A Beacon of Hope: George Washington’s East End Legacy

George Washington taught us how to say goodbye
George Washington taught us how to say goodbye, Photo: iStock

It is somewhat surprising, given his singular position in the history of our nation and the fact that the man is pretty much responsible for the creation of the Montauk Lighthouse, that George Washington is not more honored, celebrated, toasted—pick whatever word you like that invokes pomp and circumstance and maybe even a few parties—here in the Hamptons, especially around his birthday. February 22 comes and goes each year, and aside from a festive parade in Greenport, there isn’t much in the way of props or shout-outs. Even beyond this holiday, George’s Lighthouse Café in Montauk is about the only business that puts his name on the marquee, offering a brilliant view of the light and the waters below and carrying the torch for this most East End of Founding Fathers.

It is well known that Washington commissioned the Montauk Lighthouse, one of our fledgling nation’s first public works projects, in 1792, and that it was begun and completed in 1796 (that a government project could be completed so quickly is certainly a point to ponder). Finally, in 2012, it was named a National Historic Landmark. Thousands upon thousands of people from all over the world visit every year, ascending its 137 steps to the top and circumnavigating the boulder-laden point below. It stands as our own Washington Monument, in a sense, a symbol of the East End, a beacon and a reminder that there are rough waters and rocky shores from which we all need warning and protection every now and then.

Montauk Point Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in New York State. Completed on November 5, 1796. The Montauk Point Lighthouse became a National Historic Landmark in 2012.
Photo: Sylvana Rega/123RF

That fateful year of 1796, the first U.S. president also decided that two terms was enough for anyone to hold that office and declined to run again, despite great outcry from myriad factions. Published in various papers—it was not actually spoken by Washington himself to an audience—and penned with help from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the address proved both powerful for the young country and prescient for the nation it would become.

In what must surely be one of the most underplayed traditions of our federal government, Washington’s farewell address—originally titled “The Address of General Washington to the People of the United States on his Declining of the Presidency of the United States”—is read, in its entirety, on the floor of the U.S. Senate every year on his birthday (or thereabouts—this year’s recitation will take place on Monday, February 24). The practice began as a salve to the strife of the Civil War in 1862, was repeated six years later on the centennial of the Constitution’s ratification, and has been an annual rite since 1896.

Each year a single senator is selected to do the honors, bringing to life the 7,641words spoken by Washington and, in theory, reminding the nation of his vision as well as fears and concerns for our future. He warned against the threat of foreign governments interfering in our affairs, of the rise of despotism and factionalism via political parties, “against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally…The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension…,” of his belief in the Constitution and the power of our unity as a people.

“The happiness of the people of these states, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete, by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will require to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation, which is yet a stranger to it.”

Perhaps next year a new tradition will emerge. On February 22, or even February 11, which was Washington’s first birthday (another tale, another time), people will gather for a reading of Washington’s farewell address beneath the shadow of the Montauk Lighthouse. A new tradition born of two lasting legacies to keep us off rocky shores, not partisan or driven by special interest, but rather “offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.”

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