Washington’s Farewell Captures Great Moment in History

By RJ Heller


Great moments in history are plentiful, and many of them speak to the human need to persevere and keep things going at all cost. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” speech or John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech to the nation in 1961 are memorable. But there is one great moment that has seemingly disappeared from history: when George Washington decided to relinquish power and step down as president of the United States.

Now, with the publication of Washington’s Farewell by John Avlon, the spotlight is squarely on what the author believes is a monumental decision from an equally monumental man. Avlon writes, “This is the story of the most famous American speech you’ve never read. Once celebrated as civic scripture, more widely printed than the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s Farewell Address is now almost forgotten.”

George Washington, the first president of the United States stepped into uncharted territory when he agreed to become the very first to step into that office. The fledgling nation, coming off its defeat of an empire many considered unbeatable, quickly needed to use the momentum of victory and form a government that would put into action the foundational elements of the Declaration of Independence.  To do that, Congress would need to place someone in charge. They again, found themselves turning to the same quiet, now seasoned and confident Virginian who led the Continental Army to victory over the British and was now being asked to lead a country, George Washington.

Avlon does a splendid job of detailing the rise of Washington, retracing moments in an early life when Washington quickly establishes his valor during the French and Indian War, to his marriage to Martha and eventually establishing his status in Virginian gentry with his estate and home, Mount Vernon. But if it was his agreement to lead the war for American independence that propelled him as a true devotee to the cause, it was his decision to relinquish that same power after the war was over that set the course for a nation to once again seek his leadership as its first president.

The approach Avlon uses in telling this story is the speech itself; one that Washington, with the assist of both Madison and Hamilton, struggled with for some time to publish. The foundation of the speech focused on what Washington called “the Pillars of Liberty”: National Unity, Political Moderation, Fiscal Discipline, Virtue and Religion, Education, and A Foreign Policy of Independence.  When the speech was finally ready, Washington surprised everyone by having it printed in the newspaper and directly addressing it to the people by way of “Friends and Fellow Citizens.”

Newspapers were plentiful at that time, and our own president’s view today might have been kin to what Washington was feeling. Washington spoke many times about slander within newspapers, and in his farewell address noted that divisions are not good and certainly not made any better by partisan newspapers, gossip and deceit. Washington railed against the creation of political parties, but soon realized they were inevitable.  Avlon writes, “Most political speeches are full of promises, New Deals and New Covenants. Washington’s Farewell was a “warning from a parting friend,” written for future generations of Americans about the forces he feared could destroy our democratic republic. Chief among these were hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars — dangers we still struggle with today.”

Avlon writes clearly with a discernable pen being careful not to heap praise and glory on everything Washington. His adeptness at piecing both history and, subsequently, the story of this specific address is flawless and shows experience sharpened by the author’s work as a CNN political analyst and as Editor in Chief of the Daily Beast. 

Washington’s Farewell is a well-crafted piece of history that should be known and read by young and old. We all make decisions daily and never give them another thought. Some decisions can be lasting, even monumental, in the simplest of lives by impacting the individual, or a people, or maybe even a nation. Decisions are what made this country, and continue to do so every single day, partisan politics or no partisan politics. This speech is a refreshing reminder from a father of both family and country that words can ignite and impact the future course of a country, not for just a few of us, but for everyone. As noted by the late historian Daniel Boorstin: “The heirs of Jefferson and Madison would be Democratic-Republicans, the heirs of Hamilton and Adams would be the Federalists. But the heirs of Washington would be all Americans.”