U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video
 You are in: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs: Office of the Historian > Timeline of U.S. Diplomatic History > 1784-1800

Washington's Farewell Address,1796

In the fall of 1796, nearing the end of his term, George Washington published a farewell address, intended to serve as a guide to future statecraft for the American public and his successors in office. Washington worked closely with Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, and James Madison, then a Congressional leader, who both provided Washington with drafts of the address. Washington’s address argued for a careful foreign policy of friendly neutrality that would avoid creating implacable enemies or international friendships of dubious value, nor entangle the United States in foreign alliances.

Washington had initially considered retiring from the presidency after his first term in office. Therefore, in 1792, he asked James Madison to compose a valedictory address to be delivered at the end of the first term. However, Washington was persuaded by Hamilton, former Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, and other political leaders to remain in office for a second term, and so the draft remained unused. When Washington neared the completion of his second term, he turned to Alexander Hamilton to edit Madison’s draft. Hamilton enlarged the portion relating to foreign affairs, and updated it to reflect the Washington Administration’s revised neutrality policy. Washington then amended Hamilton’s version, and also asked Secretary of State Timothy Pickering for his opinions on the address. Washington then arranged for the address to be published in a Claypool’s American Daily Advertiser, a Philadelphia newspaper, on September 19, 1796. The address was widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the country.

Although the address also dealt with domestic issues, Washington was also interested in outlining future U.S. foreign policy. Washington expressed his views on foreign relations with a warning against "permanent inveterate antipathies against particular Nations," as well as "a passionate attachment of one Nation for another." The first, he argued, would lead to unnecessary war, while the second would result in unwise treaty concessions, which could arouse the ill-will of other countries expecting fair treatment. Washington counseled the public to be wary of foreign influence. He argued for impartial commercial treaties, but against treaties of permanent alliance, although the United States should fulfill any existing agreements "with perfect good faith." Temporary alliances would be acceptable in "extraordinary emergencies."

The valedictory address was written at a time when the Atlantic World was convulsed by war and revolution. Moreover, as monarchical Great Britain and Revolutionary France were locked into conflict in a war of competing ideologies, they sought to pull the United States into their respective alliance and trade systems. The unpopular Jay Treaty of 1794 ignited domestic passions and split political leaders into opposing camps. The Federalists, who argued that trade and cultural connections to Great Britain should lead to a closer political relationship with Britain, were led by Alexander Hamilton. The Democratic-Republicans favored a closer relationship with France, now also a republic. The Democratic-Republicans were led by former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, as well as James Madison. With his cabinet divided between two opposing parties, Washington attempted to remain as impartial as he could.

The factional divide gave encouragement to Britain and France to influence U.S. elections in the hopes of ensuring victory for their preferred party. In 1793, French diplomat Edmond Charles Genęt had already caused tensions between the U.S. and French governments by attempting to secure enforcement of controversial clauses in the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, and issuing commissions to attack British shipping. In 1796, French minister Pierre Adet publicly campaigned against John Adams and the Federalists, failing to understand that his activities would be perceived as foreign meddling, and that the Federalists would highlight Adet’s actions as a campaign issue. Although British diplomats had not interfered directly in U.S. domestic politics, the Jay Treaty’s provisions cut off U.S. trade access to British colonies and allowed for continued British impressments of U.S. sailors and seizure of goods bound to French and French-allied territory, provisions which angered many Americans with ties to maritime trade.

In providing an outline for his successors, Washington advised against extremist pro-French or pro-British positions. Overall, Washington argued in an enlightenment tradition that placed reason above passion and emotion, and sought a foreign policy driven by a dispassionate, reasoned attempt to further U.S. interests, while being careful to cultivate fair and peaceful relations with other nations. Despite the partisan differences of the succeeding U.S. Presidents, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison attempted to maintain a neutral position in the wars between Great Britain and France. However, despite their attempts to maintain neutral, they at times found themselves fighting wars against a Great Power—a breakdown in diplomatic relations led to an undeclared war with France under Adams’s administration, while under James Madison, the United States fought the War of 1812 against Great Britain.


  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.