Speeches That Made History: George Washington Bids Farewell to the Country

by Derrick G. Jeter

George Washington was, from the beginning of the American republic, the embodiment of America herself. He led the Continental Army for eight years (1775–1783)—mostly through defeat—to one glorious victory at Yorktown and independence from Great Britain. As presiding officer, he shepherded a contentious Constitutional Convention in developing what, in the words of one Englishman, “is the greatest document ever produced by the hand of man.” He served as the first president, and the only president elected unanimously—twice (1789 and 1793).
Expressing a desire to retire to his “vine and fig tree” at Mt. Vernon, Washington approached Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of Treasury, in February 1796 about writing a valedictorian document. Washington wanted to retire because he was simply tired and worn out—he was approaching his mid-sixties. But he was also deeply wounded by critical newspaper editors who accused him of setting up a quasi-monarchy. In some corners of the country he was called “George IV” in succession of the not-so-previously defeated king George III. By retiring, Washington wanted to silence the wagging tongues of monarchy and state unequivocally that the office of the presidency outlives the man.
Since the publication of Washington’s Farewell Address historians have studied the language to determine who wrote the document. Without a doubt, it was an amalgamation, as Joseph J. Ellis simply concludes: “Some of the words were Madison’s; most of the words were Hamilton’s; all the ideas were Washington’s.” [1] Hamilton took the lead in capturing Washington’s judgments and language, but Madison gave Washington the idea to publish the document as “‘a direct address to the people who are your only constituents.’” [2] Following Madison’s advice, Washington chose David C. Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, to publish the letter. It appeared in the September 19, 1796, edition. Copies of Washington’s letter found its way in other newspapers in subsequent weeks, and became commonly known as “Washington’s Farewell Address” in the Courier of New Hampshire. “The Farewell Address,” Ellis correctly states, “was an oddity in that it was not really an address; it was never delivered as a speech. It should, by all rights, be called the Farewell Letter, for it was in form and tone an open letter to the American people, telling them they were now on their own.” [3]
Washington had three purposes. He wanted to announce his retirement, encourage unity at home, and argue for independence abroad. It is often mistaken that Washington in laying out his warning against being caught up in European squabbles coined the famous phrase, “entangling alliances.” He did not. This was Jefferson in his first Inaugural in 1801.
Washington left Philadelphia, and the presidency, on March 4, 1797, and returned home to his trees and to set upon a system of crop rotations—his vine and fig.
[1] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Knopf, 2001), 148.
[2] Alexander Hamilton, as quoted in Ellis, Founding Brothers, 149.
[3] Ellis, Founding Brothers, 122.