On this day in 1796, President George Washington’s farewell address was printed in the Daily American Advertiser as an open letter to American citizens. The most famous of all his “speeches,” it was never actually spoken; a week after its publication in this Philadelphia newspaper, it was reprinted in papers all over the country.
The address was a collaborative effort that took Washington months to finalize, incorporating the notes that James Madison had prepared four years prior when Washington intended to retire after his first term, as well as numerous edits from Alexander Hamilton and a critique from John Jay. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were accustomed to writing collectively; together they had published the Federalist Papers, 85 newspaper articles published throughout the 13 states to introduce and explain their proposal for a Constitution.
Now only eight years old, the Constitution was in danger, Washington feared, of falling prey to the whims of popular sentiment. In 6,086 words, his address seeks to encourage the nation to respect and maintain the Constitution, warning that a party system — not yet the governmental standard operating procedure — would reduce the nation to infighting. He urged Americans to relinquish their personal or geographical interests for the good of the national interest, warning that “designing men” would try to distract them from their larger common views by highlighting their smaller, local differences. “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,” he wrote.
Washington also feared interference by foreign governments, and as such extolled the benefits of a stable public credit to be used sparingly, recommending avoiding debt by “cultivating peace” and “by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned.” Although he conceded that “the execution of these maxims” — or, in layman’s terms, balancing the budget — was the responsibility of the government, Washington wagged a finger at individual citizens too, reminding them that “it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant …”