George Washington was “a legend in his own time,” and was described as “the Father of the Country” as early as 1776. He became president in 1789, at a time when he was the only realistic candidate for the role. After Franklin’s death in 1790, Washington was alone at the top of the “Mount Olympus” of American political leadership. At this time, images of his face were already everywhere; he was “the American Zeus, Moses, and Cincinnatus all rolled into one.” It thus came as a major shock when, in September 1796, Washington announced that he would not seek a third term as president.
Ellis’ description of the Founding Fathers as god-like does not mean that these men were superhuman or without flaws. Rather, it illustrates the extent to which the extraordinary reputation that they enjoy in contemporary times was also present in their own lifetimes. In the midst of all the chaos and turmoil of the Revolutionary era, people trusted figures such as Washington as sources of strength and hope.
It was not long before Washington’s Farewell Address became legendary, but when it was first published most people focused on the fact that it simply meant the American people were “now on their own.” Those close to Washington had presumed that this announcement was coming for around six months. Madison accurately predicted that the first contested American presidential election would be Thomas Jefferson versus John Adams.
While some of the events of the American Revolution and the period that followed were unforeseeable to those living at the time, this was not always the case. Figures such as Madison were able to accurately predict future political events due to the fact that the Founding Fathers were all closely connected.
Washington had expressed his wish to retire since before his initial election as president. He had always been an energetic, physically imposing presence, particularly due to his height of six feet, four inches. Yet by the late 1780s his usually robust health began to decline, and he craved a more peaceful life. At the same time, there were other reasons why he chose to retire after two terms. During his second term, his detractors became more vocal and vicious in their critiques, and some accused him of turning himself into a “King.” This was a major insult as revolutionary principles insisted that all kings were evil.
It is striking that even Washington, who Ellis depicts as being intensely and almost universally beloved, had vicious critics who accused him of being too powerful. Of course, the fact that such criticism existed is perhaps a sign of a healthy democracy—thereby somewhat disproving the critics’ point.
Washington’s resignation was a response to these criticisms. His Farewell Address was the final message from “America’s first and last benevolent monarch.” Following the announcement that he would retire at the beginning of the Address, Washington called for unity and neutrality in foreign affairs. Over time, the Address has emerged as a major historical document subject to much analysis, though at the time Washington could have no idea how his points would be interpreted by future generations. In order to properly understand the Farewell Address, it is thus necessary to read it in its original historical context.
By examining historical documents in their proper context, we can fight the problem of the misappropriation of history to questionable political ends. Many people today use the legacy and authority of the Founding Fathers to boost their own political agenda—for example, in arguments for isolationism. Yet isolationism meant something very different in 1790 than it does today.
Washington had always been skilled at knowing when to abdicate positions of power, which made him a trustworthy leader. He also understood that achieving victory in a broad sense often involves losing individual battles. His support for American neutrality emerged from his preference for realism over idealism. He understood that being in the right did not guarantee that one would win a fight. He was also cautious about any form of extremism. For example, he warned that excessive hatred of England could make Americans too trusting of France. Washington’s conclusion was that America would only thrive by prioritizing its own interests.
Here, Ellis demonstrates the qualities that made Washington an ideal first president. He was balanced, realistic, pragmatic, and dedicated to putting the US first. Many people would argue that such qualities are what people should seek out in a president today, too. At the same time, the US was a very different place in 1790 than it is now, and occupied a different relation to the rest of the world.
Washington was one of the few members of the revolutionary generation who had never been to Europe. His focus was squarely on the US and on the project of western expansion. As president, his foreign policy was encapsulated by the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793, in which Washington advised the US to stay out of foreign conflicts for its own sake. In 1794, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in order to find a way of avoiding war with England. Jay’s Treaty (1795) “endorsed a pro-English version of American neutrality,” which gave England special privileges and promised that the US would pay its debts.
Washington’s isolationist policy must be understood in its historical context. In the 1790s, the US was not even close to being the major world power it is today. It remained heavily in debt, was at risk of further war, and was not (as Jefferson’s anxieties reveal) “taken seriously” by Europe. Although Jay’s Treaty was a capitulation to England, this was arguably necessary given the US’s relative lack of power.
