense and sensibility, culminates in Washington’s first warning against sectionalism and the “designing men” who would capitalize on geographic differences to divide and alienate affections rather than bridge them. One wonders what Washington would make of our current partisan geography of heartland Red States and bi-coastal Blue States. […]

Washington closes the Farewell Address by anticipating a retreat beyond even his retreat to Mt. Vernon, namely his journey toward the “Mansions of rest.” The line is said to have brought tears to the eyes of his readers. Four decades later, a young Abraham Lincoln delivered a remarkable speech that revisited Washington’s theme of “the perpetuation of our political institutions”—arguing, just as Washington had, that perpetuation depends on a firm foundation in public sentiment, and appealing to the nation’s fixed admiration of Washington as a compass point to keep us true to Washington’s principles. The Lyceum Address closed with a poetic flourish by imagining a sort of second coming of Washington. Lincoln’s hopes for that day of judgment can still serve as our own: “that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.”

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