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The following lesson describes George Washington's Farewell Address, in which he gives practical
advice for preserving the union of a young United States of America. A short quiz will follow the
lesson to check your understanding.
Summary of the Address
Sometimes steeped more in myth than fact, the life of George Washington is one not soon forgotten.
The fact that people continue to revere him as a president and leader more than 200 years after he
left office is a testament to the impact he had on our nation's history.
Part of the important legacy that he left behind was the advice he imparted in his Farewell Address,
which appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper on September 19, 1796. This document set the
foundation for what the American purpose would be and suggested how we should grow as a nation.
In fact, as a historical document, it ranks up there with the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution as a reflection of our core political values and beliefs. The central message behind
these documents, and specifically Washington's address, was one of unity. Furthermore, the
address itself was an open letter of advice and warning to the American people regarding their
happiness and long-term safety.
In this lesson, we will discuss three of the main points that Washington addressed in his letter. First,
he warned of the dangers facing the young republic. Second, he highlighted the threat posed by
internal factions. Lastly, he suggested the path America should take in its relations with foreign
The Preservation of the Union
The most important point that Washington attempted to drive home in his letter was
the preservation of the Union. Washington stepped down from the presidency only nine years after
the Constitution was ratified, so it was important that something so new and young be preserved.
Washington warned against sectionalism or focusing on interests that only benefited a certain state
or region. He felt that if states didn't come together for the good of the nation as a whole, it would put
our Union in great peril. In fact, Washington's warning would become a reality as sectionalism did
eventually lead to our own Civil War. Washington's defense of national unity lay not just in abstract
ideals but also in practical reality. Washington felt that the strength and protection provided by a
unified country was much more than any one state or region could provide on their own. This notion
of preserving the Union is most notably expressed when Washington says in his letter:
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
discriminations...Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for
carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
The Danger of Factions
Closely related to sectionalism, Washington also feared the creation of factions. Much like
Washington warned against state interests that could harm the unity of the Union, he also felt that
the formation of political parties would do the same. By political party, Washington was referring to
groups that sought their own good to the detriment of the common good and rights of others, which
would undermine our newly formed Union. In reference to political parties, Washington felt that they:
...serve(d) always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public
Administration…(and) kindle(d) the animosity of one part against another…
This animosity between groups, Washington feared, would weaken the image of strength and unity
he felt the country needed to showcase. Washington's warning apparently fell on deaf ears, as the
formation of political parties would greatly increase after he left office and the hostility between
political factions would be a central cause of the Civil War.
America's Role in the World
Judging from the amount of space Washington devoted to the dangerous influence foreign powers
could have on the United States, it seems logical to presume this is what Washington viewed as the
greatest threat to the unity of the United States. It makes sense that he would think this, because the
United States had just recently gained independence from a foreign power and the rest of the world
was feeling the effects of the French Revolution. Therefore, Washington didn't want a young
America to get pulled into any more foreign conflicts. Washington stressed that the United States
show extreme caution in its relations with other nations. Washington felt that America should have,
'as little political connection as possible' with other nations beyond the necessary commercial and
treaty obligations.
He advised that the United States steer clear of permanent alliances and remain grounded in what it
could offer to other countries, while still keeping itself as an example to the rest of the world.
Washington felt that foreign countries couldn't be trusted, since they would only seek out
agreements that benefited their own self-interest. Nevertheless, it's important to note that
Washington didn't seek to withdraw American involvement with foreign nations, but he stressed that
we needed to be very careful as to the nature of the involvement we had with them. Once again, it
would become quite clear that Washington was quite wise in his advice, as the danger of permanent
alliances would be a leading cause of World War I.
Lesson Summary
In this lesson, we discussed three main points that former President George Washington made in his
Farewell Address. These points included stressing the preservation of the Union and
avoiding sectionalism, the danger that factions and political parties could have in threatening the
unity of the country, and the warning to take great caution in the types of relationships the United
States should have with foreign nations.