Presidential farewells constitute a great American conversation among the nation’s chief executives and open our view onto a large and detailed panorama of the past.

Farewell, Mr. President

When on January 10, 2017, Barack Obama delivered his farewell address to the nation, the occasion was only the tenth time in U.S. history that a president had delivered a formal farewell address to the American people.

The farewell messages of American presidents are important markers in the nation’s history. If one were seeking to survey America’s past, one could hardly do better than to do so through the eyes of some three-dozen shapers of that past. Presidential farewells bundle together the concerns of past generations of Americans. They offer vivid freeze-frames of key moments in the life of our nation. They are like snapshots of the American temper taken at regular intervals in our history.

In a most interesting way, presidential farewells constitute a great American conversation among the nation’s chief executives. Usually much thought has gone into their crafting. Because of their rhetorical excellence, they are literary documents. Because of their contemporary references, they are historical documents. Because of their political context, they are civic documents. Several have transcended the status of period pieces and have become part of our cultural memory. Many Americans are familiar with Washington’s warning against a foreign policy involving “entangling alliances.”[1] Many are also familiar with Eisenhower’s admonitions regarding the “military-industrial complex.”

The farewell messages of American presidents often pack a moral and rhetorical punch because the president can speak as a statesman. Freed up from reelection concerns, he can be more magnanimous and disinterested than can a candidate in the heat of reelection campaign. As George Washington disarmingly noted at the outset of his farewell message, “These [observations] will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of an impartial friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.”

Not all of Washington’s successors were so disinterested. Some presidential farewells were self-absorbed; they aimed low at political enemies or engaged in some tit for tat. For the most part, however, a president uses the occasion of the farewell to deal graciously with political opponents. He seeks to transcend partisan politics and speak of the epochal concerns that shaped his times and administration.

For readers who have not encountered these messages before, some wonderful surprises stand out. Many of our less famous presidents, it turns out, were powerfully eloquent. They wrote superb messages that give much instruction and delight.

In many of these messages readers may sense a tension among the past, present, and future. American presidents for the most part were concerned to give a fair rendering of the state of the union; they were not easily tempted to assume the role of prophet. In public life they attended a tough school of experience. They sooner or later learned that “the greater part of wisdom is to look back, and greet the future with eyes focused by the past.” University of Virginia historian Robert Louis Wilken continues: “The gift of discernment must be learned and if our eyes have not been trained to make out where we have been, they will be insentient to what is yet to be.”[2]

It is insightful to compare the presidential farewell message with its mirror image, the inaugural address. The pair often provides a presidency with eloquent bookends. Both addresses can be inspiring national testaments because Americans are a hopeful people, and the inaugurals are visionary statements untested by Oval Office experience, while farewells show how the vision was tested by experience.[3] John F. Kennedy once put the drama, the unpredictable nature of the presidency this way:

 It is impossible to foretell the precise nature of the problems that will confront you or the specific skills and capacities which those problems will demand. It is an office which called upon a man of peace, Lincoln, to become a great leader in a bloody war; which required a profound believer in limiting the scope of federal government, Jefferson, to expand dramatically the power and range of that government; which challenged a man dedicated to domestic social reform, Franklin Roosevelt, to lead this nation into a deep and irrevocable involvement with world affairs.[4]

The dramatic, unpredictable nature of any presidency helps explain why farewells have a different tone from that encountered in inaugurals. Farewells tend to be more sober, more poignant. There are the disappointments, defeats, and dashed hopes of any leader. The poignancy is especially evident when the audience senses that a president is retiring not just from the Oval Office, but from this life.[5]

“The time has now come when advanced age and a broken frame warn me to retire from public concerns,” wrote Andrew Jackson in his valedictory. Because he would “pass beyond the reach of human events and cease to feel the vicissitudes of human affairs,” it was time to bid his countrymen “a last and affectionate farewell.”

History of the Formal Presidential Farewell Address

Over the course of American history, forty-three men have served as president of the United States.[6] Not every president gave a formal farewell message to the nation. The first and most obvious reason is that eight of our forty-three presidents died in office.

