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.
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In 1949, Sen. Margaret Smith (R) of Maine – the first woman elected to both houses of Congress and the first woman selected to read the address – speculated on how Washington would react to the formation of NATO, seeing as how he advised the US to take an isolationist approach to foreign policy.Skip to next paragraph
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“As I read this I wondered what our first President would think if he were alive today,” she wrote on Feb. 22, 1949. “Would he condemn the prepared North Atlantic Pact as an entangling alliance? The objective is the same today – freedom. The only difference is the way to obtain that freedom.”
“In these days, when troubles of the mind and the conscience are multiplying, as we tend to turn more to the material and less to the spiritual for the solutions to them, it is correct that Americans pause to remember their basic sources of strength – these sources are carefully outlined in the documents left to us by these wise men who, thru God, created our republic,” he wrote on Feb. 22, 1957.
“At this time when our nation and her people have suffered, we must remember that our freedoms are not free,” he wrote on Feb. 25, 2002. “Like Washington and his fellow citizens, we must work for this freedom, and sadly, some will die defending them. Most importantly, we must stay united in the pursuit of freedom.”
What inspiration will the 113th Congress garner from Washington’s farewell address?
That might depend on who shows up to listen to the “sagacious words,” as Sen. Floyd Bentsen Texas called them in 1972.
The tradition has become mostly a formality. During last year’s reading by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire, hardly anyone showed up to listen. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut listened from the dais, acting as Senate president pro tempore, while about 20 pages fidgeted in their chairs.
After the Senate comes back from recess on Feb. 25, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire will deliver the address – the first time women have consecutively delivered the address.
In the age of partisan gridlock, Washington’s warnings of party extremism as a “spirit not to be encouraged” still ring true:
“And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.”