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Response to Review of Addressing America: George Washington’s Farewell and the Making of National Culture, Politics, and Diplomacy, 1796-1852

I would like to thank Professor Tuffnell for his thoughtful review of Addressing America. I would also like to thank the editors of Reviews in History for the opportunity to respond. Professor Tuffnell made an important observation about the work being done by diplomatic historians that has increasingly incorporated ‘a growing and diversifying chorus of voices … engaged in the creation of foreign policy’. As I conducted the research for Addressing America I was repeatedly struck by the degree to which this chorus of voices – or at least the newspaper and pamphlet reading, George Washington birthday oration attending public – took an active interest in both the world outside the United States and the country’s relationship with it. Assessing public opinion in the antebellum period is challenging; there were no public opinion polls and most people did not leave detailed records of their thoughts on public policy questions. What we do have are editorials, pamphlets, books, and orations that invoked Washington and his principles. And while it is impossible to understand the particular motivations of each of these writers, publishers, and speakers, we can make educated generalizations: they wanted to sell publications and they wanted to influence (or at least court) public opinion. In both cases they saw the Farewell Address as a reliable way to do these things.

In his review, Professor Tuffnell wonders ‘where exactly the Farewell Address stood in the political vocabulary of US policy and opinion makers’, and offers a variety of examples of the question. The simple answer to all of these questions is all of the above. Many politicians were earnest in their support of the Farewell Address, but many others used it as an excuse to call upon the ultimate authority (George Washington) in support of their cause.(1) Annual Washington birthday celebrations and the accompanying orations were as much about habit and tradition – about celebrating America’s greatness through celebration of its preeminent citizen – as they were about a particular concern for the Farewell Address’s ideology of foreign policy. Regardless of why speakers and writers cited it, the act of citation tells us something important about what they believed their audiences felt about Washington and the Farewell Address. Politicians, writers, and speakers would not have continued to frame their arguments and orations in this manner if this approach did not resonate with their readers and listeners.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the variety of American responses to the US tour of Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth in 1851–2, which is the focus of the final chapter of Addressing America. Kossuth came to the United States to enlist Americans in support of Hungarian independence. For the United States to give this support it would have required the country to abandon its traditional, largely isolationist foreign policy in favor of much deeper engagement in the affairs of Europe. In presenting his case to the American people, Kossuth directly challenged them to give up their devotion to Washington and the principles of his Farewell Address. Kossuth believed that if he could get the United States to move past Washington, he could convince them to militarily intervene in Europe. This appeal – as well as the significant backlash Kossuth faced for making it – speaks to the idea that even outside observers recognized the degree to which, at least rhetorically, Washington and the Farewell Address remained persuasive guides for the conduct of American foreign policy. It is also telling that the lasting memory of Kossuth’s time in the United States was the resulting defense of Washington’s principles offered by the American people.

I will close by briefly addressing Professor Tuffnell’s question about the degree to which debates about the Farewell Address were ‘a sub-plot of the wider contest over the meanings of independence and how best to recapture the spirit of the Revolution’. I would argue that the history of antebellum American politics, broadly defined, can be interpreted as being part of a ‘contest’ to resolve the fundamental nature of the country and the Constitution that the Revolution birthed. Washington’s Farewell Address was one of the important battlegrounds on which this contest played out. Efforts to push back against the perceived limitations of the Farewell Address in the 1840s and 1850s suggest that at least some Americans were ready to put these contests behind them in favor of a bold new future. As the Kossuth episode revealed, though, many Americans still viewed their country, its history, and its future through the lens of Washington’s principles.

Notes

  1. I explore a particular version of this phenomenon in greater depth in “‘If I Had It in His Hand-Writing I Would Burn It’: Federalists and the authorship controversy over George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1808–1859”, Journal of the Early Republic, 34 (Summer 2014), 219–42.Back to (1)