Historians, political scientists, and public figures have tried for centuries to capture the essence of the first president of the United States and his precedent-setting administration. In the end, however, George Washington did perhaps the best job of such an overview himself as he ended his days as chief executive. On September 17, 1796, President Washington offered the nation his Farewell Address, a summation of his two terms in office and a statement of his hopes for the young United States. The address revisited the major themes of Washington’s presidency: his appreciation for public symbolism; his realism about his own political shortcomings; his wariness of power abuses; his desire for national unity; his emphasis on international neutrality; and his concern about internal factionalism. These themes provide a useful window through which each of the key policy questions during Washington’s administration can be understood.
The Farewell Address opens with Washington’s announcement that he would neither seek nor accept another term as the chief executive of the United States. Beyond his own personal desire to return to his home at Mount Vernon, Washington was also motivated by a concern for the pattern his tenure in office would set. He worried that popular leaders in the future might retain the position for multiple terms until the presidency came to resemble a monarchy. He knew that if he limited his own terms to two, he would set a precedent for others to follow. This he did. Presidents voluntarily followed the two-term limit until 1940 and 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for and won his third and fourth terms,