Scattered throughout George Washington’s monumental 1796 Farewell Address are three prescient warnings for the American people.
When Washington decided to step down from the Presidency, the union was in a tenuous state. France and Britain were at war and each nation was disrupting neutral American shipping, internal divisions along partisan lines were becoming more apparent, and dissent against federal laws such as the Whiskey Rebellion impacted federal authority.
Rather than run for a third term in his old age, Washington opted out, though not before writing a parting message to the American people. In his important Farewell Address, Washington left his fellow citizens with advice from his over forty years in public service ranging from urging national unity to the role of morality, virtue, and religion.
Perhaps most significantly, Washington saw dire threats to the Union and warned Americans to be hypervigilant against them lest the grand American experiment fail.
3 Warnings in Washington’s Farewell Address
The 3 primary warnings located in Washington’s Farewell Address are regarding the divisiveness of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers.
Washington’s warnings were largely shaped by the times he lived in. Had Washington delivered his farewell address in 1793 like he originally intended to, foreign affairs may not have featured at all given it was less of a pressing concern at the time.1
These warnings of Washington to his fellow citizens of the United States resulted from “much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.”
The man was deeply concerned for the security and prosperity of the union and offered his parting thoughts before formally departing public office.
One of the first warnings Washington gave in his Farewell Address was regarding the dire threat of geographical sectionalism.
As Washington stated in his own in his complex prose:
“In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views...”
What he means in this passage is that men of the time had the tendency to view themselves first of their local community or state, and second of being a member of the United States. Such a belief was bound to eventually split the Union as citizens prioritized state interests over national ones.
Washington explained: “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local distinctions” (emphasis added).
Washington further went to great lengths to show how each of the regions already greatly benefited from the union. Only together could Americans receive the full benefits of the liberty, security, and economic opportunities fought for in the American Revolution.2
First, the United States was far stronger together in union and could provide greater security than individual states or regions. With the improved security was the reduced need for a large military—a dire threat to republican liberty.
Second, each of the regions were interconnected economically and complemented each other in a way where each greatly benefited. The north, south, east, and west all relied upon each other for manufactured goods and trade opportunities as well as raw materials and agricultural commodities.
In Washington’s eyes, combating geographical sectionalism was critical to the prosperity of the union.
Another warning that featured prominently in the Farewell Address regards political factionalism and in particular, political parties. Washington particularly despised political parties and perhaps saw them as the greatest threat to divide the nation.
“They serve to organize faction… to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and… to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans.”
Washington predicted that political parties would eventually be used to subvert the power of the people, placing the government in the hands of such unprincipled men that would hold onto the power for themselves.
Such actions would inevitably lead to despotism: the very thing the American people fought against in the American Revolution.
Washington also foresaw a day when alternating political parties would turn to revenge against their opponents. When the opposing party finally gained power, it was inevitable that they would seek revenge for all indignities suffered while not in power.3
Indeed, less than a decade later Washington’s words would ring true during the pivotal election of 1800 cycle. The Midnight Judges Act of 1801 was subsequently repealed by the Jeffersonian Democrats as they sought to right the perceived wrongs the Adams administration laid upon them.
While political parties were in their infancy at the time of the Farewell Address, Washington sensed their growing power. Already men across the nation flocked behind two schools of thought led by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
Washington wrote to Jefferson in 1796, “until the last year or two, I had no conception that Parties would, or even could, go to the length I have been witness to.”2
Clearly, Washington hit the mark on his warnings against political factionalism as it is a threat that remains true in the modern day of hyper-partisan politics.
Interference by Foreign Powers
A final warning given by George Washington was to be wary of interference by foreign powers in domestic affairs as well as to avoid becoming too involved in European affairs. Washington commented:
“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence… the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
Already in the United States’ short existence foreign nations like France and Britain had attempted to influence American policies and attitudes. The Citizen Genet Affair and French meddling in the election of 1796 were prime examples of this.
In conjunction with Washington’s warnings against political parties, foreign influence could be extremely dangerous in such an environment. Partisan political parties could easily accept foreign help to come to power, at the expense of tying US fortunes with that of a foreign nation.
Washington also warned against permanent alliances with any foreign nation. While not an isolationist, he believed that extending commercial relations without permanent political connections was in the United States’ best interest.
“Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition…?”
Given that the nation was relatively weak at the time, Washington believed that attaching itself to another nation would doom the United States to mere satellite nation status and that the US would continue to remain weak and dominated.2
Once again, Washington’s warning came at a critical time. Already the two political factions argued for closer relations to the two most powerful nations at the time: Federalists for Britain, and Democratic-Republicans for France.
While the United States would eventually assert itself far more on the international stage, Washington’s warning regarding foreign interference served the nation well in its early days.
To recap, 3 warnings presented in George Washington’s Farewell Address include:
- Geographical sectionalism
- Political factionalism
- Interference by foreign powers
When Washington decided to finally step down from public office and retire to private life, these were what he believed to be the three greatest threats to the Union. After over forty years as a public servant, Washington was not in the right state to combat these issues as the President.
He grew tired of the unrelenting partisan attacks on his policies and, even moreso, his personal character. These warnings were thus his parting gift to the citizens of the United States to help preserve the sanctity of the Union.4
Considering how much the times have changed it is amazing how timeless Washington’s advice has been in some regards. These same three warnings can still be applied in our modern day.
Geographic sectionalism has increased in recent years as city dwellers and rural citziens in general tend to have opposing views. The modern political parties are arguably more divided than ever, with each party inching further toward the extremes. The United States has also been subject to foreign interference, particularly in the last few election cycles.
It’s logical to conclude that even Washington would have been surprised at the longevity of his words, still ringing true over two hundred years later.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Bemis, Samuel Flagg. “Washington’s Farewell Address: A Foreign Policy of Independence.” The American Historical Review, vol. 39, no. 2, 1934, pp. 250–68. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1838722.
2) Garrity, Patrick J. “Warnings of a Parting Friend.” The National Interest, no. 45, 1996, pp. 14–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42895110.
3) Saunders, Paul J., and John Avlon. “Washington’s Warnings.” The National Interest, no. 150, 2017, pp. 92–96. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26557408.
4) DeConde, Alexander. “Washington’s Farewell, the French Alliance, and the Election of 1796.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 43, no. 4, 1957, pp. 641–58. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1902277.