Tonight, President Obama will deliver a farewell address to the American people in Chicago, exactly one month shy of a decade after he announced his candidacy for president as a freshman senator from Illinois. By taking the opportunity to deliver a valedictory address to the nation as he leaves office, Obama is following a tradition that goes all the way back to George Washington, whose written message announcing his intention to step down from the presidency in 1796 still stands as the most famous presidential farewell in the nation’s history.
Undoubtedly the most famous of all presidential farewells was also the first: George Washington’s address to the American people announcing his intention to step down from the presidency after two terms in office. The 32-page address, originally published in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796, opened by explaining his rationale for leaving the presidency, despite pressure from the public and others in government to seek a third term in office. Washington went on to express some principles he believed should guide the growing nation in the future, including unity, patriotism and neutrality.
James Madison had drafted an earlier version of the address four years earlier, when Washington considered stepping down after his first term. It was Alexander Hamilton who wrote the majority of the final version, however, Washington adjusted it making sure to express his own ideas. He warned against the influence of foreign powers, cautioning the United States “to steer clear of permanent Alliances” that might not serve its interests. In effect, this strict neutrality stance amounted to an anti-French position, as it contradicted an earlier treaty of mutual support between the United States and France. Washington also memorably warned of the dangers of sectionalism and factionalism, the divisions based on party politics that even then were growing more and more bitter within the new nation’s government and among its people. His fears of increasing partisan divisions would come to pass (and then some) in the centuries to come, ensuring that his parting words to the nation continue to resonate today.
Washington’s shadow loomed so large that no succeeding chief executive dared to follow his example and deliver a formal farewell address to the nation—until Andrew Jackson. At some 8,247 words, Jackson’s message stands as the longest presidential farewell in history. Despite the fact that “our country has improved and is flourishing beyond any former example in the history of nations,” Jackson warned of the growing dangers of sectionalism and of a shadowy “money power,” represented by banks and corporations, that threatened the liberties of ordinary citizens.
In the modern era, as radio and television made it possible for the president to address the nation more directly and immediately, the frequency of the farewell address increased greatly. Harry Truman, who revived the tradition, was the first president whose remarks were broadcast from the Oval Office. On January 15, 1953, Truman spoke about some of the controversial decisions he made while in office—particularly dropping the atomic bomb on Japan—and asked the nation to imagine themselves in the president’s shoes when faced with such a momentous decision. Truman also invoked the horrors of a potential third world war, this time with nuclear weapons: “Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men.”
Among the post-World War II presidential farewells, arguably the most famous has been that of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who delivered his remarks from the Oval Office on January 17, 1961. At the time, Eisenhower’s farewell was overshadowed by the subsequent inauguration of the youthful, dynamic John F. Kennedy, with his call for a new era of American leadership on the world stage. (“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”) But over the years, it is the former general’s famous warning to look inward, at the rise of the “military-industrial complex” designed to gird the nation against the Soviet Union, that may offer the more meaningful lessons today.
Despite stressing the importance of the military establishment to keep the peace at home and abroad, Eisenhower urged caution: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience… Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” The outgoing president also argued for the central importance of balance in government, and the resistance of the idea that “some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”
Since Eisenhower, it’s tough to say that any president has made as much of an impact with his farewell remarks, but there have certainly been some memorable moments. Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, didn’t neglect to make a farewell speech—two of them, in fact. His resignation announcement on August 8, 1974, is often considered to be his farewell to the nation, but he also delivered farewell remarks to his White House staff the following day, which were broadcast to the nation.
Ronald Reagan, speaking to the nation from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989, voiced his pride in the nation’s economic recovery during his presidency and stressed the importance of patriotism. “People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, ‘parting is such sweet sorrow,’” Reagan said. “The sweet part is California and the ranch and freedom. The sorrow—the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.”
In his farewell from the Oval Office in January 2001, Bill Clinton stressed the accomplishments of his presidency (chief among them a booming U.S. economy) and urged the nation to treat its diverse population with “fairness and dignity, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation and regardless of when they arrived in our country, always moving toward the more perfect union of our founders’ dreams.”
George W. Bush opened his farewell address on January 15, 2009, by calling the election of his successor, Barack Obama, “a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.” He referred back to the first time he addressed the nation from the White House, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the years since, Bush said, he had always acted with the best interests of the country in mind, and had followed his conscience. “You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”