Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 9, 2015

Senate Hears Washington’s Words Once Again

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Senate returned from the Presidents Day recess by reprising one of the chamber’s greatest — and perhaps most ironic — traditions.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was recognized for the annual reading of George Washington’s Farewell address. In the lengthy speech, the nation’s first president warned “against the baneful effects of the spirit of party.”

As to be expected, King was repeating Washington’s words to a largely empty chamber on a Monday afternoon before many of his colleagues had returned to the Capitol.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism,” Washington said. “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

The Senate’s had a reading of the speech annually since 1896. As the Senate Historical Office explains, each senator reading the speech leaves a note in a leather-bound book maintained by the Senate.

The reading of the speech is repeated every year pursuant to an order of the Senate.

This year’s reading of the farewell address came just hours ahead of a series of procedural votes on President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees, following a particularly partisan divide over the chamber’s rules in the aftermath of the decision by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to invoke the “nuclear” option to change the Senate’s precedents governing floor action on most nominees.

While King caucuses with the Democrats, he was elected as an independent and didn’t formally announce plans to be part of the Democratic caucus until after election. However, King’s choice of party association came as no surprise to either Democrats or Republicans.

As for the honor of presenting the address, which alternates between the two sides of the aisle, King told #WGDB before the recess that he really didn’t know why he was selected.

“I have no idea, except that occasionally Harry Reid calls me ‘professor,’ so maybe it’s my background as a, as a college professor,” King said. After leaving the governor’s mansion in Augusta, King in fact became a lecturer at Bowdoin College.

King’s a known history enthusiast, as he previously made clear on the Senate floor last year when he offered a lecture on the Battle of Gettysburg, complete with drawings.

“The leader’s office called and I jumped at the chance because I think it’s such a great document. You know who wrote it?” asked King. “Who Washington had as ghostwriters? Madison and Hamilton. Not bad.”

James Madison had initially drafted a farewell speech for Washington in 1792, which Washington used as a basis for the eventual speech. Washington asked Alexander Hamilton to revise what Washington himself drafted from what Madison had provided. The University of Virginia has an online repository of papers related to the address and the various drafts.

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