Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo
For more than a century, the U.S. Senate has carried out the annual tradition of reading George Washington’s Farewell Address in recognition of the birthday of our country’s first president, who led our country during the American Revolutionary War and helped form our government as a Founding Father. This custom, carried out on or near President Washington’s birthday (February 22), provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges at our nation’s founding as they add perspective to the challenges of the present.
President Washington’s observations remind us of the struggle at the core of our nation’s foundation and the costs shouldered by many Americans--then, and since--to maintain our constitutionally-protected freedoms. Upholding these ideals is all of our responsibility, as Americans entrusted with their protection. President Washington wished for us as Americans that Heaven would continue to bless us with a strong and lasting union and that our free Constitution may be “sacredly maintained.”
According to the United States Senate Historical Office, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison helped President Washington with the development of his Farwell Address that was designed to inspire and guide future generations. The historical office also notes his principal concern when crafting the 1796 address was for the survival of the then eight-year-old Constitution, and he believed that the stability of the new Republic was threatened by the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs.
He aspired for our resilience as a nation of individuals who seek a common strength. President Washington wrote, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. 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—common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
Senate historians write, “The Senate tradition began on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War. Citizens of Philadelphia had petitioned Congress to commemorate the forthcoming 130th anniversary of Washington's birth by reading the Address at a joint meeting of both houses.” One senator is selected to read the Farewell Address each year, and the selection alternates between the political parties. Idaho’s former Senators Fred T. Dubois (1903), Weldon B. Heyburn (1904), Frank F. Church (1958) and Dirk Kempthorne (1993) are among the Senators who have read the address and inscribed their names and brief remarks in a book documenting this tradition maintained by the Secretary of the Senate.
On February 21, 1958, when then-Senator Frank Church delivered Washington’s historic address, Senator Church wrote, “The wisdom continued in the Farewell Address is ageless; the admonitions remain as valid as the circumstances which then prevailed. To the degree those circumstances have changed, we must measure the advice of George Washington against the living facts of our own times.” Thirty-five years later, in 1993, then-Senator Dirk Kempthorne penned the following reflection on his reading of Washington’s address, “To read the words of our nation’s first president on the floor of the U.S. Senate is a distinct honor. The fact that his words were written as a guiding light for the future of this nation makes the actual moment of the delivery of the speech timeless.”
Like our past Senators recognized, President Washington’s words remain inspirational and instructive for us today as we tackle current and future challenges. May we all help ensure the name American always exalts the “just pride of patriotism,” as President Washington hoped.
# # #
Word Count: 583