WASHINGTON –Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, participated in a congressional tradition that dates back more than a century on Monday when he was given the chance to recite President George Washington’s 1796 farewell address.

Each year since 1896 – as well as more sporadically before then – one senator has been selected to read Washington’s lengthy address on the Senate floor. Monday’s recitation was especially poignant for King, a history lover who often peppers his speeches with quotes from past political leaders.

King also read the speech nearly 50 years to the day when it was last read by a Maine senator, the late Edmund Muskie. It took King roughly 49 minutes to read the entire speech (to a mostly empty Senate chamber, as is common during floor speeches). 

Washington used his farewell address to explain why he was declining to seek another term as president, to defend his administration’s record and to warn the young country about perils – both foreign and domestic – that he saw ahead. He never publicly delivered the speech; instead, it was published in newspapers starting on Sept. 19, 1796.

To read the full speech, click here.

Washington warned against the concentration of power; regional factionalism that often led to civil war in other countries (and would engulf this country 65 years later); and political parties that he said only feed tensions and competitions that undermine the unity of the nation.

An isolationist, the first president also cautioned against forming alliances with other countries, or as he put it “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.”

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connections as possible,” Washington wrote. “So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

Of course, today the U.S. is the world’s greatest military and economic power with a global reach. And the country obviously didn’t follow its first leader’s advice on working together and avoiding political parties or factionalism.

Afterward, King said Washington wasn’t talking to an audience in 1796 but about human nature and that the concerns he raised then could help lawmakers sort through issues today. King pointed out that Washington talked about the importance of public education, the dangers of political factionalism and about the problems of amassing public debts.

“This speech is so powerful because it is so fresh,” King said. “It talks and speaks to us today.”

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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