Our First President's Warning to the Nation
On February 22, our nation will once again honor the 46 esteemed individuals who hold the title and distinction of President of the United States of America.
Many Americans may not realize that the federal holiday tethered to a long weekend was never officially named Presidents' Day. Instead, "George Washington Day" began as a way to honor our nation's first president on his birthday. States like Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, and New York still recognize the day by this title.
In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act pivoted what had been a day to remember Washington into a celebration for the presidency in general. And thanks to advertising campaigns for holiday sales, the term "Presidents' Day" became popularized and largely accepted.
One of the longest-running yet little-known traditions in our nation is reading George Washington's 1796 Farewell Address in the United States Senate chamber to celebrate this day.
More than just announcing he wasn't running for a third term in office, Washington's words served as an inspiration and warning to a nation struggling to preserve its union. In today's divisive political atmosphere, senators and Americans would do well to take heed of his letter addressed to "friends and fellow-citizens."
In 1862, Tennessee Senator (and future president) Andrew Johnson addressed the Senate, stating, "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." Thus began the long tradition of reading Washington's Address as a way to strengthen a nation divided by civil war. In the same year, President Abraham Lincoln instituted public readings of the "immortal Farewell Address" as a way to celebrate Washington's birthday.
By 1896, reading the document became an annual tradition in the Senate on or around Washington's Birthday, with the two political parties reading its contents on alternating years. The public delivery takes about 45 minutes. After each reading, the appointed senator signs a leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate, often adding personal comments and reflections on Washington's poignant words.
What is the significance of this Farewell Address? At 64 years old and suffering from physical and political strain, our nation's Founding Father decided he would not seek a third term in the nation's highest office. On September 19, 1796, instead of addressing Congress, Washington delivered his news to the American people through the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser, which later spread through various papers around the country.
It quickly became the most notable address in the nation. According to John Avlon, the letter was more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence for the first 150 years of our republic.
I imagine that behind his letter to a nation was a longing for an indivisible fraction, only divided by state lines. Throughout his address, Washington stressed the need for unity and warned that a grave threat to the union would be the formation of political parties.
He believed unity of government and people was key to the country's survival, saying, "The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth…"
Washington recognized, and we at My Faith Votes are keenly aware, that faith is the central foundation of this sacred unity and our best hope for the nation.
Washington reminded the American people of the importance of religion and morality for our society, writing that not even education should replace religion, "Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
He urgently reminded a young America that "Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, un-intrusive." He continued, "a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith."
As we honor those who have served in America's highest office, may we reflect on the words from our first president and choose to stand for what is foundational to our nation. Politicians and citizens should cherish faith as it is critically important to personal and national well-being. May we heed Washington's warning and remember that faith makes essential contributions to the strength and freedom of our nation.
My Faith Votes—is a nonpartisan movement that motivates, equips and activates Christians in America to vote in every election, transforming our communities and influencing our nation with biblical truth. By partnering with national faith leaders, My Faith Votes provides resources to help Christians Pray, Think, and Act to create an America where God is honored in the public square.