Study Guide

Washington's Farewell Address Historical Context

By George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison

Historical Context

"So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye…"

By 1796, George Washington had been waiting a really, really long time to say those words. Well, maybe not the "auf wiedersehen" part. We're not sure how much German he knew, but the rest of it? For sure.

Washington said "no" to a third term as president that year, setting the precedent for U.S. presidents to serve no more than two terms, which didn't actually become law until 1947 (after FDR's third term). Washington also set a lot of other precedents, given that he was the first president of the United States.

Kind of hard to not set lots of precedents when you're the first one to do something.

Confederation, Constitution—Tomeyto, Tomahto

Washington's presidency started in 1789, after political leaders spent years figuring out how to form the U.S. government. The American Revolution officially ended in 1783, and after that, the Articles of Confederation were written to theoretically form a government for the baby country.

The Articles of Confederation were about as effective for creating a government as a lifeboat with a small hole. They prevented total chaos but otherwise really didn't accomplish what they were meant to. Under the articles, the states were connected only by a weak Congress that was used as a sort of last resort. Congress had the power to declare war (and peace), regulate coinage, and resolve really serious disputes.

That's kind of it. Also, representation in this pretty powerless Congress wasn't determined by population, so big and small states had the same number of representatives.

Washington himself thought the Articles of Confederation actually showed how unprepared the colonies were for the independence they had literally fought for. Congressmen didn't bother to show up for Congress, and states dealt with increasing debt by printing more paper money (source).

If you aren't sure why that's a bad plan, here's an explanation of inflation.

The situation was particularly bad for people who were already in debt, which included a lot of farmers. In 1786, a former captain in the Continental Army named Daniel Shays led a pretty successful armed rebellion protesting the increased taxes and seizures of property from people in debt. He gathered a lot of supporters as he went through New England.

Shays' Rebellion, as the incident is known, was the last straw for Founding Fathers like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. They decided it was time to just chuck the Articles of Confederation altogether and come up with a new system.

You can read about the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution here. For now, let's just say that between 1787 and 1789, the delegates, led by George Washington (who was unanimously chosen by the assembly), wrote a new constitution that created a strong central government to govern over the states as a unified whole.

"Sir" or "Your Highness"?

Part of the new setup included a central leader. When Washington was first approached, he was asked to be the new king, but he was definitely not on board with that (source). In fact, a lot of people, both within and outside of government, were nervous about the new leader becoming too much like the Old World monarchs they'd rebelled against. Thomas Jefferson was particularly convinced that this was something people were trying to do (source).

The debate over the Constitution led to what soon became the two-party system in the United States. The delegates fought regularly over how strong the federal government should be and what its powers should include. Ultimately, the group known as the Federalists, who wanted a strong federal government, won out, but they also assured Anti-Federalists like Jefferson that a Bill of Rights would be written to protect people from an oppressive government.

And, hey, props to them for keeping their promises. The Bill of Rights was passed on September 25th, 1789. We know politicians always keep their promises, but for some strange reason, this is refreshing.

The divisions between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Anti-Federalists, led by Jefferson, didn't magically heal when the Constitution was passed. In fact, Jefferson eventually resigned from his position in Washington's Cabinet because he was too upset about how influential Hamilton's policies had become (source).

We might like to think of Washington and Jefferson as Founding Father bros, but in actuality, they did not see eye to eye on pretty much anything related to government.

Frenemies

While all this tension was going on in New York City and Philadelphia (the first two capitals of the United States), the brand-new country was also in an awkward spot with Europe. You might think that America wouldn't want anything to do with Great Britain after that whole "going to war with them for independence" business, but actually, Britain was a pretty active trade partner. France was, too, and France had been the colonists' ally in the Revolution.

So, when war broke out between Britain and France in 1793 over the increasing violence of the French Revolution, it made things real tricky for America. Jefferson, who had just come back from living in France for years, wanted to favor the United States' connection with that country and all their liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

Hamilton and his crew, though, didn't want to stir the pot with Britain and lose that sweet, sweet trading business (source). Washington proclaimed neutrality, but he also eventually sent John Jay to make a treaty with the British. The resulting Jay Treaty of 1795 was pretty weak and unpopular, and it made France angry because of the alliance they had made during the Revolution.

It wasn't long before French ships started attacking American ships and threatening sanctions (source). Gulp.

Parting Words

So, when you read Washington's farewell address and you notice all the stuff about why there shouldn't be political parties, or why the United States should avoid favoring one foreign nation over another, you'll understand why. Things had gotten pretty bonkers in both those areas by the time Washington stepped down.

Maybe you'll also understand why Washington, who didn't really want the job in the first place, was so ready to give it up and go play the 18th-century equivalent of retiree shuffleboard.