Happy Birthday, Mr. President

canstockphoto9431967It has been a tradition since the Civil War for one or both houses of Congress to read George Washington’s Farewell Address on the anniversary of his birthday. I sat down last night and read it. Since I have a 3rd grader for whom every holiday is the bliss of no school, I seek to squash that joy by talking over the meaning of the day – especially since half the time, I haven’t a clue. It’s an opportunity for me to learn what I missed in social studies all those years ago, while I secretly read The Boxcar Children underneath my desk lid.

I would have posted a rousing rendition of me singing Happy Birthday to President Washington while draped over a baby grand piano, but the song is copyrighted until 2030. It would technically be illegal for me to post a performance in his honor and it would have been an awkward party moment, as Washington signed the very first U.S. Copyright Law in 1790.

As I read through his farewell address, I imagined a contemporary politician giving this speech. There would have been a lot of eye-rolling by the audience and at a length of 6,087 words, a lot more water-sipping. As a service to my readers, here’s what Washington has to say, paraphrased:

Dear Fellow Americans:

It’s been a great honor to serve, but I am retiring. Before I go, I’m going to give you some advice. (900 words. He was a wordy fellow.)

Unified government is necessary for true independence. This alone should justify you paying attention and protecting the institution.

The fact that you are American should make you proud, regardless of religion, political principles, geographical identifiers. As Americans, you share common dangers, worries and successes.

Putting party and geographical interests over the interests of the people is a matter of serious concern. This is why we have a Constitution, to protect us against the alliances and influences of particular interests. 

We must not be distracted by the machinations of party and faction fighting. It is in our interest to discourage and restrain these antics. These behaviors may also open the door to foreign influence and corruption.

The separation of power is crucially important and the constitutional spheres of influence should not overlap.

Political and commercial favoritism of any foreign nation over another and currying favors in exchange, places our independence in jeopardy.

If I made any mistakes unintentionally injurious to this great nation, I am sorry.

I am looking forward to retirement.

Sometimes he who said it first, said it best. Pay attention to the words of President Washington, politicians. The American people would like to see some restraint and egalitarian representation of American interests at home and abroad. And a little humility wouldn’t hurt, either. Happy Birthday, Mr. President – and thank you.

32 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Mr. President

  1. Indeed! A good reminder. I love that you talk to your daughter about the significance of each holiday, by the way. It’s something we should all do. Not just for the children, but for ourselves.


    1. Kids tend to ask questions and it’s always a little embarrassing as an adult to realize you have no idea. I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to be ahead of the questions or when she asks, we do the research together to find answers. I love being constantly in pursuit of knowledge!


  2. This was educational for me. I’m sorry to say I don’t actually know much about American history…I know of the colonial times, Native Americans, you weren’t big fans of us red coats, that kind of thing…I wouldn’t say I was clueless just that I have a very basic cliff notes version of it. So I’m always intrigued to hear more about it. I enjoyed your shortened version of his speech, I’d probably have got fed up halfway through 6000 words and wandered off for a cuppa…!


    1. As an American, I feel occasionally shamed by my lack of knowledge about even basic American history. So often, when I talk to people from other countries, they know their history, their literature, their artists, their composers, etc. As I’ve gotten older and become a parent, it has become important to me to know and understand our history.


      1. Sorry to crash your comment stream, but it’s been my experience that most foreigners know more about Amrecian government and history that the typical Amreican.

        As for that low whirring sound, it’s none other than George Washington, spinning in his grave.


        1. I think that’s true, but easily remedied with a little independent study! There are certainly wonderful resources available on and offline. I’ve been reading more history books over the last few years. For a young country, there is a lot to learn. The challenge of being a ‘melting pot’ is that there are unlimited perspectives through which to see our history and new ones are being written every day.


        2. No one is more grateful to cultural distractions than our politicians, as they prepare to drive us over the proverbial cliff with their posturing.
          That sounds like a great satirical post “American Idle” – politicians competing against each other for being the most talented pandering double-talkers. And then we could vote their corrupted butts home.


  3. My, are we in trouble. We’ve broken just about every one of Washington’s “rules.” I was at the huge climate rally in D.C. yesterday, pondering how we got this screwed up, where we would slash a 1,000-mile pipeline across some of our last wild places to run tar sands – at the behest of another country, Canada – down to our Gulf Coast to export somewhere else so that they can burn it and introduce more carbon into the atmosphere. Imagine if instead of “currying favor” with another government and giving tax subsidies to the oil companies, we were to invest in clean energy sources here at home. But I fear we won’t. We have wandered too far off course. Even Presdient Obama, who is a smart man and, I think, a generally ethical man, can’t resist the forces that have slowly broken our government.

