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His birthday is over, but Senate remembers George Washington

Just when it looked like the father of our country was getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment -- his birthday isn’t celebrated on its actual day anymore, and, some say, it’s become more a celebration of sales than of the first president’s contributions -- the Senate paid its respects to George Washington on Monday with the annual reading of his farewell address.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) took to the Senate floor to recite Washington’s 1796 address cautioning against “common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party,” and warning against the entanglements of permanent foreign alliances.

The reading of Washington’s farewell address is a tradition that dates back to 1862, beginning as a way to boost morale during the Civil War. In the first reading, Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney read the address before a packed chamber, according to the Senate historian.

The practice has continued in the Senate, a chamber so steeped in tradition that brass spittoons can still be found there.

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But the chamber was largely empty Monday.

The Senate selects one of its members, alternating between parties, to read the 7,641-word address. Doing so typically takes about 45 minutes; Florida’s Sen. Paula Hawkins whipped through it in 1985 in a record-setting 39 minutes. West Virginia’s Sen. Jennings Randolph in 1962 took the longest amount of time -- 68 minutes.

The reading comes as a House committee this week holds a hearing titled “Honoring George Washington’s Legacy: Does America Need a Reminder?” The focus of the hearing is a bill that would reestablish Feb. 22 -- instead of the third Monday in February -- as the official federal holiday honoring the father of our country.

Senate Historian Don Ritchie recalled that Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) in 1979 hitched a ride on a tractor during a snowstorm to get from Georgetown to the Capitol to deliver the address.

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“If George Washington could make it through Valley Forge,” Warner said at the time, “a freshman senator from his state could tread the path from the Port of Georgetown.”

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