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Presidents' Day 2013: How a Senate tradition keeps George Washington’s words alive

Every year since 1896, a senator has been selected to read George Washington’s Farewell Address during legislative session. His warnings often are pertinent.

By Correspondent / February 18, 2013

George Washington's Farewell Address, written in his own hand, is displayed at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y.

Mike Groll/AP

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No matter how Americans choose to celebrate Presidents’ Day – whether cashing in on big sales or participating in family outings – the third Monday in February was traditionally intended as a day to celebrate the birth of President George Washington and honor his legacy.

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In addition to the three-day weekend, the US Senate has its own custom for honoring America’s first president: Every year since 1896, a senator has been selected to read Washington’s Farewell Address during legislative session.

On Sept. 19, 1796, Washington proclaimed to his “Friends and Fellow-Citizens” that he intended to retire after his second term, setting the precedent for two-term limits. He also used the occasion to bestow on the nation his vision for enduring democracy.

He wrote, “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 his sweeping rhetoric, he warned of political factionalism, geographic disunity, and the dangers of interfering in international disputes.

If the past is prologue, Washington’s words certainly foretold of struggles the nation would come up against.

The annual Senate reading of the address began in 1896, but it was first read in 1862, to commemorate Washington’s 130th birthday, according to the US Senate website. During the throes of the Civil War, both chambers of Congress, Supreme Court justices, military officers, and cabinet members came together to hear the address read by Senate Secretary John W. Forney. President Abraham Lincoln did not attend because his son Willie had died just two days prior.

The Senate read the address again in 1888 to celebrate the centennial of the Constitution’s ratification.

Starting in 1896, every senator who read the address (which takes roughly 45 minutes) signed their name and wrote comments in a leather-bound book kept by the secretary of the Senate.

The early remarks were mere formalities: “Read according to custom, pursuant to a resolution adopted by the Senate and by designation of the Vice President.” 

But in the 1940s, comments became more personal, reflecting individual feelings or remarks about the politics of the day.

“Every citizen of the United States should consider it a duty to read Washington’s Farewell Address,” wrote Sen. Dennis Chavez (D) of New Mexico on Feb. 22, 1946.

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