    Oh well, the rally was fun anyway. Think I’ll go shoe shopping or something, like a real American. Because if our economy isn’t growing faster than anyone else’s, then who are we and what do we stand for, really?

    Thanks for confirming my suspicions – we really, really, broke this.


    1. I feel like the system has become a corrupting influence. No matter how intelligent and ethical a congressional representative, they quickly become immersed in middle school hallway infighting. Two minutes into their term, they start campaigning for fear that they won’t have enough money to retain their seat. Campaign finance reform has been as effective as gun control measures – so shot full of loopholes as to have no teeth at all, but eats up public debate and distracts us from what is being done with the other hand (usually involving pockets).

      But the hope is us. You went to a rally in DC. I’m teaching my daughter history and I vote and I pay attention to the issues. When overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, we still take steps forward and that is how we the people make a difference – by not being apathetic. It’s the only way to come out on the positive side of this problem.


      1. I suppose so. I get so cynical, it’s hard to stay motivated.
        Especially when finding out that while I’m marching around the White House protesting inaction on climate change, Obama is playing golf in Florida w/ oil industry execs.
        Thanks for the pep talk. I will try to stay engaged. Sometimes I fear that writing is just a way to “hide” – it doesn’t really make any difference, and it means I don’t have to take any real action.
        Just tired tonight, I think.
        I’ll have my superwoman costume back on in the morning.


  4. Michelle, this is a great reminder to our politicians AND the public. We, the public, need to pay more attention for sure. And I love the way you have translated Washington’s words into “modernese.” Maybe if Congress read YOUR version, they might actually get it. Lord knows, they don’t seem to understand the original at all.


    1. It’s a great reminder to me that while we complain and gripe and wring our hands at the goings-on in Washington D.C., the idea of our government was a noble and honorable one and that a great deal has been done to ensure its existence. It is an appreciation that only the knowledge of history can provide and shows how narrow our vision as a nation has gotten.


  5. I think this was spot on! So timely since my country is headed up for another election. We tend to just put the blame on the politician and the system but we forget that we are so much part of the whole thing. Our tolerance of things done wrong contributes so much to what we want to change.


  6. Lots of words – but he did show us how it was done – didn’t he? – Moving on and passing the torch. Reading some of his writings he experienced the same division and gridlock during his administration. Maybe it’s just the American way to take sides and reminisce that things were once so much more harmonic. BTW – I saw the coolest life-size George Washington Bobble Head in Atlanta – I need to write a moderately thoughtful most about it. Happy President’s Day.


    1. Life-sized bobbleheads?! It needs to be a movie: “Attack of the Bobbleheads!”

      One of my favorite biographies is John Adams by David McCullough. It was interesting, if not a little surprising to read about all the petty rivalries and infighting that went on, just to get the Declaration of Independence signed. I found it refreshing and even more impressive to know that despite all the differences, they managed to pound out this amazing document.


      1. I read that Washington kept journals from the time he started surveying – he always knew that he would be a man of importance. I have read that Adams bio too – it really is remarkable that we need up as one country.

        The bobble was amazing – over six feet tall, just like George. Interesting tribute to the father of our country and possible inspiration for a horror movie – who could ask for more.


  7. So I’m reading “Washington’s” words thinking…. hey, waaaait a minute…. and only then noticed the word “paraphrased.” Ah, ha! One of those little details that matters! 😀


  8. Well paraphrased! George Washington would be disappointed in our current politicians. But in truth, Americans have flagrantly ignored his advice throughout. We’ve fought over federalism, fiscal policy and slavery from the beginning. During the Civil War, we gave in entirely to bloody regionalism and partisanship. After 1865, we tried to paper over our continued internal divisions for nearly a century (from Reconstruction to the beginning of the Civil Right era). We did that by diverting our attention to one foreign entanglement (read, war) after another. From the 1960s to now we’ve had escalating internal divisions over race, class, taxing, spending, war and peace. Amazing that we’ve survived this long.


    1. I’m not sure I did him justice on the paraphrasing, but he certainly envisioned the problems this kind of government would encounter. It’s no coincidence that the residents of Philadelphia petitioned that Congress recognize his birthday in the middle of the Civil War. Sometimes we voters can get things right and get things done. I remain optimistic about our country, John, but I wish more attention were paid to the great minds of this country on these subjects, and not to the talking heads we are so frequently burdened with, in the form of pundits and politicians.


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