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Washington's Words Recalled Annually by American Legislators


Every year around this time, the secretary of the U.S. Senate reads Washington's farewell address to the nation. The treasured annual ritual dates to February 22, 1862, the 130th anniversary of the birth of America's first president.

It was a dark time for the nation. The union that George Washington had helped forge, and first led, was torn by civil war, and the Union army was reeling from defeat after defeat. To bolster the nation's resolve, Congress sought inspiration from Washington's farewell address to the nation, which he had written in 1796 as he retired from public life.

The ceremony now takes place a few days before Presidents' Day, which honors both George Washington and the nation's Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln. On Friday, Democratic Senator Ken Salazar, a rancher and lawyer from Colorado, read the farewell address, which Washington never spoke but rather sent around in printed form to newspapers of the time:

"With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles," Senator Salazar quoted from Washington's remarks of 208 years ago.

Today, the words from a leader so revered that many urged him to be king, not president, seem quaint and stiffly formal, even in English. They were composed at a time when the nation was overwhelmingly white and far more rural than it is today.

The reading continued: "You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts -- of common dangers, sufferings, and successes."

In other words, Washington was urging the nation to remain united and to trust a strong, central government that was the hallmark of his Federalist Party: "A government for the whole is indispensable," Washington said. "No alliances, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute."

George Washington was suspicious of foreign entanglements. Powerful nations, he said, would exert undue influence on the young country. And he was even more dubious about political parties, which had not yet taken hold as the brokers of government power:

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism," the first U.S. president said in his farewell address.

George Washington had retired once, from his life as the military leader of the American colonies' rebellion against Britain. Now he would slip away again to his beloved Mount Vernon farm in Virginia, declining to run for a third term as president.

When he finished the reading of Washington's remarks, Senator Salazar upheld another congressional tradition, this one dating to 1900. He inscribed his name and a few thoughts in a black, leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate.

His remarks read, in part, "Washington's Farewell Address underscored for me the love for America and for our Union which we still have and celebrate today. Washington was very aware of the great dangers of excessive partisanship. I think today he would warn us that excessive partisanship is weakening our Nation's government, and would ask our Nation's leaders to embark on a new era of civility."

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