In a sense, Jay’s Treaty reversed the Franco-American alliance of 1778. Although the treaty was more favorable to England, it was still recognized at the time as a strategic move for the US. In fact, the treaty ended up being far more beneficial than anyone at the time could realize. Washington tried to keep the treaty’s term secret but failed, and found himself harassed by detractors furious about his apparent deference to England. This in turn triggered a constitutional crisis, as Jefferson—who opposed the treaty—claimed that the House had power to veto any treaty.
This passage makes a simple but important point: sometimes policy decisions that are widely criticized and treated as disastrous when they are passed later turn out to be highly advantageous. Only with hindsight can we know the full consequences of a particular historical decision and therefore evaluate it accurately.
Madison, meanwhile, argued that the treaty required approval from the House only for the stipulations that required funding. He hoped that this would block the treaty in a way that didn’t undermine Washington’s power as president. A fierce debate lasted until the spring of 1796. When Jay’s Treaty passed, Jefferson blamed it on the extreme power of Washington’s will, which was such that it could outweigh the will of the people. In hindsight, this reaction seems excessive, particularly considering that we know Jay’s Treaty ultimately served America’s interests.
Jefferson, Madison, and other opponents to Jay’s Treaty were clearly expecting it to trigger a massive disaster. In reality, no such crisis transpired, which shows how difficult it can be to predict the consequences of policy decisions. This was particularly true in the early days of the republic, when there was little precedent to which American leaders could turn.
Jefferson was adamant that any capitulation to England was a betrayal of the Revolution. Ever since returning from France in 1790, Jefferson was paranoid about the legacy of the Revolution being corrupted (as was revealed through his opposition to Hamilton’s financial plan). His suspicion of urban financial elites turned into a “full-blooded conspiracy theory.” Washington did not fit the description of the villain that Jefferson had in mind, and Jefferson instead characterized the president as ignorant of the evil forces surrounding him. This intensified during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, during which Washington deployed a militia to attack protestors who he believed were threatening the federal government’s authority.
As if often the case with conspiracy theories, Jefferson discounted information that conflicted with his theory. He chose to believe that urban financial elites were corrupting the legacy of the Revolution, and manipulated the evidence in favor of this belief. Of course, this then meant that Jefferson viewed subsequent events with a paranoid mindset instead of giving Washington the benefit of the doubt.
A horrified Jefferson now framed Washington as a man too old and senile to do his job properly. Jefferson’s Federalist conspiracy theory began to spread. Although Jefferson agreed with American neutrality, his understanding of this policy was very different from Washington’s. Jefferson believed that the ideals of the American Revolution were destined to spread across the globe, and expressed his conviction that the French Revolution would “triumph completely.” He even dismissed critiques of the violence of the French Revolution, arguing that such violence was necessary in order to change the global order.
Again, Jefferson was highly committed to his theory, which meant dismissing evidence that contested his beliefs. He decided that the French Revolution was evidence that the values of the American Revolution were spreading around the world. Although there were certainly important ideological connections between the two movements, many Americans were rightly reluctant to believe that the brutality of the French Revolution embodied American values—but not Jefferson.
Jefferson saw England as the “counterrevolutionary villain” in his vision, which was why he was so staunchly opposed to Jay’s Treaty. While Jefferson assured Washington that he was not behind the Federalist conspiracy rumors, we know that in fact he was. Washington responded in a way that superficially asserted he believed Jefferson was innocent, but in fact conveyed that he knew the truth. Shortly after this exchange, the men stopped speaking entirely. This was not only a bitter personal divide, but also a significant political one. Washington and Jefferson represented opposite sides concerning the legacy of the Revolution.
As we have seen, some political conflicts between the Founding Fathers remained political only, and didn’t ruin the friendship of those involved. In other cases, such as this dispute between Jefferson and Washington, there was no chance of their friendship surviving such an intense and deeply felt ideological split.
Jefferson’s protégé James Monroe, the minister to France, promised the French that Jay’s Treaty would not pass. He told them to ignore Washington (who would not be president for much longer) gave them permission to retaliate against American ships. Meanwhile, back in the US, Virginian politicians were so swept up by the Federalist conspiracy theory that they similarly “lost all perspective.” In writing the Farewell Address, Washington needed to confirm his authority in the midst of this treachery and confusion. He also needed to strike a middle ground between warring sides and to reiterate his own interpretation of the principles of the revolution.
