By: Rebeca Berger
John Avlon thinks that Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the most underrated, under-read important documents in our history. He said that the beauty of Washington’s Farewell Address is that it appeals to liberals and conservatives alike, which reminds us “there is such a thing as common ground.”
During his lifetime, Washington studied other democratic-republic societies and determined their downfalls, which he disclosed in the form of warnings as part of his farewell address. Based on his view of the state of the country at the time, Washington was trying to prepare future generations for what was to come.
“Washington’s Farewell Address has been misinterpreted through history as an isolationist document. That is not the case,” Avlon said.
Noting the parallels between political extremists and Washington’s fears of hyper-partisanship inspired him to write his newest book, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations.
John Avlon is the editor-in-chief and Managing Director of The Daily Beast, a CNN political analyst, and a self-proclaimed “moonlighting journalist”.
Avlon visited Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC Thursday to speak about his latest work and show people that Washington’s messages are just as relevant today as they were in 1796.
“He wanted to lay out very clear warnings about the ways the Democratic-Republics had always died so that we could preempt those, so that at least we could be wide-eyed about them,” Avlon said.
Avlon highlights hyper-partisanship, excessive debts, and foreign wars as the three main warning of Washington’s farewell address.
Washington also promoted a strong national identity, religious pluralism, and public education. He himself was the least formally educated founding father, and was insecure about the fact that he was leading the country without having knowledge law or finance, Avlon writes.
Washington never wanted to be president for a second term, and made every effort to combat that possibility despite his popularity.
When he stepped down from the presidential office, he wrote his farewell speech specifically with a precautionary tone in order to warn the American people of what he foresaw in their future.
The manner in which this document was delivered was unique and spoke to Washington’s consistent goals. Washington did not deliver his farewell address as a speech, but rather submitted it to a local newspaper.
Avlon explained that some historians believe it was because he was not a good public speaker and insecure about his lack of formal education. Other experts say he chose this method to serve as a counterexample to appearing like a European king.
Either way, the most noteworthy point, which Avlon emphasized, is that Washington did not just send it to any local paper, but rather specifically chose The American Daily Advertiser, which was an independent, non-partisan newspaper. This spoke to Washington’s modest character and enforced his fear of hyper-partisanship.
Publishing this document in the newspaper also made it attainable for the masses, which allowed the public to maintain their trust in the founding fathers.
“When we put the Founding Fathers on a pedestal, it is a disservice because we make their wisdom less accessible,” Avlon said.
Washington’s decision to publish and not deliver this important speech eliminated this hierarchical distinction from happening.
In his talk, John Avlon, did not discount the fact that Washington’s proposition about hyper-partisanship is extremely timely with today’s society, specifically with our new administration.
“There have always been folks who argue for a national identity, national unity, a stronger centralized government. And folks who really argue from a more states’ rights perspective, really concerned about encroachment of federal power and that federal power changing their way of life, particularly politically and economically,” he said.
However, in keeping with the theme of Washington’s farewell address, Avlon says that “we are not immune to our history,” and whether it is apparent or not, both sides are fighting for freedom.
He ended the night by summing up Washington’s fears and how we can continue to learn from them today.
“It’s all our responsibility to I think embrace the founding documents again, to really study them again and look for their direct applicability to their times because it’s irrefutable wisdom. No one can checkmate you if you’re talking about Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton.”