Study Guide

Washington's Farewell Address Compare and Contrast

By George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison

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  • George Washington, "The Proclamation of Neutrality" (April 22nd, 1793)

    Washington doesn't actually use the word "neutrality" in this short statement, so technically it's titled "A Proclamation," but generally everyone refers to it as a neutrality proclamation. That's literally what it is. Washington also mentions it in his farewell address, when he refers to "my proclamation of the twenty-second of April, 1793" (44.1).

    Washington issued this proclamation independently of Congress after war broke out between France and Great Britain in 1793. His Cabinet (and the American people) was increasingly divided between favoring France or Great Britain, although they wanted to stay out of the conflict. One of the biggest questions was what the United States' relationship to France was since they'd been allies in the past (source).

    Washington soon issued this short executive statement, which argues that it's in the United States' best interest to "pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerant Powers" (source).

    Not only does Washington declare the United States "impartial" in the conflict between France and Britain, but he says it's illegal for anyone to help or hinder either foreign power or to illegally transport goods for one of them. Anyone who does can be prosecuted.

    The neutrality proclamation wasn't loved by everyone, primarily because Washington issued it by executive power and not through working with Congress. It wasn't that Congress or the American people wanted to get pulled into the war, far from it—but they wanted to be involved in the decision. Three years later, though, in his farewell address, Washington is still trying to convince people that neutrality is crucial.

  • Alexander Hamilton, "Pacificus No. 1" (June 29th, 1793)

    There was some uproar after Washington independently issued his proclamation of neutrality in April 1793, declaring America's lack of favoritism toward either Britain or France in the new European war. Washington's good buddy Alexander Hamilton thought that the United States' former treaty deal with France had been voided by the French Revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, so he supported Washington's decision.

    Over the next few months, a series of essays by "Pacificus" were published in Federalist newspapers. It wasn't too hard to figure out they were written by Hamilton, given that they included some of his more private feelings about the U.S.-France relationship (source).

    The goal of the essays was to defend the proclamation of neutrality, especially once "Helvidius" (a pseudonym for James Madison) started writing response essays against the proclamation.

    The Pacificus-Helvidius debates were part of a tradition of politicians writing under these fake names (often Latin or Latin-sounding), going back and forth over whatever the big issue was, like the Novanglus and Massachusettensis essays in 1774 about American independence or the Publius vs. Brutus debates over the Constitution.

    Think election debates, but in print and drawn out over months about one particular issue. Also, a lot more eloquent.

    In the first of the series of Pacificus essays, Hamilton helpfully lays out why people are upset about Washington's proclamation:

    The objections in question fall under [four] heads—

    1. That the Proclamation was without authority
    2. That it was contrary to our treaties with France
    3. That it was contrary to the gratitude, which is due from this to that country; for the succours rendered us in our own Revolution.
    4. That it was out of time & unnecessary.

    Hamilton—sorry, Pacificus—reminds readers, though, that proclamations like Washington's are only meant to declare that the country "is in the condition of a Nation at Peace with the belligerent parties, and under no obligations of Treaty, to become an associate in the war with either of them" (source). That's what the proclamation is really all about. It doesn't mean that the United States will stop honoring treaties or negotiations—just the ones that threaten neutrality.

    Pacificus then addresses the question of whether or not Washington had the authority to issue the proclamation. Well, he argues, of course the executive branch has the authority since a "correct and well informed mind will discern at once that it can belong neit(her) to the Legislative nor Judicial Department and of course must belong to the Executive" (source).

    The legislative branch doesn't deal directly with foreign countries, and the judicial branch is only brought in when there's litigation. So, the power must lie with the executive branch.

    Since the Constitution puts the power to make treaties with the executive branch and the president is the head of the executive branch, Washington did have the authority. Congress gets to declare war and peace, but that's not what's happening here:

    While therefore the Legislature can alone declare war, can alone actually transfer the nation from a state of Peace to a state of War—it belongs to the "Executive Power," to do whatever else the laws of Nations cooperating with the Treaties of the Country enjoin, in the intercourse of the UStates with foreign Powers. (Source)

    Really, Pacificus' argument comes down to his closing line: that the proclamation "only proclaims a fact with regard to the existing state of the Nation, informs the citizens of what the laws previously established require of them in that state, & warns them that these laws will be put in execution against the Infractors of them" (source).

    In other words: calm down, everyone, he's not doing anything wrong here.