Moreover—and perhaps surprisingly—of the thirty-five who lived to the end of their final term, only nine delivered a formal farewell to the nation: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Even a passing glance at this list of chief executives reveals a striking pattern. In the first 160 years of the republic, presidents rarely gave a formal farewell address to the nation. Decades could elapse between such messages (in the case of George Washington and Andrew Jackson, some four decades; in the case of Andrew Johnson and Harry Truman, more than eight decades).[7] Put another way, there was only one formal farewell address in the eighteenth century; there were but two in the nineteenth; and yet with President Obama’s there will have been seven in the last 64 years. Indeed, it was only during the past few decades that the formal farewell address to the nation became customary. Why has this happened? Conversely, why was the farewell address relatively rare between Washington and Truman?

Any number of reasons might account for the farewell’s rarity prior to the 1950s. Perhaps the nation’s early presidents were chary of treading on, or competing with, Washington’s example; his 1796 Farewell Address has been regarded as one of the sacred texts in the presidential canon. Part of the reason is that our nation’s first presidential farewell was really the work of three founding fathers—Madison, Hamilton, and Washington himself—Olympians in our civil religion. Such an oracle was bound to cast a long shadow over American history. One indicator of the first farewell’s eminence is the regularity with which it has been anthologized in collections of great American documents. Another indicator is that, from 1862 on, Washington’s Farewell Address has been read annually from the floor of the U.S. Senate, a performance that continues to this day and is one of the Senate’s hallowed traditions.[8]

The respect with which Washington’s farewell has been treated may suggest a second reason for the rarity of such messages between 1869 and 1953. Upon reading Andrew Johnson’s farewell in 1869, the people perhaps perceived a decline in the quality of the genre. Not that Johnson’s message was poorly written—on the contrary, it was rhetorically competent. The problem was the desperate tone. Johnson was human. It is understandable that, as the nation’s first impeached president, he would try to vindicate himself, that he would use his farewell to attack political opponents and personal enemies. But if the farewell address were just a well-written personal grouse, who needed it? The contrast with Washington’s disinterested advice to posterity, or even with Jackson’s ruminations on America at the fifty-year mark under the Constitution, put Johnson’s address in an unfavorable light. Until memory of that address faded, perhaps future presidents did not want to be associated with the formal farewell at all.

A third reason that may account for the rarity of farewell addresses prior to the 1950s is that they might have seemed redundant at best, self-aggrandizing at worst. Here is why. The U.S. Constitution requires the president to report periodically to the Congress.[9] Our commanders-in-chief developed the tradition of submitting messages to the legislative branch on an annual basis (until the 1930s, usually during the first week of December). The last such message would typically be submitted about three months prior to retiring from office (March 4).[10] Given this brief span of time, most presidents skipped the formal farewell address and chose instead to devote a portion of their final annual message to the Congress to bid adieu.

The time frame between the last annual message and retirement was considerably shortened in the 1930s from two directions: Constitution and custom. When the Twentieth Amendment was adopted, the president was now to retire from office some six weeks earlier (January 20) than had previously been the case (March 4).11 About the same time the Twentieth Amendment was adopted, Franklin Delano Roosevelt started the practice of delivering the annual message to Congress in January rather than December. This rendered a separate farewell address even more superfluous.

A final reason that may account for the rarity of the farewell address prior to the 1950s is that our earlier presidents did not do as much public speaking as presidents nowadays. These days we are used to the annual pomp and circumstance of the state of the union speech. But from Thomas Jefferson through William Howard Taft, annual messages were written, not spoken. They were submitted to the Congress as missives and read by a clerk. Even so commonplace an institution as the presidential news conference was not born until the Wilson administration. And a full-time speechwriter did not work in the White House until the Harding administration.[12]

Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, the limits of technology may have reinforced the tendency to do less speechifying. Orations could not be easily delivered to the whole nation until developments in radio in the 1920s and television in the 1940s made broadcasting more practical. The first president to exploit radio waves for speechifying was Warren Harding on June 14, 1922. Still, not until the 1950s would the formal farewell message to the entire people be resurrected. Why?

