It's a tale as old as time (minus the singing teapot): a wise person dispenses really good advice, and everyone says "thanks" but continues to do the thing they were just warned not to do. Then everything basically plays out exactly the way the wise person said it would.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
You know who George Washington is, right? Wooden teeth (although not really), cherry tree (also not really), and, oh, the first president of the United States. There's a city and a state named after him. He's on the $1 bill and the quarter.
Anyway, one thing he's known for now is his final message to the American people, given when he voluntarily stepped down after two terms as president. Since they didn't have things like radio, television, or YouTube Live in 1796, Washington published his address in the American Daily Advertiser, after which it was reprinted all over the country (source).
Washington's farewell address is basically a speech that was never, well, spoken. At least, not in public—who knows whether George liked to recite it in the mirror. And, like most presidential speeches, Washington didn't write it all by himself.
The original draft was written by a small team of Founding Fathers. James Madison wrote a draft the first time Washington wanted to retire, and Alexander Hamilton (yes, that one) revised it and added a bunch of stuff before Washington approved the final version, published in 1796.
The farewell address has remained relevant ever since 1796 because of the advice Washington includes in it, which people generally agree is pretty spot-on. After announcing that he's not running for a third presidential term, the two primary messages are 1) don't let the country divide into political factions, and 2) stay neutral in foreign affairs.
Oh, man. American history is 0 for 2 on that count.
Political parties developed during Washington's presidency. The Founding Fathers had some serious disagreements over the size and role of the federal government—parties and factions are definitely fresh in Washington's mind. However, his warning about political parties in the farewell address isn't really about his own political beliefs. He says political parties divide the country into factions, which can lead to a little thing like tyranny.
And, since the country had recently fought a war to get away from tyranny, that would just be unfortunate.
Washington's warnings about international relations are a reaction to the war between Britain and France that had been dragging the United States into the conflict.
So, Washington tells everyone to avoid getting divided up into different political groups and to not favor one foreign country over another. Good thing everyone listened and there haven't been party politics or foreign alliances since then. Those could have led to some serious conflicts over the years.
Yeah, Americans have always been big fans of this farewell address, but they haven't really followed Washington's advice. Oh, well. Points for effort, George.
There's an old saying: "the more things change, the more they stay the same." A lot of things have changed in the United States since 1796, and yet George Washington's farewell address is still amazingly relevant.
In fact, it's been relevant ever since it was published. That's one of the reasons why, between all of Washington's speeches and writings, it's the one that's been read out loud in the U.S. Senate every year on Washington's birthday since 1896.
Because we have never listened to his advice, but we know that we should.
In the farewell address, Washington (and Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who helped write it) warns the American people against giving in to certain political temptations. The thing is, by 1796, people had already given in to them, and have been giving in to them ever since—despite the fact that his warnings are pretty much 100 percent accurate.
It's the Big Political Speech equivalent of your inner Jiminy Cricket telling you not to eat all that chocolate or binge-watch yet another season of Game of Thrones because you have to work on a project. You know you should listen, but it's easier (and more fun) not to. You indulge in your impulses and enjoy yourself for a while.
Then you realize your inner Jiminy Cricket was right, and suddenly, you're scrambling to write up that report.
The temptations, in Washington's case, aren't chocolate and Game of Thrones, though. They include dividing into political parties and favoring certain foreign countries for political alliances. Washington foresees that both political parties and foreign alliances would cause a lot of division within a nation that needs to be united. Plus, they'd get America dragged into foreign conflicts. Which would mean death and destruction.
Both of these things happened because, again, people didn't listen. These things still happen all the time today—look at the competition between Democrats and Republicans. Look at how many overseas conflicts the United States has unsuccessfully been involved in. (Looking at you, Vietnam War.) You can absolutely see what Washington was trying to prevent.
With the exception of one decade, American politics has been characterized by pretty aggressive fighting between parties. In fact, it says a lot about the United States that the one stretch of time when political parties weren't really around is called the Era of Good Feelings. Since then, more specific issues have gotten wrapped up in the divide, like business interests, public health, and the treatment of minorities.