  • James Madison, "Helvidius No. 1" (August 24th, 1793)

    Hamilton's "Pacificus" essays didn't go unanswered. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of the Anti-Federalist, pro-France bunch needed to get their say, too. They saw Washington's proclamation of neutrality as contrary to the country's democratic principles, plus a violation of the country's relationship with France.

    In this, the first of the essays written by Madison under the name Helvidius, he lays out why their side thinks the proclamation is, well, terrible. The guy does not mince words. He starts off by calling the people who support the proclamation "foreigners and degenerate citizens among us, who hate our republican government, and the French revolution" (source).

    Whoa there, Jim.

    He also outlines Pacificus' arguments, as listed in "Pacificus No. 1," because he feels that the ideas in that essay give just enough fact in there to make the arguments look like truth without being truth. Plus, the essay plays on people's feelings of respect toward the president and patriotic duty.

    Twisted truths and guilt-trip patriotism in a political argument? Unheard of.

    Helvidius then counters Pacificus' arguments about why it was totally fine for Washington to issue the proclamation of neutrality on his own. Helvidius claims that all the major political writers of the Enlightenment—well, unfortunately, they all wrote before the idea of a republican government was even considered, but still—"speak of the powers to declare war, to conclude peace, and to form alliances, as among the highest acts of the sovereignty; of which the legislative power must at least be an integral and preeminent part" (source).

    So, the president shouldn't take on such a major decision by himself, like a monarch might in the olden days.

    Helvidius also makes the argument that the power to make treaties actually shouldn't lie with the executive branch of government: "The natural province of the executive magistrate is to execute laws, as that of the legislature is to make laws. All his acts therefore, properly executive, must pre-suppose the existence of the laws to be executed. A treaty is not an execution of laws […]" (source).

    Plus, treaties can impact the internal laws of a nation, which should be the jurisdiction of the legislative branch.

    He really hammers home the idea that the power to make treaties can't be used by the executive branch without the legislative. He says, "The power of treaties is vested jointly in the President and in the Senate, which is a branch of the legislature. […] there are sufficient indications that the power of treaties is regarded by the constitution as materially different from mere executive power, and as having more affinity to the legislative than to the executive character" (source).

    So, where Pacificus was saying the Constitution supported Washington's ability to make the proclamation solo, Helvidius is saying, "Hold up, that's not what it says at all."

    He really makes a dig at Pacificus when he states why he thinks Pacificus wants the executive branch to have this power: "The power of making treaties and the power of declaring war, are royal prerogatives in the British government, and are accordingly treated as Executive prerogatives by British commentators" (source).

    Need some ice for that burn, Pacificus?

    Really, the main point that Helvidius makes throughout the essay is that the executive branch (i.e., the president) doesn't have the power to make treaties on its own. The proclamation of neutrality is being considered as a treaty, or at the very least in violation of existing treaties with France. This whole argument is a big reason why Washington spends time in his farewell address discussing why the United States generally just shouldn't get involved with other countries.

  • George Washington, "Seventh Annual Message to Congress" (December 8th, 1795)

    So, we know what Washington's goodbye address looks like, but what about his other addresses? Washington established the tradition of the State of the Union address during his presidency, although back then, of course, it wasn't televised.

    How to Treat the Treaties

    Since this speech was given about 10 months before the farewell address was published, it covers a lot of the same events of the day. For instance, when he talks about the Treaty of San Lorenzo, he says, "The latest advices from our envoy at the Court of Madrid give, moreover, the pleasing information that he had assurances of a speedy and satisfactory conclusion of his negotiation" (source).

    The state of the Jay Treaty with Britain hasn't been fully completed though: "a treaty of amity, commerce, and navigation has been negotiated with Great Britain, and that the Senate have advised and consented to its ratification upon a condition which excepts part of one article" (source).

    Well, we know that one doesn't go quite according to anyone's wishes, except Britain's. At least George is trying to be optimistic.

    He goes further and talks about other foreign policy issues that aren't really mentioned in the farewell address. Having recently finally paid the ransom for the remaining Americans that were held captive by Barbary pirates in Algiers for about eight years, Washington mentions "the expectation of a speedy peace and the resolution of our unfortunate fellow citizens from a grievous captivity" (source).

    He also talks a lot about Native American tribes, such as those in the Ohio region, with whom there had been recent negotiations after "a long, expensive, and distressing war" (source). Apparently treaties with the Creek and Cherokee tribes in the South are in jeopardy because of "wanton murders" (source) that Georgians are blaming on those tribes. Interestingly, he doesn't mention relations with Native Americans at all in the farewell address.