Two principal reasons might account for the resurrection of the formal farewell address in 1953—some eighty-four years after the previous formal farewell message (by Andrew Johnson). First, there was a dramatically new world order. The United States was the only global power to emerge from World War II stronger than it had been before the conflict. By the 1950s, America’s role as the free world’s leader was a fait accompli. Isolation, though championed in some quarters, was generally rejected. An assertive Pax Americana became the ideal. In the new dispensation, President Washington’s warning against an assertive foreign policy seemed antiquated, dangerous even. It may have been prudent advice to previous generations, when a vulnerable nation had to build up its strength. But it did not speak to an America that had come of age, conquered militaristic enemies on two fronts, and emerged as the strongest power the world had ever seen. Nor did it speak to a generation confronted with international communism and constantly en garde against a potent enemy that possessed weapons of mass destruction. Americans found themselves in a new kind of war, the Cold War, with responsibility for a global sphere of influence. Truman realized that the new age called for a new farewell address. Our thirty-third president seized the opportunity upon his exit from office in 1953.

Second, the outbreak of the Cold War coincided with the dramatic growth of the television industry. The leader of the United States and of the free world could now broadcast his message as no leader in human history ever had. Again Truman seized a historic opportunity and thereby revolutionized the delivery of the farewell address to the American people. He established the practice of televising the address from the White House.[13] It is also significant—unprecedented, really—that Truman’s farewell address was the first to be delivered as a speech to the entire nation. The three previous formal farewell messages—by Washington, Jackson, and Andrew Johnson—were delivered to the nation via newsprint. Truman’s speech was groundbreaking.

Thus was born not just a revival but a new era in the presidential farewell address. Truman was the pivotal figure in the resurrection and transformation of the genre. His example was reinforced by the next president, Dwight Eisenhower, who also delivered a farewell address to the nation (1961). This was the first time in American history in which back-to-back presidents gave formal farewell addresses to the nation.[14] Both presidents had their farewell addresses televised; both used the occasion to focus on the challenge of American power in the world; and both proved to be paradigmatic for future addresses.

Before moving on, it is well to pause and grasp the unprecedented nature of the Truman-Eisenhower innovations in the genre. Because their farewells were speeches and because they were televised to the nation, they were quite unlike anything before in American history. Prior to the 1950s, only one in ten presidents gave a formal farewell message, and then it was a printed message. Since the 1950s, more than half our presidents have given a spoken farewell. While the farewell address is not a given in our recent history, a pattern is nevertheless emerging: those who made it a priority to master the television medium—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, for instance—delivered a primetime farewell to the nation. Those who had other priorities—Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, for example—did not.

Farewell Themes

Farewell messages are historical documents. They provide a unique survey of American history. They open our view onto a large and detailed panorama of the past. They give insight into the pressing concerns and achievements of each generation of Americans. Indeed, a systematic reading of these state papers gives one a sense of continuity and change in our national life. It is both instructive and ennobling to see how each president redefines and reasserts America’s national purpose.

Several recurring thoughts or themes characterize the farewell genre. Not all of these thoughts and themes have to be present in one message for that message to qualify as a farewell. But students of the genre will encounter certain topics over and over in the great conversation of the presidents.

Many farewell messages include something like the acknowledgments page at the beginning of a book. It is good form to say thank you to the people who have helped an administration and to mention a few of the virtues that make public service a noble calling. Gratitude is expressed to one’s family, colleagues in governments, citizens, and God. The display of thanksgiving is often accompanied by humility and contrition—virtues becoming to those who have reached the pinnacle of power. Most presidents are well aware that they are servants of the people, flawed ones at that. For any successes they achieve, it is decent to share the credit with Providence; for any failures, it is good to pray that the nation will not be too harmed. As Washington put it: “In reviewing the incidents of my administrations, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.”

Another thought encountered in farewell messages is justification for offering the message. It can be the opportune place for the president to announce that he is not running for another political office. Or the aim can be to offer insight and advice to posterity. In his message, Washington twice noted that he offered advice out of “a solicitude for your welfare.” Jackson wrote that as a last gesture of public service he wanted to “use the occasion to offer to you the counsel of age and experience.“

Presidents also use the farewell message to tell the story of the administration. It is one last official forum to give their “spin” on what has transpired under their watch and thereby influence what future historians will write about them. One specific policy Washington defended was his much-debated stance of neutrality toward France and Britain, even though it had already been officially set forth on April 22, 1793.

