In January 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, residents of Philadelphia asked Congress to read George Washington’s Farewell Address to commemorate his 130th birthday. A Senator from Tennessee, Andrew Johnson, brought the following petition before the Senate:
"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."
In response, Senators agreed to a reading of Washington’s Farewell Address to a joint session of Congress on February 22, 1862. The House of Representatives was full as the Senators and Congressmen were joined by President Lincoln’s cabinet, members of the Supreme Court, and military officers in full uniform.
The ceremony was repeated in the Senate Chambers in 1888 which was the centennial year of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In 1896 and every year since, the 7,641 words are read aloud on the floor of the Senate on Washington’s birthday. This is one of the most fiercely protected traditions in the Senate.
Washington’s farewell and advice to his beloved nation has survived the test of time and is as relevant today as when first spoken.
- He warned against partisan political factions and geographical sectionalism which could threaten the unity and even survival of the country.
- He stressed the importance of guarding the Constitution which protects our God-given rights.
- He admonished his countrymen to preserve the separation of powers in the three branches of government and warned that when one branch encroaches on the powers of another it can lead to despotism.
- He warned against foreign entanglements and influence in domestic affairs.
Washington could not imagine that his words would be read on the floor of the Senate annually for over 125 years. He wrote in his speech:
“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.”