U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

March 2, 2024

Washington’s Warnings

Dear Fellow Marylanders,

This week, as the Senate returned from its state work period for the Presidents Day holiday, I had the honor of reading President George Washington’s Farewell Address to the Nation. This annual reading from the Senate floor is a tradition started in the late 1890s.

Over the course of those 130 years or so, I am only the sixth Marylander to participate in this ritual invocation of one of our great Founding Fathers. It was a different experience than any of the countless speeches that I have delivered in my three terms in the Senate. I felt a true sense of connection to history and its enduring relevance to our present times as I gave voice to Washington’s words.

As our first president, George Washington understood that what he did and said would set precedent and serve as a marker for future times. He also understood that he was human and far from perfect, as were other Americans, but if we as a nation could stay united, and honor the established laws that were guided by our values, we would be on a path to greatness.

“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”

But Washington also warned us that our new union and new form of government would be under constant attack and that forces both external and internal would seek to lead us astray.

“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… it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness.”

Washington’s Farewell Address to the Nation is a bit of a misnomer. It was never read as a speech by Washington. In 1796, at Washington’s request, his letter “To the People of the United States” was published in the Philadelphia-based Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser newspaper.

As I was preparing for the reading, I dove into the history a bit. President Washington first tasked James Madison with preparing a first draft in 1792. Madison, who would later go on to be our fourth president, had drafted Washington’s first inaugural address, along with other major speeches, so it was not out of the ordinary for Washington to ask him to take on such a sensitive assignment.

Washington intended only to serve one term of office. But the country needed him, and Madison’s first draft was tucked away.

Four years later, Madison’s and Washington’s relationship was in tatters, so Washington turned to Alexander Hamilton to develop a fresh draft. Hamilton borrowed a few parts from Madison – the opening lines of the two versions are very similar – but the result is pure Hamilton, with Washington’s own imprint throughout the text.

“[A] solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.”

In addition to setting a standard for serving only two terms of office, Washington’s Farewell Address is cited most frequently for his warnings about expanding foreign alliances beyond those in place at the founding of our nation.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world—so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it—for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements (I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy)—I repeat it therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense.”

I would counter that the modern day myth that has turned Washington’s words into a rallying cry for isolationists is built on the forgotten history that every European country at the time of the founding of our republic was authoritarian. Most were ruled by monarchs with their own personal ambitions and rivalries. That said, Washington made clear that we must honor our commitments to allies.

In Washington’s time, the United States of America, with its freedoms and elections, was a global exception. In today’s world, important alliances are among like governments – free nations with democratically elected governments – that are under constant attack from authoritarian and despotic regimes. Without hyperbole, unity is essential for the global survival of democracy and freedom itself.

Washington also was greatly concerns by domestic discord and he spent considerable ink at the beginning of his letter cautioning against regional conflicts that could tear the country apart if not tempered. North and South, as well as East (Atlantic) and West. He also was no fan of parties or factions that tried to subvert the law.

“They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

President Washington relayed these words, and more, to the American people with all his heart, based on his experiences and a love for our nascent county for which he knew had the potential for greatness. He recognized his own imperfection as a human being as well as the vulnerability of America to discord and disunity. In the face of our challenges and divisions, however, we have come together as Americans time and again to renew the spirit of community and the promise of a future based on what Washington called “the benign influence of good laws under a free government.”

During these polarized and turbulent political times, George Washington’s heartfelt words are an enduring reminder to join together in defense of freedom and democracy and continue working towards an America that lives up to its highest ideals. Let us make George Washington proud.

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this letter or any other issue. I appreciate hearing from you.


Ben Cardin