By Neal Millikan
February 23, 2015
Neal is an Assistant Editor for The Papers of George Washington. She is currently editing volumes for the Presidential Series.
On 19 September 1796 Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia published the
document that became known as George Washington’s Farewell Address. The work that was addressed “To the PEOPLE of the United States” and began with the salutation “Friends and
Fellow-Citizens” had two goals: first, to announce that Washington would not accept another term as president, and second, to offer his reflections and comments on the United States. The Address warned the nation against political partisanship and foreign influence in politics, and encouraged the country to avoid the political affairs of Europe.
After its publication groups and individuals from across the United States wrote to George Washington. These letters typically combined a sadness that he was stepping down from office with an appreciation for the years of service the first president had given to the nation. On 27 October the Vermont legislature asked Washington to accept “the only acknowledgment in our power to make, or in yours to receive, the gratitude of a free People. Ardently as we wish your continuance in public office, yet, when we reflect on the years of anxiety you have spent in your country’s service, we must reluctantly acquiesce in your wishes, and consent that you should pass the evening of your days, in reviewing a well-spent life … We receive your address to your fellow citizens, as expressive of the highest zeal for their prosperity, and containing the best advice to ensure its continuance”(D, DLC:GW).
The New Jersey legislature wrote that Washington’s Address was “replete with sentiments of political wisdom, truth and justice, and merits our grateful acknowledgement.” That body hoped that Washington’s successor “will be emulous to imitate his virtues and pursue the wise and wholsome system of politics, which has so conspicuously distinguished his administration, and so effectually secured to us the inestimable blessings of Peace, and the present unparallelled prosperity of our country.” (DS, DLC:GW; LB, DLC:GW). The Delaware house of representatives’ 1 February 1797 response shared a similar view: “To enjoy the advantages resulting from your wise Administration, and not to express our Gratification; to feel the beneficial effects of your firmness and Patriotism, and not acknowledge them, to admire your Magnanimity and to be silent, would throw a Shade over the Republican Character, of which we boast, and would wound the sensibility of our Constituents. Permit us, Sir, to offer the only tribute in our Power to give, and the only one worth your acceptance–the grateful acknowledgments of a free and independent People” (D, DLC:GW).
Some correspondents were already well acquainted with George Washington. Thomas Pinckney wrote from Charleston, South Carolina, on 10 January: “My absence from America at the time when the United Voice of our fellow citizens testified their gratitude for your past services, & their regret that they were about to be deprived of a Chief Magistrate so deservedly the object of their approbation & affection will I hope apologize for intruding my individual assent to these sentiments, and permit me without impropriety to indulge myself in the expression of that veneration for your public character & attachment to your personal merits with which I am sincerely impressed” (ALS, DLC:GW). John Quincy Adams wrote from The Hague on 11 February that he hoped his fellow citizens would “not only impress all” the document’s “admonitions upon their hearts, but that it may serve as the foundation upon which the whole system of their future policy may rise, the admiration and example of future time; that your warning voice may upon every great emergency recur to their remembrance with an influence equal to the occasion” (Worthington Chauncey Ford, Writings of John Quincy Adams, 2:119-120).
Persons unknown to George Washington also felt motivated to write after reading the Farewell Address. John Stiles commented on 8 October 1796 that although he was unacquainted with the president, “I feel such a glow of Affectionate gratitude to you, for the signal blessings we as a Nation enjoy, Owing Under God, to your Wise, Virtuous, and firm Administration, as Our Executive Officer, that I beg you sir to recieve My most Unfeigned and hearty Thanks, as an individual Citizen, Amongst the Millions of my Brethren who feel the same emotions for you” (ALS, DLC:GW). Robert Nesbitt wrote on 22 October: “Four days ago I got a New[s] paper containing your Address to the PEOPLE. A sentimental Patriotic friend told me that I would be affected, when reading it. He spoke Truth. Neither my Tongue nor my Pen can express my Sensations. Excuse me, Beloved Sir, for addressing you, I cannot help it” (ALS, DLC:GW). Daniel Jones wrote on 23 November that “though he does not presume to imagin that the opinions of an obscure individual resideing at the distance of an hundred miles west of Philadelphia, can augment or deminish your fame, he begs leave to tender you his warmest and most explicit thanks, for the many great and precious blessings which, as the chosen instrument of heaven, you have procured for our common country.” Jones further noted that he had named his youngest child Washington, so that “by a frequent repitition of the name, the memory of your virtues and services may be kept alive” in his family (ALS, DLC:GW).
George Washington also earned international approbation for the Farewell Address. The Earl of Radnor wrote from Longford Castle near Salisbury, England, on 19 January 1797: “Tho’ of Necessity a Stranger to You, I cannot deny myself the Satisfaction among the Many, who will probably even from this Country intrude upon your Retirement, of offering to You my Congratulations on your withdrawing yourself from the Scene of public Affairs with a Character, which appears to me perfectly unrivalled in History” (ALS, PHi: Gratz Collection). During the last six months of his presidency George Washington received correspondence relating to many issues, but one constant theme during that period was the universal commendation of his Farewell Address from admirers both in the United States and abroad.