As late as a century ago Washington’s Farewell Address would have ranked along with the Declaration and the Constitution as an intellectual source of periodic self-renewal for American patriots. It was still being memorized and declaimed in schools and referred to casually in editorials and orations. Today it appears that Americans know nothing more about it than that the first President warned his countrymen against “entangling alliances.” It is usually assumed that while this advice was once pertinent and valuable, the changing international environment has rendered it useless or even dangerous; the Farewell Address is thus supposed to be irrelevant to moderns and of interest solely to antiquarians.

Actually, the Address is directly pointed toward and vital to contemporary American policy decisions. Its strictures on foreign policy are complex and realistic; they are pertinent to today’s international environment as well as yesterday’s. Furthermore, it contains wisdom on many subjects other than international affairs, wisdom that has been lost to this generation as the Address itself has been lost.

The decline of the Address is probably due partly to the decline of Washington himself in our pantheon, from a preeminent position to that of a stiff, awkward contemporary of Madison and Jefferson—a sort of painted backdrop. It is partly due to a fallout from a mid-nineteenth-century scandal to the effect that “Washington didn’t even write his Farewell Address—Hamilton wrote it for him!” And Hamilton also, beginning with Claude Bowers’ work, has been pulled down from the first level of the Founding Fathers. There is no excuse for the continued influence of these denigrations now that Flexner’s recent biography of Washington and MacDonald’s work on Hamilton are available.

It is fortunate that all the working drafts of the Address have survived, down to interlinings andinkblots, so that Washington’s primary authorship is categorically clear. Hamilton did not write it. Washington did, to a far greater extent than any contemporary American President since Calvin Coolidge.

Washington intended to retire after his first term, and asked James Madison to draft a farewell for him. This draft was filed away, but Washington took it up again as his second term drew to a close, and built on it to prepare a draft of his own, known as Washington’s Draft. He sent this draft to Hamilton for a comment. Hamilton prepared from it two counterdrafts, one known as Hamilton’s Draft, which was drawn on very heavily by Washington, and a second draft called the Draft for Incorporating. Hamilton had been Washington’s chief of staff and knew how to express Washington’s own thoughts for him rather than insert his personal preferences. For example, Hamilton’s Draft contains strictures against a peacetime government debt, whereas Hamilton himself built his career on the necessity of a properly managed debt.

The final draft shows the hours of careful work which Washington spent melting all the earlier drafts and changing individual words to forge a precise instrument to convey his final words to his countrymen, those living and those yet unborn. His Farewell Address said what he wanted it to say, and he believed it was important for America’s future. Surely we can accept him at his own word.

The final Address can be conveniently divided into three parts: first a “framework” of paragraphs at the beginning and end which deal with Washington’s personal feelings and reflections on the occasion of retirement; second a remarkable and largely forgotten series of admonitions on domestic policy; and third the oft-quoted and seldom-read section on American foreign policy. Summarized below are the chief and striking comments by Washington on matters unconnected with his personal situation and with international relations.

1. I trust that “love of liberty” is so deep and strong in your hearts that I cannot add to it; it is of course essential to our venture.

2. The union of the states is the main pillar of tranquility, peace, safety, and liberty. You must constantly be on guard against hostile efforts to undermine this unity, which expresses our culture and beliefs, contributes directly to our economic welfare, and provides for security through its military and diplomatic advantages. I am not absolutely confident that this national government will work, but it has worked for eight years satisfactorily, so let us continue to give it an honest try, adjust it when necessary, and pay no heed to those who prove to us that it is theoretically unworkable.

3. The purpose of this government is mundane: “the efficacious management of your common interests.” Within its limited scope it is a good government, and it rightly claims our respect of and compliance with its laws, since this claim is a necessary consequence of our love of liberty. Popular sovereignty is the basis of our system, but it is conjoined to a clear “duty of every individual to obey the established government.” We have the legal right and procedures to alter the Constitution whenever we wish,but until then, liberty requires obedience.

4. “Factions” (perhaps equivalent to modern pressure groups) and political parties are dangerous when they control the entire mechanism of government rather than attempt to influence it through argument and petition. Overweening factions and parties stand in opposition to “consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests,” since they open the door to “domination” and “revenge” as the motors of politics. (Washington may have had in mind the desirability of “Trustee” as against “Agent” officials, of aristocratic responsibility, and of indirect over direct popular sovereignty).

5. Our national government must be strong and vigorous within those narrow fields in which it is permitted by the Constitution to operate. Government has a dual task: first “to confine each member of society within the limits prescribed by the laws,” and second “to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.”

6. Resist calls for rapid innovation in the principles of your government, particularly if they are based upon abstract reasoning rather than on experience. Don’t monkey with the Constitution in accordance with theoretical hypotheses.

7. Be constantly alert for encroachments by officials beyond their allocated constitutional spheres, in view of “that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominate in the human heart.”

8. Religion and morality (changed from Hamilton’s “virtue and morality”) are “indispensable supports” of republican government. Morality cannot be maintained without religion. Education may help, but religious principle remains the root of morality. Public education, however, deserves expansion and support, as a means of building public virtue and morality through enlightenment.

