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Senate's annual reading of Washington farewell address: wisdom for ages

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(Read caption) Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of George Washington

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Quiz time! Which venerated American document other than the Constitution will be read aloud in its entirety in Congress this year?

You probably heard about the Constitution’s audiobook moment. The Republican-controlled House listened to the whole thing on Jan. 6, the second day of the current session. Members of both parties took turns reading lines, so it ended up as kind of a bipartisan activity.

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But you may not know this: Every year near the end of February the Senate holds a reading of President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address to the People of the United States. Today the Senate will read the letter in which the most Founding Father of all announced that he had had it and was not going to be president for a third term, no how, now way.

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The grind of keeping the young country together had worn him down. “The shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome,” Washington wrote, somewhat darkly.

Washington intended his address to guide future generations of US citizens. He warned against the divisive nature of sectional rivalries and political factionalism, among other things.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension…is itself a frightful despotism,” wrote Washington.

(Keep in mind this was prior to the formation of stable US political parties, and Washington was all about the need for national unity. Still, those are pretty tough words.)

The Senate tradition of reading Washington’s words began as a morale-boosting measure on Feb. 22, 1862, during the dark days of the Civil War. By the late 1800s, it was a permanent event. A senator has read the 7,600-word address aloud in legislative session every year since 1896. Among those who have shouldered this duty are Henry Cabot Lodge, Prescott Bush (George W.’s grandfather), Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, John McCain, and Barry Goldwater. Democrats and Republicans alternate.

One person who never read the address aloud was its author, as Washington’s Farewell Address was delivered by being published in newspapers.