September 17th, 2012
12:07 PM ET
(CNN) – In 1796, the idea of a world leader offering a voluntary farewell address was remarkable and rare. In a time of despotic European leaders fighting to stay in power, the thought that President George Washington would cede power – willingly – was seen as extraordinary.
But that is exactly what Washington did on September 19, 1796, when he published his "farewell address," as it came to be known, in the American Daily Advertiser, a Philadelphia publication.
In it, Washington outlined what the country should do in order to be successful and what he had learned over his 45 years in politics and public service. In particular, the first president warned Americans about the perils of political parties.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” Washington wrote. “But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
The address - which after its first publication was quickly picked up by newspapers across the country - was more than just a blueprint for the country’s success. In many ways, it was a symbol of the strength of the American democracy and an example of how power can be transferred without bloodshed and war.
“I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens,” Washington wrote at the end of his address, “the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”
The letter, which coincided with the ninth anniversary of the Constitution’s publication, was in effect a call to arms to preserve the American idea. Both in content and in symbolism, Washington’s letter validated American democracy.
According to the University of Virginia’s trove of documents about the farewell address, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury and Washington’s close confidant, helped write a great deal of the address. In his draft for Washington, Hamilton used a draft that James Madison had written for Washington in 1792 – the end of Washington’s first term.
“Throughout the preparation Washington's ideas or ‘sentiments,’ as he liked to call them, were preserved,” write historians at the University of Virginia. “Hamilton knew, as Madison had before him, that whatever he might do in reshaping, rewriting, or forming anew a draft, the results should be ‘predicated upon the Sentiments’ which Washington had indicated.”
After Hamilton sent Washington his “major draft,” the president began editing. He used Hamilton’s draft as a major influence, but Washington’s edits ensured that his final salvo was, in fact, his.
At the time of his retirement in 1796, Washington was popular and many had assumed that he would serve as president until his death. However, Washington was in poor health, and many speculated the draw of his sprawling plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia, was enticing to the aging leader.
Washington died nearly three years later, in 1799, at age 67. He is now interred at his Mount Vernon estate, along with his wife, Martha.