The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XI
The Retirement of Washington

George Washington's Farewell Address, which was never delivered in person before any assembly, was first given to the public through the newspapers in September 1796, prior to that year's presidential election. Few American state papers have been more extensively written about, and the aggregate of ideas contained in the Address shows a sufficient complexity of intent that there is still no telling when or where the commentary ought to stop. The greater portion of this writing has been a product of the present century, though the Address excited a variety of responses from the very first, not all of them favorable. 1

Nor has the Olympian tone of the Farewell Address or the monumentality it has acquired over the years, for better or worse, always been helpful in the effort to penetrate the various levels of its logic and design. Perhaps too much attention has been given to the explicit principles which Washington was affirming, or seemed to be affirming, for the guidance of his fellow-citizens and their posterity. The validity of those principles -- or even their exact nature -- is not a matter about which there has been anything like agreement. Nor can there be, unless the sentiments of the Address are directly and circumstantially correlated with the experience of Washington's final three years in office. Though the text is impressive enough to merit close study, it does not entirely speak for itself. But considered with reference to the circumstances in which it was composed, it speaks volumes.


1
Logic of the Farewell Address

Most interpretations of the Address have depended in some way on the question of which of the two principal subjects it deals with -- foreign affairs or domestic politics -- should be given the greater weight. Much the largest share of attention

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