Study Guide

Washington's Farewell Address Quotes

By George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison

  • Humility

    […] I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. (5.1-2)

    If you want to retire and other people don't want you to retire, you can always employ some self-deprecation to try and make your case. Washington is basically saying, "Trust me, you guys don't want me to stay." He tries to claim that other people also see his abilities as inferior, which might be a reference to all the division and tension in his administration.

    If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise […] that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. (6.2)

    Another way to show your humility is to credit other people for your successes. Like when that group project you did all the work for gets an A+, you say it was a team effort when, really, it wasn't. Instead of taking credit himself, Washington is telling his readers that they, not him, kept the country afloat during all the turmoil of his presidency.

    Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion. (7.4)

    Washington is about to launch into the advice section of his farewell address here. But instead of introducing it by listing the reasons why his audience should listen, he instead presents it as them being "indulgent" toward him. As if they are doing him a service, rather than the other way around. It's kind of like buttering them up so that they'll listen to him more, instead of just showering them with sage advice.

    In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good […]. (42.1-2)

    Talk about hedging your bets. Here, Washington is prepping for people to ignore his advice while also admitting that they shouldn't ignore his advice. What he says in the address is pretty spot-on and relevant to the times, but given what had happened with the political divisions of the era, he seems willing to admit that what he's saying might fall on deaf ears. Yet he doesn't say that they must heed his words or suffer some horrible doom—instead, he just hopes that his advice might be a little helpful…someday, maybe.

    I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. […] I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest. (49.1, 3)

    Again, Washington here simultaneously explains why his words should be heeded but also why they shouldn't be. "I have a lifetime of experience, but I'm also incompetent, so don't listen too closely." It's a little hard to tell in writing if he actually feels this way, or if he's humblebragging, but given what we know about his time in politics, it seems more likely that he genuinely doubted himself. He wants to emphasize his efforts more than the outcomes of his policies.

  • Religion

    Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue […]. (6.3)

    Sometimes, the religion in Washington's farewell address is on the subtle side. Here, he uses words like "heaven" and "sacredly" to emphasize the moral superiority of the American governmental system. Using vaguer language would have been understood by all without alienating any one group.

    Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. […] The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. (27.1, 3)

    Okay, so there are moments where Washington puts religion and government a little more closely together than most people would today. But notice again that he keeps his language pretty universal—he doesn't specify a particular deity or practice, just the general idea of religion. He also seems to be putting down politicians, which is an American tradition to this very day.

    Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. (27.5-6)

    Washington's argument in the address that religion is necessary for morality probably wouldn't fly anymore, but back then, it would have been less of an issue. Now he's arguing that the system of justice relies on religion, which demonstrates how integral and part of everyday life religion was in America's colonial period.

    It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. (28.1-2)

    Here, Washington expands on the religious idea to make a larger argument. He previously said that religion is necessary for morality, and morality is necessary for the kind of government America wants to have. The implication is that the type of republican system the United States created can't survive without people behaving in a virtuous way—and looking at U.S. political history, we're not sure how much people listened to that part of the address.

    Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. (31.1-3)

    Again, Washington draws a line from religion to morality to government. He wants people to embrace the moral teachings of their religion and use them to form better relationships with other countries. He wants the United States to be the shining moral example in European-American relations. (Let's be real, the "nations" he refers to are all in Europe or European colonies.)

  • Politics

    The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. (9.1-2)

    The transition from the decentralized Articles of Confederation to the Constitution was a defining moment in America's political history. But not everyone was on board with the centralization of the federal government. Washington uses his farewell address to emphasize why a strong central government is the best way to go.

    While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations […]. (13.1)

    Washington's presidency featured a lot of fighting and tensions about the nature of government and foreign relations. So maybe it's not a big surprise that he's trying to emphasize the "united" part of the United States of America. It's amazing what we can accomplish when we work together. (Cue sappy motivational music.)

    In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. (15.1-3)

    The political history of the United States is riddled with issues related to the different regions of the country and how they get along—or don't. (We're talking about you, Civil War.) Washington very specifically tries to emphasize that all the different parts of the country are important, and one shouldn't be prioritized or marginalized.

    This government, the offspring of our own choice […] has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. (16.4-6)

    Here, Washington is reminding people that they chose this format of government, and therefore they should listen to it and obey its laws. It's an interesting mix of freedom and obedience.

    […] nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. (32.1-2)

    Foreign policy is a big thing in Washington's farewell address since the country had been struggling for years with its relationships with Britain and France. The first president tries really hard in this speech to promote his ideas about how to deal with foreign relations—which is really to avoid them as much as possible. Neutrality FTW!

