Study Guide

Washington's Farewell Address Themes

By George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison

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  • Humility

    George Washington has been the most reluctant president in American history. He didn't want the job, and he only stuck around for two terms because other people convinced him he couldn't leave yet. Part of his reluctance had to do with his lack of confidence in his own abilities. His farewell address is peppered with moments where he injects some subtle self-deprecation into all the politics.

    Washington's moments of humility make him seem, well, more human. With all the lofty political ideals and sophisticated writing, the reader is reminded that Washington is just a guy who's still figuring it out.

    Questions About Humility

    1. How does Washington's humility affect the overall impact of the speech for the reader?
    2. Do the moments of humility strengthen or undermine Washington's political advice? Or neither?
    3. Does the humility of the farewell address make sense given what we know about him and his presidency?
    4. What do you think would be the appeal of adding humility into a farewell address, either for the audience or the speaker?

    Chew on This

    Washington could have become super arrogant about setting the bar for future U.S. presidents, but he genuinely wasn't sure he was doing a good job.

    Washington's humility could either make his arguments more convincing, by endearing him to the audience, or make them less convincing by making the audience question his credentials.

  • Religion

    Religion was a pretty significant part of colonial American life. A number of the colonies (like Maryland and Pennsylvania) were founded as a way for European immigrants to practice their religion of choice. The Founding Fathers made sure to separate church and state, but it was still common for politicians to reference religious ideas.

    Washington makes some direct religious references in his farewell address, but he also uses larger ideas of morality and spirituality to try and convince the American people to do the right thing, which in this case involves upholding the ideals of the American Revolution and avoiding dangerous entanglements. It would have been a pretty safe bet that his audience would have understood and internalized his religious references, even the pretty subtle ones.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does Washington reference religion so often in his farewell address? What is he trying to achieve?
    2. Does Washington's use of religion seem to be for him or for his audience, and how can you tell?
    3. How does Washington use religious language as part of the arguments he presents in the address?
    4. How do Washington's religious references tie in with the historical context of the farewell address?

    Chew on This

    Washington uses religion as a synonym for morality, largely because, at the time, religion would have been a shared vocabulary that his whole audience would have understood.

    Washington doesn't specify a particular religion or even particular religious ideas because he knew there were a variety in America at the time and promoting one over the others would do exactly what he was telling people not to do.

  • Politics

    A speech by a political leader that deals with political themes? We know it's shocking, but take some deep breaths to manage the surprise.

    Remember, though, that Washington was the first president of the United States and dealt with the first Cabinet, the formation of the three branches of government, and the establishment of U.S. foreign policy. A lot of it didn't go so smoothly.

    Washington had a lot of opinions about how politics should be conducted (and wasn't being conducted), and that's what a lot of his farewell address is about.

    The political theme in Washington's address covers a lot of political issues because it had to. You have to start somewhere, right?

    Questions About Politics

    1. What is Washington's political philosophy, according to his farewell address?
    2. Why might it be important for Washington to address a lot of political issues in his farewell address in particular?
    3. How does Washington's approach to politics in this speech compare and/or contrast with other political speeches or essays you've heard or read?
    4. How effective are Washington's political arguments in the farewell address? Why?

    Chew on This

    Washington's extensive statements on politics are a little wasted since a lot of people in the United States didn't even have the right to vote at the time.

    Washington deliberately doesn't specify people or very many particular events because he wants his political message to be a lot more universal and applicable in the future.

  • Freedom

    If there's one word you hear mentioned in political speeches and beer commercials more than any other in the United States, it's "freedom." Especially when you add the synonym "liberty." Freedom is a big deal in America—hence the giant statue.

    The American Revolution was about being freed from the tyranny of British rule. A lot of people got antsy about creating a centralized government because they didn't want to lose that freedom. Washington knew all about that fear. In his farewell address, he tries to paint the republican government they created as the best way to protect the freedom that the American people have always cherished.

    Questions About Freedom

    1. What kind of freedom were the American people looking for in 1796 when Washington published the farewell address?
    2. How does the theme of freedom relate to the major political ideas and advice that Washington puts forward in the speech?
    3. Are Washington's arguments about the government and freedom convincing? Why or why not?
    4. Do you think the kind of freedom that Washington and his audience were concerned with in 1796 was the same as what people talk about today? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Washington's promotion of liberty probably looked to a lot of people like it directly contradicted his promotion of a strong centralized government.

    Washington really plays with people's fears of monarchy from before the American Revolution by emphasizing the need to protect liberty.

  • Principles

    George Washington was generally a pretty stand-up guy. He's famous for his honesty and generally just being a good dude. During his presidency, he really tried to create an environment where everyone would be as honest and upstanding as he tried to be.

    It didn't really work. Ambition and political infighting got in the way. (Doesn't it always?) Washington's unhappiness with all the tension probably contributed to this theme in his farewell address of maintaining good principles. His advice and ideas are largely based on his hope that the American people would be, well, good people and uphold the moral principles that they literally fought for in the Revolution.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Given the historical context, why do you think Washington felt that he needed to reiterate a number of principles in this speech?
    2. What principle do you think is most important to Washington in his farewell address?
    3. What makes the farewell address a good or bad place to include this theme of principles?
    4. Do you think Washington was a good person to present these principles in a public message like the address? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Trying to get the American people to live with strong principles was pretty unrealistic of Washington, which he probably knew, having dealt with political infighting for years.

    Washington may have genuinely believed that the United States could become a sort of moral paradise if only people were reminded of the benefits of good, principled living.

  • Patriotism

    The idea of patriotism has changed over time in America. Not that people weren't always jazzed about the United States—otherwise the American Revolution wouldn't have happened—but the format of that patriotism wasn't quite the same when Washington was president.

    People who had been colonists were especially tied to their state, and a lot of people weren't so sure about the idea of a centralized federal government. So, Washington injects his farewell address with language emphasizing what he and his audience owe to the nation as a whole. It's a way for Washington to promote his ideas of federalism while tugging on people's heartstrings.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. How had the idea of patriotism developed or changed from the days of British rule to the time of Washington's farewell address?
    2. Why would the theme of patriotism be important for a farewell address like Washington's? What might he be trying to accomplish?
    3. How is Washington's vision of patriotism similar or different to how Americans view patriotism today?
    4. What events during Washington's presidency might have motivated him to make patriotism a theme in his farewell address?

    Chew on This

    America's sense of patriotism was largely built on U.S. citizens banding together against a common enemy, particularly encroaching European countries.

    Washington's career, especially serving as president when he didn't want to, shows that he was probably way more patriotic than anyone reading his farewell address.

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