These issues and the divisions they've caused have contributed to things like the Civil War. Lincoln's Republican Party only got votes in the North, but it was enough to make him president. That asymmetry was the final straw that broke the camel's back for the South, which then seceded.
Nowadays, Americans constantly attack people for their political affiliations (verbally…most of the time).
The United States has also been drawn into a whole bunch of conflicts with other countries because politicians didn't stay neutral in foreign affairs. There's usually controversy around decisions to get involved in foreign conflicts, and it can get really messy. Case study? Take a peek at the Iraq War.
Washington's farewell address shows us how deeply ingrained these divisive elements are in American political culture. Also, the fame and popularity of the speech shows us that we've always known in our hearts that Washington was right. What does that say about America as a country if we think this is great advice but don't follow it?
We'll let you ponder that one.
Washington's Farewell Address in Modern, Everyday Speech
The creator of the webcomic xkcd went through Washington's farewell address and rewrote it as if someone were just casually saying it today. Or rather, in 2007, when he did this. We all know speech has changed significantly since 2007, so keep that in mind.
Washington's home and plantation is a historic site you can still visit if you're in the Washington area. The website actually has a lot of fun and interesting information about Washington, his family, and his relationships with other major figures from the colonial period.
Primary Documents in American History: George Washington's Farewell Address
The Library of Congress puts together these nifty collections of primary sources for a lot of major texts and events throughout American history—in case you want to see some other primary sources from the time that are somehow related to the original text you're looking at.
The George Washington Papers
Speaking of the Library of Congress, it has a whole bunch of primary sources from or directly related to George Washington.
George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation (1986)
The vast majority of movies about George Washington are about the Revolutionary War. This '80s TV movie deals with the time he actually spent as president.
John Adams (2008)
This epic miniseries is, yes, technically about John Adams, but he was heavily involved with the early-American government, and the series delves into the rise of party politics during Washington's presidency. Check out the episode "Unite or Die" for the most relevant stuff.
Picturing the President: George Washington
The Smithsonian Channel put together a documentary about Washington in relation to the famous Gilbert Stuart painting that we all know and love.
NPR Interview With Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow is a well-respected writer who literally wrote the books on Washington and Hamilton. In fact, Hamilton: An American Musical is based on his biography of Hamilton. This short interview is about Washington the man and includes his relationships with family and friends.
Interview With David McCullough on the Importance of George Washington
David McCullough is another one of the big names in the history world. The title pretty much says it all, but here he discusses why we still need to study Washington and his career, stressing how incredible it is that Washington gave up his power willingly.
Trevor Noah Interview With John Avlon
Avlon wrote a book about Washington's farewell address, and here, The Daily Show host talks to the author about Washington giving up power, the significance of the farewell address in the history of American politics, and why it predicted today's politics so well.
George Washington's Farewell Address
This review of the major themes and history of the farewell address includes a lot of hand-drawn cartoons (literally).
Reading of Washington's Farewell Address in the Senate
It's an annual tradition for a senator to read Washington's farewell address on the first president's birthday every year. Skip to the two-minute mark to watch the 1994 reading, complete with awesome mid-'90s clothing.
Harry Humphrey Reads Washington's Farewell Address
Ever wonder what people sounded like in 1913? Well, here's an example from the Library of Congress. It's not the entire speech, just an excerpt from the end.
Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait)
This famous, full-length portrait of George Washington was completed around the time he published the farewell address.
John Trumbull, Alexander Hamilton
This 1806 posthumous painting of Hamilton, made after a portrait by another artist, is very similar to the image of Hamilton used to design the $10 bill. That one hangs in New York City Hall and isn't freely available online.
John Vanderlyn, James Madison
Here's an 1816 portrait of the author of the first farewell address, from when he himself was president.
The First Presidential Mansion
Washington lived in New York City during his presidency, and here's an engraving of the first presidential mansion on Cherry Street—which was leased from a man named Samuel Osgood.