Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover question 86.
Q86: Which of the following is not something George Washington is famous for?
A. Being the “Father of Our Country”
B. Serving as the first president
C. Serving as the general of the Continental Army
D. Remaining president until his death
George Washington is celebrated as the “Father of our Country.” Not only was he the commanding general of the American armies during the Revolution, but he presided over the Constitutional Convention and was unanimously chosen as our first president. Washington took seriously his role as the country’s first president, recognizing it would set important precedents going forward.
As president, he took an active role in foreign policy, carefully guiding the country between factions favoring British or French positions in European wars there. By way of contrast, Washington, who believed Congress, not the president, had lawmaking power, largely deferred to Congress in the domestic realm— though he took seriously the oath to protect the Constitution in conscientiously considering whether a proposed measure was constitutional in deciding whether to sign or veto it. Washington’s cabinet included the bitterly opposed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who disagreed on many constitutional and policy issues and, to Washington’s displeasure, helped organize competing political parties around them.
A frustrated Washington contemplated retirement after his first term, but concluded his statesmanship could best stabilize a divided country, and agreed to serve a second term. But Washington famously declined to run for reelection after his second term, retiring quietly to civilian life at his farm at Mount Vernon. Washington again voluntarily handed back power, as he had once before, in resigning his military commission at the end of the Revolution. The first relinquishment of power, and Washington’s desire to serve the cause of liberty, rather than rule, reportedly led Britain’s George III to declare Washington the greatest man in the world.
Like other founders, Washington acknowledged the injustice of slavery while nevertheless participating in that unjust practice and economically benefiting from it. In 1799, the year of his death, Washington personally owned over 100 slaves, and over 300 were present at Mount Vernon. However, Washington did quietly favor the gradual abolition of slavery, and, unlike other founders such as Thomas Jefferson, he arranged to have his slaves freed and financially provided for after his and his wife’s deaths. Thus, while owning slaves throughout his life, he incorporated an anti-slavery commitment into his last will and testament.
For more on the topic of Washington and slavery, you can watch our webinar with scholar William Allen.
See also the webinar “Indelible Legacy: The Indispensable, Uncancelable Statesmanship of George Washington”, with Professor Allen and our School’s Director, Paul Carrese.
Washington’s Farewell Address is a seminal document that was once widely studied. Initially drafted by then-Congressman James Madison for Washington’s anticipated 1792 retirement, the address was heavily reworked by former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and then by Washington himself for release shortly before the conclusion of his second term. The address, while worthy of interest for its historic significance alone, nonetheless remains important for its perceptive insights on controversies that torment our contemporary politics. Many of the themes Washington presciently warned of remain sources of contention today.
For example, Washington spends considerable time on the importance of fidelity to the Constitution and rigorous obedience to its text, rather than succumbing to the temptation to decide one’s pet political issue justifies expediently disregarding it. If an issue is found with the Constitution, Washington insists that the solution is not to ignore it or usurp power, but to have the sovereign people change it through an amendment. He also speaks of the moral and religious preconditions for self-government, the dangers of “overgrown military establishments…hostile to republican liberty,” and unnecessary entanglement in foreign affairs. And, famously, he cautions that parties and partisanship, while conducive to organizing representative government, can too easily become ends in themselves in seeking power at the cost of civic-mindedness and the public good.
The goal of all that advice was to create a system of enduring and ordered liberty. This activity introduces students to his speech and the principles that guided him during his tenure as the first President of the United States.
For more on Washington’s Farewell Address, visit its entry in our Civic Classics Collection.
- Provide each student/group with an annotated and abridged copy of Washington’s Farewell Address Adapted version
- Provide each student/group with a Tweet Sheet.
- Print a copy of the answer sheet for yourself.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes an answer key.
- Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- If students are in pairs rather than groups, divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- This activity works equally well as an individual assignment. However, if you wish to have students work independently of each other, you may wish to shorten the reading.
- Provide the students with the necessary materials.
- In the interest of time, or depending on the class, you may wish to use the adapted version of the address as it is shorter and edited for clarity.
- Ask the students to imagine that they are newspaper reporters assigned to cover Washington’s Farewell Address, which he is giving today. As part of their job, they have to send out tweets sharing the speech’s highlights.
- They should read and annotate the address, then write four “tweets” that represent four major ideas that Washington espoused.
- Recommend that they focus on his advice to the people and on his ideas as they relate to the role of the president, the Constitution, political parties, checks and balances, religion, foreign relations, trade, and/or debt.
- One option is to assign each group a one or two concepts to focus on.
- Circulate throughout the room as the students complete the worksheets to check for understanding.
- Once the students complete the activity, ask the groups to read one or two of their tweets and then explain why they think that idea is important.
As Britain’s George III reportedly observed, Washington made a point not of seeking power but of serving his nation. That meant that Washington took seriously the obligation to fulfill the duties called for in the roles to which he was called: he would be a president, not a lawmaker, a leader, but not a ruler. Nor would he serve forever—even his decision to retire at the end of his second presidential term, not the end of his life, set an important precedent.
This man was the leader of the Continental Army, the president of the Constitutional Convention and the first President of the United States. He is called the “Father of Our Country.” Who is he? What did he do to earn this title, and why is it an accurate description?
As George Washington’s Farewell Address reveals, many of the concerns that exist today also existed in 1796, and many presidents have had to face similar issues. Think about what is going on in the world today—can you relate it to the concerns Washington raised in his Farewell address? What are his solutions and advice to these problems? Would this be good advice today?