Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Washington's Farewell Address

As I was going through my information stockpiles recently, looking for something to post, I found a bunch of note cards I completely forgot I had.

In high school, I took AP US History my junior or senior year. My best friend had taken it the year before, and our brothers had taken it the year before that. This meant that, when I started the class, I inherited a huge stack of typewritten index cards covering almost everything one needs to know to pass both the class and the AP Exam. To be honest, I’m not even sure how old they are—I think the boys might have inherited them too. It seems like multiple people have made them, because some are terribly unhelpful while others provide really great summaries.

While flipping through them today, I realized that I’ve forgotten quite a bit, but I’ll share some of those facts in the future. Today, I wanted to focus on one card I found that matches up with my earlier post on isolationism, where I mentioned George Washington’s farewell address very briefly. The note card reads as follows, typo and all:

Washington’s Farewell Address- 1796

Washington would not accept a third term. Legacy: 1. Avoid getting involved in political parties. 2. Avoid getting involved in Europe, “Permanent alliances” (France and England). 3. Three terms is to much. 4. Maintain a firm union and strong central government.

So to put this and its significance in complete sentences, George Washington was in an interesting and powerful position as the first president of the new United States. There were no guidelines on what he could and couldn’t do, except for those outlined in the Constitution, and the choices he made had the potential to set a precedent for all future presidents. Therefore, in his farewell address, he picked four main points, listed above, that he wanted to continue after he stepped down from the presidency.

First, he wanted presidents to avoid getting involved in political parties. Unfortunately for George, chances of this ever happening were slim. Even during the framing of the Constitution and the founding of the USA as a country, statesmen were divided regarding their visions and preferences for how government should proceed, and split into groups over this. (Federalists and Anti-Federalists, anyone?) Despite this, Washington’s emphasis on the importance of this at the very least spoke to the ideas of bi-partisanship and shared power that we still look for and argue over today.

Second, as I mentioned in the isolationism post, Washington cautioned against getting involved in affairs overseas, most specifically against forming permanent alliances. In a way, this was his second attempt at avoiding partisanship, as preferences were divided between England and France, with men like Alexander Hamilton on the former side and Thomas Jefferson on the latter. Again, fortunately or unfortunately, it was not to work, as America has a number of traditional or long-standing allies today and ties all around the world.
In contrast to this, Washington’s third point has lasted quite well. By choosing not to serve a third term as president, Washington effectively set the limits we still use today, of only allowing a president to serve two terms. The one exception to this, Franklin D. Roosevelt, served three terms under very unusual circumstances (World War II, to be specific) and was elected to a fourth before his death. After the war, the Twenty-second Amendment was adopted, officially limiting future presidents to only two terms.

The fourth and final point Washington tried to make part of his legacy, that of maintaining a firm union and strong central government, is probably hardest to assess. After all, there was that whole Civil War issue between then and now, and I know a lot of people who disagree on what qualifies as a “strong” government. Because that relies so heavily on opinion in most cases, I’m not even going to get into it here. You’re on your own to figure that out!

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