What We Can Learn From 'Washington's Farewell'

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We don't know if George Washington was saying hello or goodbye in the above portrait, circa 1789. But John Avlon says the first president had one very important goodbye as he left office; Avlon's new book is called <em>Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations.</em>

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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