WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("Go: Washington") as Commander-in-Chief, Continental Army, to Governor [William] Livingston, (1723-1790), the text in the hand of David Cobb, Washington's aide-de-camp, Head Quarters, Newburgh [New York], 12 June 1783. 23 pp., folio (12 7/8 x 7 15/16 in.), the sheets originally sewn together, with three small binding holes in left-hand margin, minor browning at edges and folds, neat repairs or silking to short marginal tears or fraying at extreme edges, penultimate leaf with small marginal patch, last leaf reinforced along one fold and with upper right-hand corner torn away with loss of two words ("nation" and "be" in Washington's final sentence). A full transcript of the letter is available on request.
[With:] WASHINGTON. The Last Official Address of his Excellency General Washington. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1783. 8vo, 48pp., stabbed and sewn, uncut as issued, minor fraying to margins; half morocco slipcase. Evans 18259; Sabin 101533.
WASHINGTON'S FIRST FAREWELL ADDRESS, THE "CIRCULAR TO THE STATES"
AT THE END OF THE WAR, WITH THE UNITED STATES NOW "POSSESSED OF ABSOLUTE FREEDOM AND INDEPENDENCY," WASHINGTON SPELLS OUT THE PRINCIPLES ESSENTIAL TO THE NEW NATION'S FUTURE EXISTENCE, BIDS "A LAST FAREWELL TO THE CARES OF OFFICE, AND ALL OF THE EMPLOYMENTS OF PUBLIC LIFE," AND PROPHESIES THAT "WITH OUR FATE WILL THE DESTINY OF UNBORN MILLIONS BE INVOLVED"
One of thirteen official secretarial manuscripts, signed by Washington, of Washington's first farewell address, the so-called Circular to the States. Although (like the later Farewell Address), it was never delivered as a speech, this historic letter marked Washington's retirement as Commander-in-Chief on the eve of the signing of the Treaty of Paris that confirmed the independence of the new nation after seven long years of warfare. This lengthy, thoughtful, and at times almost visionary communication ranks in importance with the 1796 Farwell Address, and undoubtedly constitutes one of the most significant of all Washington's public statements on his nation's inception, its promise and its future. With an outspokenness which he rarely allowed himself in later life, Washington carefully sets out what he believes to be the critical issues facing the newly independent republic, warns against a panoply of pitfalls it must avoid, and admonishes his fellow citizens to observe four critical principles which he conceives to be essential to the very "existence of the United States as an independent power."
"The great object for which I had the honor to hold an appointment in the Service of my Country being accomplished, I am now preparing to resign it into the hands of Congress, and to return to that domestic retirement which it is well known I left with the greatest reluctance; a retirement for which I have never ceased to sigh, through a long and painfull absence; and in which...I meditate to pass the remainder of my life, in a state of undisturbed repose. But before I carry this resolution into effect, I think it a duty incumbent upon me, to make this my last official communication, to congratulate you on the glorious events which Heaven has been pleased to produce in our favor, to offer some important sentiments which appear to me to be intimately connected with the tranquility of the United States, to take my leave...as a public character, and to give my final blessing to that country in whose servivc I have spent the prime of my life, for whose sake I have consumed so many anxious days and watchfull nights, and whose happiness being extremely dear to me, will always constitute no inconsiderable part of my own..."
"The citizens of America, placed in the most enviable conditions, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various solid and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity; Here, they are not only surrounded with everything which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment, but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other Nation has ever been favored with." Politics, naturally, becomes the subject of Washington's next paragraph: "Nothing can illustrated the observations more forcibly, than a recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our Republic assumed its rank among the Nations; The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoche when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period; the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent; the Treasures of knowledge, acquired through a succession of years, by the labours of the Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure an benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence upon mankind and increased the blessings of Society."
"At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own." As one recent historian, writes "this unexpected rebuke "is one of the most sobering moments in any major American speech-even more sobering than the bleak mysticism of Lincoln's Second Inaugural. Washington is saying that America's political success is problematic" (Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father, p.189).
"...Notwithstanding the cup of blessing is thus reached out to us" and "happiness is ours if we have a disposition to seize the occasion & make it our own," still, he cautions, America might yet take quite another path in the future; this remains "their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a Nation. This is the time of their political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the world are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national character for ever, this is the favorable moment to give such tone to our Federal Government as will enable it to answer the needs of its institution; or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European Politics...." For, he warns, "according to the System of Policy [form of government] the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall, and by their confirmation or lapse is it yet to be decided, whether the revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse or confirmation, not to the present ago alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved."
He declares his intention to "speak the language of freedom and of sincerity without disguise," though some "who differ from me in political sentiment may perhaps remark, I am stepping out of the proper line of my duty." Then, he spells out "four things which I humbly conceive are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power:
1st An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head
2d. A sacred regard to Public Justice
3d. The adoption of a proper Peace establishment, and
4th. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community."
"These," he emphasizes "are the Pillars on which the glorious fabrick of our Independency and National Character must be supported; -- Liberty is the basis..." Washington then proceeds to elucidate each of these principles, paying particular attention to the first. Some of his statements in this section, particularly those dealing with the balance between Federal and state powers, have an almost prophetic ring:
"...Unless the States will suffer Congress to exercise those prerogatives they are undoubtedly invested with by the Constitution [the Articles of Confederation], every thing must very rapidly tend to anarchy and confusion...There must be a faithfull and pointed compliance on the part of every State with the late proposals and demands of Congress, or the most fatal consequences will ensue." And, " whatever measures have a tendency to dissolve the Union, or contribute to the violate or lessen the Sovereign authority, ought to be considered as hostile to the Liberty and Independency of America, and the authors of them treated accordingly...." For, he states unequivocally, "without an entire conformity to the spirit of the Union, we cannot exist as an Independent power...."
He goes on to treat of the public justice and his certainty that the nation will prosper: "let an attention to the chearfull [sic] performance of their proper business as Individuals and as members of society, be earnestly inculcated on the Citizens of America,-- then will they strengthen the hands of Government and be happy under its protection: every one will reap the fruit of his Labours..." Therefore, "in this state of absolute freedom and perfect security, who," he asks, "will grudge to yield a very little of his property to support the common interests of society, and ensure the protection of Government?...." Having recently dealt with the crisis of a near mutiny by his unpaid officers, Washington takes the occasion of his farewell to pointedly remind the nation of its outstanding debt to those who served during the late war, many of whom are owed back pay and pensions, which, he says constitute "the price of their blood and of your Independency."
"I have thus freely disclosed what I wished to make known, before I surrendered up my public trust to those who committed it to me. The task is now accomplished. I now bid adieu to your Excellency...at the same time I bid a last farewell to the cares of office and all the employments of public life." Washington concludes with a gracious prayer that God will "incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government" and "be pleased to dispose us all to do Justice, to love mercy" and to practice "charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind...."
With this address, Washington resigned the commission bestowed upon him by Congress in 1775 to become again a citizen among citizens who, it is certain, could not conceive the central role he was still to play in his nation's future evolution. In his measured, carefully crafted address, Washington makes it clear that, with his retirement, the solemn responsibility for the continuing and future success of the American republican experiment rests upon the collective shoulders of his countrymen: "he believed that his task as founder and father was done. It turned out to be less than half done. But even when it was finished it was only all that he could do. The rest was up to the 'Citizens of America'; is up to us" (Brookhiser, p.190).
Of the thirteen copies of the Circular to the States, variously dated between June 8 and 21.
Published in Fitzpatrick, 26:483-496.
Provenance: "A New York Private Collector" (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 9 April 1980, lot 57, $55,000).