With Trump’s acquittal looming in a bitterly divided Senate, Schumer said the reading would be “particularly poignant” this year. Part of the poignancy is the content of the address itself, and part of it is the context in which the annual reading of it began.
The nation’s first president was the only one not to have declared himself part of a political party, but by the end of his presidency only Federalists remained in his Cabinet. “Factional” (read: partisan) bickering between Federalists and Democratic Republicans made his second term miserable. So much so, there were already fears that the young nation might soon break apart, particularly without the sturdy oak that was Washington to lead it.
So in his September 1796 farewell address to the public, in which he announced he would not seek a third term, Washington spent the bulk of the 7,641-word treatise warning the nation against political parties, regional divides and foreign interference.
Cut to 1862: The fears have been realized, the Union has split and is engaging in a civil war. Secessionist senators have either been expelled or resigned, and it has sunk in that this conflict is not going to be quick or painless.
Seeking a morale boost, Philadelphians proposed a reading of Washington’s address at a joint session of Congress. Future impeached President Andrew Johnson, then a senator, brought it to the floor for a vote, saying, “In view of the perilous condition of the country, I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live,” according to the Senate Historical Office.
The audience gathered for the joint session included Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials and high-ranking military brass. President Abraham Lincoln might have attended, but his son Willie died only two days earlier, and he was deep in mourning.
The reading didn’t happen again until 1888 — this time involving only the Senate — to mark a century of government under the Constitution. By 1896 it became an annual tradition on or around Feb. 22, with the two political parties alternating years.
Six states have never had a senator do the reading: Alaska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and South Dakota.
Readers also inscribe a leather-bound book carrying the official copy, although the Senate doesn’t publicly reveal what they wrote until after they leave office. Most of the comments note the timelessness of Washington’s text, the patriotic feelings it stirs and the honor in having been chosen to read it. Few mention political issues happening at the time of the reading, although there are exceptions — Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) questions whether Washington would consider the post-WWII North Atlantic Pact to be a foreign entanglement, and in 1999, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) connects the address to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, who was acquitted a few weeks earlier. (Voinovich voted to convict Clinton.)
Smith was the first woman to do the annual reading, in 1947. And in 1994, Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) became the first Black senator to read it, which she noted in her inscription.
Both last year’s reader, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and this year’s, Portman, find themselves in strikingly similar circumstances, reading the address in bitterly partisan times and only a few weeks after a Trump impeachment trial.
The full text is available here.
Here are highlights:
The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations....In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection....I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.…In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.
Suffice it to say, the nation has not yet abandoned factionalism.
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