Every year on George Washington’s birthday the United States Senate reads aloud his Farewell Address. Dating to the Civil War, this tradition is meant to honor the nation’s first president. This recitation is not accompanied by any debate over its meaning; the importance lay not in the words but in the man who wrote them. As Jeffrey J. Malanson demonstrates in his Addressing America: George Washington’s Farewell and the Making of National Culture, Politics, and Diplomacy, 1796–1852, the valedictory carried far more weight in political debate, and among the population, in its first half century of existence than it does in twenty-first-century America.
Malanson aims to answer two questions: what did the Farewell Address mean to early Americans, and how did the address help to shape U.S. foreign policy in the years prior to the Civil War? Written for the occasion of his announcement that he would not accept a third presidential term, Washington published the remarks in David Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser on September 17, 1796, and then quickly made his way to Mount Vernon before public sentiment could be gauged. As Malanson relates, the initial reaction was centered on the confirmation of a poorly kept secret: Washington was retiring. It was not until after his death in 1799 that the address was elevated to the position of a sacred, civic text.
In the author’s telling, Washington’s valedictory was the key document in shaping Americans’ understanding of foreign policy in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it also set the guidelines for how the public believed the United States should interact with the larger world. However, as Malanson compellingly argues, most Americans misunderstood the address because of a “Jeffersonian Reconceptualiztion” of its principles. It was Thomas Jefferson’s first Inaugural Address that gave America the famous phrase “entangling [End Page 279] alliances with none,” which many began to associate with Washington’s address. In the book’s strongest section, Malanson deftly lays out how Jefferson intentionally linked the phrase to Washington to ensure not just continued neutrality but near political isolation from Europe for much of the next century.
The Farewell Address, in many ways, fell on deaf ears when it was first published, and it was read out of context long before it was mistakenly thought to include the “no entangling alliances” phrase. In 1796 news of Washington’s retirement overwhelmed any serious consideration of its maxims, and when it next emerged in the public discourse—after Washington’s death in 1799—its prescriptions were ignored in favor of deification of the Father of the Country. Jefferson could “reconceptualize” the address because it had never been properly understood.
Malanson reveals the depths to which the mistaken interpretations of the Farewell Address had permeated Americans’ thinking about foreign policy through analysis of debates on the Monroe Doctrine, participation in the Congress of Panama of 1826, and the visit of Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth in 1851. Instead of a guiding set of principles which could be interpreted according to contemporary contexts, many Americans used the Farewell Address as a cudgel against even the hint of an expanded American presence on the international stage. Figures as diverse as John Quincy Adams and Kossuth encountered fierce opposition when they dared to deviate from the Jeffersonian interpretation of the Farewell. It would take another fifty years, an industrial revolution, and a new breed of politician (characterized by Theodore Roosevelt) to break the Farewell Address’s hold on the American mind.
Addressing America is a valuable study which fills a gap in the scholarly understanding of Washington, and his long hold on the American mind and imagination. After two hundred years of biographical work it may be difficult to believe that such a space exists, but Malanson’s book demonstrates that there is still much to learn about the first president, especially regarding his place in the national [End Page 280] political and...