No Senate tradition has been more steadfastly maintained than the annual reading of President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address. In this letter to “Friends and Citizens,” Washington warned that the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation's domestic affairs threatened the stability of the republic. He urged Americans to subordinate sectional jealousies to common national interests.
The Senate tradition of reading the address aloud in the Chamber began on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War. Citizens of Philadelphia had petitioned Congress to commemorate the forthcoming 130th anniversary of Washington's birth by reading the address at a joint session of both houses. On that day, members of the Senate proceeded through the Capitol to the House Chamber to hear the address read by Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney. Early in 1888—the centennial year of the Constitution’s ratification—the Senate recalled the ceremony of 1862 and had its presiding officer read the address on February 22. Within a few years, the Senate made the practice an annual event.
Every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington's birthday by selecting one of its members, alternating parties, to read the 7,641-word statement in legislative session.
At the conclusion of each reading, the appointed senator inscribes his or her name and brief remarks in a black, leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate. The book's first entry, dated February 22, 1900, bears the signature of Ohio Republican Joseph Foraker. Early entries in the notebook were typically brief explanations of the practice, accompanied by signature and date. Often, several entries appeared on a single page. In more recent years, entries have grown more elaborate and have included personal stories or comments on contemporary politics and policy. In 1956 Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey wrote that every American should study this memorable message. “It gives one a renewed sense of pride in our republic,” he wrote. “It arouses the wholesome and creative emotions of patriotism and love of country.”