9. Protect your government’s credit rating. There is no excuse for going into debt in peacetime; wartime debts may be unavoidable, but must be paid off as quickly as possible. Timely disbursements to prepare for a danger may avoid the much greater expense for repelling an attack. Carefully avoid, however, all unnecessary government expenditures. You can do this more easily if you bear in mind that for every expenditure there must be an equivalent tax, and if you approve the necessary taxes at the same time that you approve the expenditure aspect of the policy. It then follows that you should pay consequent taxes willingly and honestly.

That part of the Farewell Address dealing with foreign policy is probably more familiar than the rest, even if the only phrase recalled is “no entangling alliances.” There are only four essential points in this portion of Washington’s Address.

1. Avoid long-term antipathies or attachments to any foreign state. Such animosity or affection ties America positively or negatively to the policies of others and hinders the rational calculation of self-interest. Even worse, attachments open avenues whereby foreign governments can intervene directly in American policy determination, and thus undermine national sovereignty.

2. Avoid unnecessary connections with foreign countries. Do not expect any other state to do disinterested favors for you; a state always acts in its own interest. Do not become involved in Europe’s problems as long as our interests are not involved, which they will not be for a long time after 1796. Whenever we choose peace or war, being a strong, global power, we should do so according to “our interest guided by justice.” (It is interesting to note that Washington originally inserted the word “our” between the words “by” and “justice” in Hamilton’s draft, but crossed it out on his final draft—apparently he was unwilling to carry through his first impulse to classify even such a universal as justice into compartments governed by the character and interests of particular states.)

3. Avoid permanent foreign alliances as long as our material interests are not deeply involved abroad. Keep up a prudent defensive armed establishment, and beyond that precaution trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies. (Washington replaced Hamilton’s word “occasional” with the stronger term “temporary”—it is probable that both of them had in mind Britain’s historic and self-proclaimed policy of temporary or occasional, rather than permanent, alliances with continental powers, a policy designed not to reflect permanent common interests, but only British interest in preventing the domination of Europe by a single power.)

4. Trade with all countries without special privileges or favors to or from any of them.

At the end of his second term, Washington was with difficulty defending his personal reputation and his foreign policy of neutrality against the attacks of Jefferson’s partisans, who, for sentimental and ideological reasons; wanted the United States to abandon neutrality and aid France against England. Several of the scholars who have analyzed the Farewell Address have pointed out these pressures on Washington at the time, and have drawn from these historical facts the astonishing conclusion that since the particular political context of the Farewell is long buried, the Address itself is of only antiquarian value.

This would be equivalent to a judgment that, if, say, Jimmy Carter were to write a political testament deploring pressure politics by ethnic Americans seeking to use American foreign policy in favor of some sentimentally favored foreign state, and if it could be shown that Carter himself had been under pressure from Irish, Greek, and Jewish ethnic groups, his general advice should be thrown in the trash can once those particular policy questions had receded into the past.

It may be that the Farewell Address provided the margin by which the pro-French party was defeated in the election of 1796 and the Washingtonian policy of neutrality was preserved. Washington’s fear of sentimental ideological advocacy in foreign policy was specific in this case. That specificity does not mean that his advice in the Address was not general and that it may not be valid and applicable to a passionate Greek-American minority or a passionate Jewish-American minority. Washington never hints that because a policy is advocated by such a group, it is necessarily a bad policy. It may be a good policy, but if so, it is good because it fits a narrowly conceived and prudential definition of American national interest.

The assumptions on which the foreign policy section of the Address is founded are simple, and had long been advocated by Hamilton. They are known under the general rubric of “realism,” and have a long, complex background, as do the opposing assumptions known as “idealism.” This is not the occasion to review the sharp conflicts between these two points of view, which extend from the histories of Thucydides right up to the Carter “Human Rights” policies. Suffice it to say that most attempts to combine the two viewpoints and most efforts to show that there is no real polarity between them have not stood the test of time, and realism in terms of a pursuit of the national interest through balance of power is still quite respectable, and is far from outmoded. Washington recommended to us a foreign policy which was “realistic” in this sense at the time, and recommended that we continue to base our foreign policy on realist assumptions. In view of the general tendency of American society to wildly embrace “idealist” and sentimental-ideological conceptions of foreign policy right up to the present, Washington’s advice would have to be considered valuable even to a non-realist who advocates at least a balance between realism and idealism in American foreign policy.

The Farewell Address deserves to be readcarefully and often by Americans. It is a political testament from the greatest of Americans. It is a national treasure; its wisdom loses none of its penetrating, down-to-earth practicality as the decades roll by. It may yet provide Washington’s posterity with the margin between survival and suicide.  

John W. Bowling was a retired army officer who taught at Troy State University in Alabama.
In this “Best of the Bookman” essay from 1982, Russell Kirk’s friend John Bowling takes a careful look at George Washington’s Farewell Address, offering a helpful summary of its concerns and a discussion of its origins and importance.