It wasn’t an “address” in the sense of being a speech. It was a letter that he wrote in 1792 with James Madison’s assistance, when he thought he would be able to retire. Four years later, he enlisted Alexander Hamilton’s literary skills, as well. Thus one of the most influential State documents ever penned profited by contributions from both authors of the Federalist Papers. But if some of the phrasing was theirs, the thoughts were his. The phrasing is in another’s age’s style of oratory, but his sincerity and common-sense wisdom shines through.
“The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States” runs more than 6,000 words. It was published in a Philadelphia newspaper in September, almost two months before the Electoral College would meet, then promptly reprinted everywhere, in other newspapers and as a pamphlet. In these days of inane sound-bites, it stands, as did Washington himself, as a giant surrounded by pygmies.
No one can adequately summarize it, nor is there any need to, in this age of computer searches. Even skimming it will give a better idea than reading someone else’s opinion. Here are a few of the points deserving to be remembered.
The value of the Union:
“The unity of Government … is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence …. But as it is easy to foresee, that … this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness ….”
The danger of factions, or political parties:
“One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
Care in political innovation:
“In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments, as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard, by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that … a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.”
How faction leads to dictatorship:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension … leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
On the need for religion and morality:
“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.…. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Knowledge and public opinion:
“Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
Taxes and spending:
“…it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant ….”
“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?”
The necessity for impartiality among nations:
“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”
Sharing the wisdom he had acquired in 20 years was the last service he could do for his country. He had provided leadership which, it was widely conceded, no one else could have provided. To his duty he had sacrificed his personal inclinations. No more. He was tired, and now he could go home.