Most students don’t know this, but until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1947, there were no term limits for Presidents of the United States. Yep, we could have had 16 years of President Chester A. Arthur, folks. (The 21st president and the first to legally drink on the job. Joke.) When the U.S. began, certain rules were outlined in the Constitution, but many others we now take for granted were not. So let us all take a moment to thank George Washington for being humble, intelligent, and so frickin’ tired of working that “the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”
Washington loved “the people,” and we are the decedents of those people; if not by blood, than by the “love of liberty” beating with every “ligament of your hearts.” Like any good father, he worried about the future of the nation he helped birth. His Farewell Address is only briefly about his own retirement and his own service; mainly, it is a warning. It’s the dad in the driveway shouting “Watch out for black ice!” as his daughter drives away to college.
Teachers and parents share the goal of trying to prepare students for their adulthood. Though the conversation is dominated by talk of academic success, there are other elements to preparing someone for adulthood. Teaching students to be active, engaged, and knowledgeable citizens strikes me as incredibly important.To that end, we can use Washington’s Farewell Address to achieve a number of goals:
- Develop students’ reading skills of complex, pre-20th century texts
- Develop students’ abilities to analyze rhetorical argument
- Develop students’ abilities to understand the relationships between subject, author, occasion, purpose, speaker, and tone
- Deepen knowledge of American history and significant American texts
[highlight]This lesson[/highlight] was created with the high school English classroom in mind. However, collaboration between an English and Social Studies teacher would no doubt allow for more depth of thought and discussion. If time is an issue (If! HA!), there is an excellent pared-down version of the speech in Caroline Kennedy’s great collection, A Patriot’s Handbook. I also highly recommend reading the Prologue of Francois Furstenberg’s book In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, which focuses entirely on the creation of the Farewell Address. (Fun fact: the Senate has been reading his address aloud on his birthday every year since 1896.)
You can download the lesson as a PDF, which also includes a copy of the address with room for students’ annotations. Finally, if you would like to see my annotated copy of the speech with notes and anticipated student stumbling blocks, send me a tweet.
On his birthday, as his present, and as a gesture to all the presidents we honor on President’s Day, let us honor his memory and service by sharing his words with our students. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Thanks for lookin’ out.
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