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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.

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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.

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.

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