Perhaps in preparation for his own departure from elected office, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) will commemorate George Washington’s birthday by reading his 1796 Farewell Address in the Senate chamber today.
Written by Alexander Hamilton and printed in newspapers just before Washington’s departure from office, the address warned of the perils that lay ahead for the young nation while also expressing hope in the promise America possessed.
“Washington never actually gave the speech. People didn’t give big public speeches then and he was very uncomfortable giving them. His inaugural address was fairly short, and his hands shook while he gave it,” said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
“Most presidents that have served two terms have given some form of farewell speech,” Ritchie added.
According to the Senate Historical Office, 1,000 citizens of Philadelphia petitioned Congress in January 1862, urging a commemoration of the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth with a reading of the address, “on the morning of that day in one or the other of the Houses of Congress.”
The goal of the reading was to boost the nation’s morale as the country remained embroiled in the Civil War. Secretary of the Senate John Forney delivered the address in the House chamber with all of Congress, the Supreme Court and members of President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet in attendance.
Sen. Andrew Johnson, who introduced the petition into the Senate, said at the time, “In the 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.”
In 1893, the practice became an annual Senatorial event, with leaders selecting one Member to read the 7,641-word address in legislative session. Each year, the parties alternate picking a Senator to give the address.
According to Ritchie, leaders often select someone who is going to retire. Breaux, a three-term Senator, has announced that he will not seek re-election in November. He could not be reached for comment.
In past years, Members of the Senate who read the address include the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who read it last year.