  • Freedom

    Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment. (8.1)

    Not only is this quote pretty poetic, it's actually pretty anatomically accurate. Washington is also reminding his audience of their own feelings toward freedom (a.k.a. "liberty") to set them up for his later advice about government and foreign policy.

    Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other. (13.2-3)

    Tyrannical governments tend to use military force to get and keep their power. It's the kind of power play the American colonists were trying to get away from in the Revolutionary War. Washington is advising everyone to avoid that kind of system in the United States by supporting the work of the federal government. The government will protect people's freedom, in theory.

    […] they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. (18.1)

    The "they" in this scenario are political parties, which Washington sees as a seriously negative development in U.S. politics. This quote explains why, at least in part. If you give a mouse a political faction, he'll use political discord to eventually seize control and take away his enemies' freedom.

    […] for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. (19.3-4)

    Again, Washington tries to convince the audience that the federal government, despite what Anti-Federalists say, is the best way to protect people's freedom. Fear over the development of a centralized government was largely based at the time on the former colonists' experiences under a monarchy, but Washington repeatedly tells them that the federal government will be nothing like that.

    […] nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded […]. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. (32.1-3)

    Another of Washington's big ideas in the farewell address is "don't make alliances with other countries." The big reason, as he mentions here, is that when you do that, you bind yourself to that other country and ruin relationships with others. It takes away from your ability to make your own decisions. In other words, it takes away a country's freedom to act in its own interest.

  • Principles

    I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power […] to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn […] but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea. (3.2-3)

    An old trope that you see in a lot of gangster movies is "as soon as I think I'm out, they pull me back in!" Washington's version is similar—he wanted to get out of the game, but he just couldn't abandon people in their time of need. It's the heroic sacrifice that you also tend to see in a lot of action movies.

    With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes. (10.4-5)

    Washington tries to stress the unity of the nation a lot in the farewell address, which isn't surprising because some serious divisions had started to show themselves during his presidency. Here, he urges the audience to remember that they're not so different as they might think and they should work together using their similarities rather than let divisions tear them apart.

    The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

    All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. (16.8-17.1)

    The principle Washington is promoting here is basically following the rules. People create the government, and they should therefore follow it, too. Otherwise, they're destroying the system that they themselves built. In other words, they're ruining it for everyone else who did follow the rules.

    […] remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions […] and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. (19.3)

    Basically, Washington is reminding people that patience is a virtue. If they're not 100 percent happy with this brand-new experimental government system, the first of its kind, maybe they should give it a chance before trying to dismantle it.

    The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power […] has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern. (26.2-4)

    Remember, friends: absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's why it's so necessary to put checks and balances in the government, to fight against the rise of tyranny. Good thing principled men like Washington were around to put those checks and balances in place.

    Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. (31.1)

    It's a little "Kumbaya," but since Washington died about 160 years before hippies were even a thing, we'll assume that's not the image he was going for (unless he was just really ahead of his time). Washington's plea for America to avoid foreign entanglements isn't all about politics—there are principles behind it, too. Mainly that the United States should just be good toward everyone as a general practice.

  • Patriotism

    […] my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal. (6.1)

    Washington gets personally patriotic here. It's like he's demonstrating his own love of the United States to show that he's just as into it as his audience. He owes as much to America as anyone, and he's willing to shout it from the rooftops. Metaphorically, of course—the address was printed in newspapers, so not a lot of rooftops involved.

    […] let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. (6.2)

    Some of the patriotism in the farewell address isn't as obvious as the waving of a flag on the Fourth of July. Washington credits the people of the country with a lot of his success—and since the American people are pretty essential to the country, celebrating them is really celebrating America. Otherwise, you're just really into the mountains and amber waves of grain.

    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. (10.3)

    Well, he just straight up says "patriotism" here. But really, he's reminding the former colonists that it's more important to be patriotic toward America as a country than their home states. Remember, until the Constitution was written, people's loyalties were generally to their state governments more than a centralized idea of the United States as a nation.

    In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. (15.1)

    In some pretty spot-on foreshadowing, Washington fears that some people will exploit regional differences to turn those regions against one another. Again, he tries to emphasize patriotism to the whole nation over a local area. It was a good effort, George, but your buddy Abraham (whom you never met) is going to have a lot of regional "difference" on his plate in about 60 years.

    In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. (42.1)

    Although it's a little depressing that Washington seems to be a bit pessimistic about the future, the idea that he's trying to prevent America's doom is another form of patriotism. He found himself in a position of real power, and instead of taking advantage of it for his own gain, he did what he could to set up the country for success. Even if his efforts only worked a little bit, the intent is just about as patriotic as you can get. That's love for your country right there.