    In keeping with Washington's whole theme of "don't pick foreign favorites," in this address to Congress, he explains more fully why:

    While many of the nations of Europe, with their American dependencies, have been involved in a contest unusually bloody, exhausting, and calamitous, in which the evils of foreign war have been aggravated by domestic convulsion and insurrection […] our favored country, happy in a striking contrast, has enjoyed tranquillity – a tranquillity the more satisfactory because maintained at the expense of no duty. Faithful to ourselves, we have violated no obligation to others. (Source)

    See, guys? We're in such good shape because we aren't all mixed up in that war with all the Europeans.

    Domestic Bliss?

    Looking internally, Washington goes on about what great shape the United States is in with regard to domestic affairs. "Every part of the Union displays indications of rapid and various improvement," he claims, and he mentions how great it is that the "misled have abandoned their errors, and pay the respect to our Constitution and laws which is due from good citizens" (source). That must be a reference to the recent Whiskey Rebellion.

    In reviewing America's military situation, Washington stresses the need to protect Native Americans from citizens of the United States, not just the reverse. Although he does say that "[t]o enforce upon the Indians the observance of justice it is indispensable that there shall be competent means of rendering justice to them," he also points out that "the provisions heretofore made with a view to the protection of the Indians from the violences of the lawless part of our frontier inhabitants are insufficient" (source).

    Unlike later presidents, Washington seems willing to bring up the damage that his citizens are inflicting on Native Americans, although that doesn't stop him from wanting those Native Americans to be subject to the U.S. judicial system. You win some, you lose some.

    (And then, eventually, if you're the Native Americans, you lose all of them, but that's a story for a different time.)

    Washington's primary focus in this address to Congress is foreign policy, which is also a major focus of his farewell address nearly a year later. He doesn't go into the development of party politics, probably because he's addressing Congress directly and not the American people, but his emphasis on why neutrality is awesome kind of implies he's still trying to convince his audience that it is the right move.

  • George Washington, "Eighth Annual Message to Congress" (December 7th, 1796)

    Washington's final address to Congress (a.k.a. the State of the Union address) was given a few months after he published his farewell address.

    Much like his 1795 State of the Union, Washington devotes a lot of time to the various recent treaties that the United States has been working on. First, he sums up the early-American goals with regard to Native Americans—at least, the nicer goals:

    […] to guard on the one hand our advanced settlements from the predatory incursions of those unruly individuals […] and on the other hand to protect the rights secured to the Indians by treaty–to draw them nearer to the civilized state and inspire them with correct conceptions of the power as well as justice of the Government. (Source)

    Mutual protection for both sides, but also, Native Americans have to function within the legal system of the United States. That idea set the stage for a century of removals of rights and territory from Native American tribes. But at least Washington is still acknowledging that they should be protected from settlers.

    Washington goes on to review all the same treaties that he talked about in the 1795 speech, including the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, and getting captives back from Barbary pirates in Algiers.

    He also argues for the formation of a navy because "[t]o secure respect to a neutral flag requires a naval force organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression" (source). If the United States wants to stay out of all Europe's messy affairs and not have those countries mess with American trade, they need to beef up their defenses.

    He also argues for the creation of some kind of government-funded industry to manufacture certain products, questioning, "Ought our country to remain in such cases dependent on foreign supply, precarious because liable to be interrupted?" (source). Having experienced trade interference in recent years, he seems eager to make the United States less dependent on foreign imports. Washington does pointedly say, though, that the government shouldn't start making anything if a private manufacturer is already planning to. They don't want to be in competition with citizens, after all.

    Washington also encourages the formation of a national university and military academy because "a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation" and "the art of war is at once comprehensive and complicated" (source).

    The national military academy was actually Alexander Hamilton's idea, and it was established in 1802 in West Point, New York (source).

    Washington also admits that "circumstances of a very unwelcome nature have lately occurred" (source) due to French interference with American maritime trade…which is probably part of the reason why a military academy was looking pretty good at that point. He doesn't want to throw away the United States' relationship with France (especially since they based their revolution on America's), but he says more needs to be done on that front.

    After that, it's just about taxes and revenue. Once again, we see Washington's real focus on foreign relations, and even though he gives this speech only a few months after publishing the farewell address, he doesn't say much on the domestic front. All the party politics he talked about at length back in September get left behind.

    That's strange because historically, every time you tell Congress to be bipartisan, it works like a charm.

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