It is quite extraordinary that James Monroe defied Washington in such an extreme fashion, instead following the lead of his mentor, Jefferson. Of course, such betrayal looks even more extreme in the present, at a time of universal, instant global connection. Now, presidents are immediately aware of what their foreign ministers are doing, but in the 1790s it took a long time for news to travel between different countries, and such news was always partial.
The writing of the Farewell Address was a joint effort between Madison, Hamilton, and Washington. Madison had previously assisted Washington in writing a valedictory address in 1792, and it was his idea for the Farewell Address to be published in a newspaper rather than delivered in Congress. Washington was keen to make it clear that his resignation was not a spontaneous decision designed to dodge potential defeat, but rather something he had planned for many years. Following Madison’s initial efforts, Hamilton worked on the Address for two months before sending it to Washington.
Washington may have been stepping down, but he was still concerned about preserving his pride, ego, and reputation. He did not want people to think he was an overly powerful “King,” but neither did he want them to think that he was simply bowing to political pressure or that he couldn’t handle critique.
Washington and Hamilton continued to send drafts back and forth to each other for another month. Hamilton was so skilled at imitating Washington’s rhetorical style that, without seeing these drafts, it would be impossible to tell who wrote which part of the final product. Hamilton did carefully edit out moments in which Washington made himself seem weak, flawed, and regretful, thereby ensuring that the Address maintained a dignified tone. They had a disagreement over whether Washington should mention the university that was to be built in the nation’s capital; Washington wanted to, but Hamilton thought this should be announced later. Eventually Hamilton gave in—yet the university was never built.
This passage illustrates one of the greatest advantages of collaboration. Not only does collaborating with someone else provide another perspective that would be impossible to access alone, but collaboration allows politicians to stop themselves being overly self-critical without giving into ego. It was natural that Washington would feel some regret and embarrassment about his own shortcomings, but working with Hamilton meant these feelings were not exposed to the public.
Despite the criticisms of Washington’s detractors, it was necessary for the new American republic to have a “republican king” during its first years of existence. In his final speech to Congress, Washington warned about the coming “quasi war” with France and argued that federal powers would need to be intensified, rather than decreased, after he left office.
Antifederalists wanted to seize the end of Washington’s presidency as a chance to reduce federal power—yet Washington himself was in a strong position to argue that such a move would be unwise.
Washington failed to mention slavery in the Farewell Address; as we have seen, such silence was typical of the revolutionary generation. Any mention of slavery would have undermined his advocation of national unity. On a personal level, Washington ensured that all the enslaved people he owned would be freed after the death of himself and his wife. He also arranged for his estate to be sold off in order to support the newly freed people and their families. He was also one of the only Virginians who didn’t support a relocation policy in the event of emancipation.
Again, Washington was typical in his contradictory approach to slavery. In the last chapter, Ellis noted that Washington was relieved when the question of emancipation was tabled until 1808, showing that he was happy to personally remain complacent on the issue in service of the unity of the republic. On a personal level, Washington was fairer than other slaveholders, but a slaveholder all the same.
In August 1796, Washington wrote an “Address to the Cherokee Nation” in which he expressed a desire for white and Native people to live harmoniously in one American country. He argued that this would only be possible if Natives stopped opposing the expansion of white colonization, abandoned their traditional way of life, switched to farming, and assimilated into settler culture.
Again, what could be interpreted as a progressive position is actually not very progressive in reality. In hindsight we know that Native people have been assimilated into the US, but at the terrible and unjust price of being forced to abandon their own cultures, faiths, and languages.
The reaction to the Farewell Address was mostly positive. The majority of people lamented Washington’s departure and expressed support for his message, while his critics continued to loudly voice their condemnation. Until the end of his life, Washington remained convinced that his convictions were right, even as the tide of opinion in Virginia clashed with his own. Virginians were especially suspicious of the significant role he played overseeing the construction of the capital city named after him. Yet Washington was confident they would be proven wrong. He died on December 14, 1799; his final words were: “‘Tis well.”
One of the characteristics for which Washington is most admired is unwillingness to be swayed by the tide of political opinion. While flexibility is important, self-assuredness and self-reliance are often signs of a healthy ability to reason and rely upon one’s own internal moral compass.