What We Can Learn From 'Washington's Farewell' | WYPR

What We Can Learn From 'Washington's Farewell'

Jan 8, 2017
Originally published on January 8, 2017 9:16 pm

On Tuesday, President Obama will give his farewell address to the nation. It's a custom that goes all the way back to George Washington; these speeches, author John Avlon says, "serve as a bookend to a presidency."

For about 150 years, Washington's farewell speech was the most famous in American history, Avlon tells NPR's Michel Martin: "It was more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence. And yet today, it's almost entirely forgotten."

Avlon hopes to bring the speech back into the spotlight in his new book, Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations.

Washington "had the greatest team of ghost writers in history," Avlon explains. "James Madison on the first draft and then Alexander Hamilton. But while the final words may have been largely Hamilton's, the ideas were all Washington's."


Interview Highlights

On Washington's warnings

Washington wanted to leave his friends and fellow citizens ... a series of lessons culled from his life and his understanding of history; really warnings about the forces he feared could destroy our democratic republic.

He came up with a series of warnings that are remarkably prescient, prophetic to us today: hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, foreign wars, particularly — and this is almost eerie with the debate we're having over Russian hacking today — the danger of foreign influence in our politics as a way of subverting sovereignty.

These were some of the forces he felt could destroy our democratic republic and he wanted to warn future Americans ... that these were the really important things to remember. ... To that extent, it's a talismanic document. It connects the past, Washington's present and the future.

On why Washington's speech isn't as famous today as it once was

It was the most famous speech in American history. It was taught in public schools. Students memorized it the way people do the Gettysburg Address today. But it's sort of the Old Testament to the Gettysburg Address' New Testament.

It's sort of these stern rules from a distant god of how to live and not this sort of hopeful, you know, poetic premonition on rebirth. So it was sort of eclipsed in the national memory. When Lin-Manuel [Miranda] brought it back for [the Broadway musical] Hamilton, it was really the first time in a long time it had gotten that kind of attention.

On the long tradition of presidential farewells

The presidential farewell address is close to a standard operating procedure for outgoing presidents. There's this idea that perhaps President Obama was doing something unusual by giving a farewell address — far from it! Washington's example was followed by subsequent presidents. ...

One of most fascinating things in doing the book for me was looking at how Washington's farewell address echoed on throughout the years. How it was picked up by different people to wage debates about original principles.

On what to expect from President Obama's farewell address

I think the thing to look for will be ... partly a recitation of his record. But then I think there will probably be a section that is a warning to his fellow citizens. And there will be a lot of people who instinctively say that "Oh, that's out of the American tradition," or "Oh, that's a cheap shot at an incoming president." But in fact, that is a core part of the farewell tradition.

So much of Washington's wisdom is so pertinent today — that's really important. There are things out of this speech which liberals and conservatives can take comfort from. ... The things that led Washington to these beliefs and then the way this advice echoed through history and echoes on today ... I think in some ways is more relevant than ever before.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today we want to look ahead to President Obama's farewell address to the nation on Tuesday. It will take place where it all started for him politically, the city of Chicago. That got us thinking about the custom of a presidential farewell address, and we found out it started off with - who else? - George Washington. Washington's farewell address set the bar for future presidents. His words from that address are even read aloud every year by a member of the Senate. Last year, it was Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS COONS: It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness, that you should cherish a cordial, habitual...

MARTIN: Here to talk with us about the art of the farewell address is John Avlon. He's an author and political analyst with a new book out this week "Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning To Future Generations." And I started our conversation by asking him what George Washington was trying to convey to the American people in his farewell address.

JOHN AVLON: He had the greatest team of ghostwriters in history - James Madison on the first draft and then Alexander Hamilton. But while the final words may have been largely Hamilton's, the ideas were all Washington's. And Washington's farewell - you got to appreciate - was the most famous speech in American history for the first 150 years of the Republic. And yet, today, it's almost entirely forgotten. Washington wanted to leave his friends and fellow citizens which is who he addressed the open letter to published in the American daily advertiser, a series of lessons culled from his life and his understanding of history.

He came up with a series of warnings that are remarkably prescient, prophetic to us today - hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, foreign wars, particularly - and this is almost eerie with the debate we're having of Russian hacking today - the danger of foreign influence in our politics as a way of subverting sovereignty.

These were some of the forces he felt could destroy our democratic republic, and he wanted to warn future Americans when he was off the stage and dead, long gone that these were the really important things to remember and they had transcendent value. And to that extent, it's a talismanic document. It connects the past, Washington's present and the future.

MARTIN: You said just now that the speech has been largely forgotten, but his farewell address has been read aloud in the Senate every year since 1862. And there's a gorgeous duet in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway hit "Hamilton" that certainly brings it to life. But why do you say it's been largely forgotten?

AVLON: Well, it was the most famous speech in American history. It was taught in public schools. Students memorized it the way people do the Gettysburg Address today. But it's sort of the Old Testament to the Gettysburg Address's New Testament. It's sort of these stern rules from a distant god of how to live, and not this sort of hopeful, you know, poetic premonition on rebirth. So it was sort of eclipsed in the national memory. And when Lin-Manuel Miranda brought it back for "Hamilton," it was really the first time in a long time it had gotten that kind of attention.

MARTIN: Has the farewell address become, though, a custom or is it just something that certain presidents choose to deliver?

AVLON: The presidential farewell address is close to a standard operating procedure for outgoing presidents. There's this idea that perhaps President Obama was doing something unusual by giving a farewell address - far from it. Washington's example was followed by subsequent presidents. Eisenhower's is the most famous farewell, but that continues a really specific tradition that's also core to Washington which is that of the presidential warning, the warning from a parting friend. And I wouldn't be surprised if President Obama carries that forward.

MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit from Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence whether sought or unsought by the military industrial complex.

MARTIN: Interesting coming from a person who was a military leader.

AVLON: Exactly. And that's why it had so much moral authority. And both Washington and Eisenhower both warned against overgrown military establishments in their farewell, but Eisenhower took that point and really elevated it. And one of the most fascinating things in doing the book for me was looking at how Washington's farewell address echoed on throughout the years, how it was picked up by different people to wage debates about original principles.

You know, one of the stories that I captured in the book was that of Bill Clinton's farewell address, and his speechwriter, Jeff Shesol, was working on it. But what's interesting is - as he described to me - is that Bill Clinton didn't really want to, in his words, confront his political mortality and kept pushing off the speech prep until the last day of the address. But even then, that speech - it contained a warning about those voices that would try to remove America from the activities of the world and therefore cede American leadership.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: America cannot and must not disentangle itself from the world. If we want the world to embody our shared values, then we must assume a shared responsibility.

MARTIN: So looking ahead to President Obama's farewell address, do you have any sense of what he will say? And do these addresses still have impact?

AVLON: I think they do because they serve as a bookend to a presidency. I think it inevitably will be partly a recitation of his record. But then I think there will probably be a section that is a warning to his fellow citizens, and there will be a lot of people who instinctively say that, oh, that's out of the American tradition or, oh, that's a cheap shot at an incoming president. But in fact, that is a core part of the farewell tradition.

MARTIN: That was John Avlon. He wears many hats. He's editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast. You've probably seen him on CNN as an analyst, but today we're talking about his latest book "Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning To Future Generations." He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

And what better reason to hear from the Broadway play "Hamilton." This is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton and Chris Jackson as George Washington and the words you will hear come directly from George Washington's farewell address.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAMILTON")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA AND CHRIS JACKSON: (As Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, singing) The benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart and the happy reward as I trust of our mutual cares, labors and dangers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.