Farewells often offer advice on how to proceed into the future. Washington famously advised his countrymen to avoid imprudent alliances with foreign nations. Eisenhower warned Americans against a host of dangers he saw on the horizon: (1) the growth of the military-industrial complex; (2) the overweening influence of the federal government on university research; (3) the danger of public policy becoming “the captive of scientific-technological elite”; and in an especially modern sounding passage, (4) environmental plunder and degradation.

A number of final messages devote some space to what might be called “great ideas”—to the articulation of America’s national purpose, to the civic virtues that are desirable in a constitutional republic, and to the first principles of public stewardship and governance. This is the opportunity for the president to make his contribution to the “great conversation” of his predecessors. Leaving the tyranny of details and petty politics behind, he can speak here as a statesman. Already in the introduction of his Farewell Address, our first president broached a number of great ideas and achievements: he praised the stronger union under the new Constitution, the prudent use of the blessings of liberty, the wisdom and virtue necessary for governing a republic, and the need to be exemplary for the sake of other nations struggling to achieve the blessings of liberty. Washington’s message inaugurated a great conversation among the presidents. Many of his themes would be picked up in later farewell discourse. The Constitution is perhaps the most dominant theme of presidential farewell discourse. But broad principles of political economy can be articulated as well. Also, many of the presidents praise Americans for being a practical people who appreciate common sense and whose political assessments rely on “the lamp of experience” rather than on abstract theory and ideology.

Presidents have used their farewell to reaffirm a belief in American exceptionalism—the idea that the nation is unique in world history and has a special destiny. As Ronald Reagan used to put it, following John Winthrop, America is “a city upon a hill.” Eisenhower believed this unique destiny imposed special ­­­burdens on the United States. “America,” he wrote, “is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this preeminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches, and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment. Throughout­­­ America’s adventure in free government, such basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement; and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.”

Finally, many presidents have used the occasion of the farewell to wish the country well in the future and to allude to or invoke divine protection. Eisenhower, for instance, offered two prayers in his farewell address. Thoughts about the future do not always bubble with optimism but affirm America’s national purpose nevertheless. Noteworthy is Jefferson’s parting sentiment—the same Jefferson who oversaw the Louisiana Purchase and was an inspiration for our western expansion: “Looking forward with anxiety to their future destinies, I trust that, in their steady character unshaken by difficulties, in their love of liberty, obedience to law, and support of the public authorities, I see a sure guaranty of the permanence of our republic; and retiring from the charge of their affairs, I carry with me the consolation of a firm persuasion that Heaven has in store for our beloved country long ages to come of prosperity and happiness.”

Now that vision is one of true hope and change. 

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[1] A term, by the way, which is not in Washington’s Farewell Address. But it has become customary for commentators to use “entangling alliances” as a shorthand way of capturing our first president’s advice.

[2] Robert Louis Wilken, “Gregory VII and the Politics of the Spirit,” in The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 1.

[3] There are always exceptions to prove the rule. Of all the presidents who have delivered farewells, only Bill Clinton claimed to “leave the presidency more idealistic” than when he began eight years earlier.

[4] John F. Kennedy, “How to Prepare for the Presidency,” Parade Magazine, September 23, 1962.

[5] Wayne Fields, Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence (New York: Free Press, 1996), 312.

[6] Note that while there have been forty-four administrations (up through Barack Obama’s), only forty-three men have served in the office. That is because Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms. Thus, Donald J. Trump will be the 45th POTUS but the 44th man elected or constitutionally stipulated to serve as U.S. president.

[7] I discovered another most curious pattern in the course of researching presidential farewells. During the nation’s first century, the three presidents who gave a formal farewell address—Washington, Jackson, and A. Johnson—had all lost their fathers as infants or young children.

[8] For more on this tradition, see [accessed October 10, 2001]. It is a heroic tradition to uphold, given that Washington did not intend the Farewell Address to be read aloud. At more than 6,000 words, the Farewell Address takes almost an hour to get through.

[9] Article II, section 3, of the Constitution states, “He [the president] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

[10] The March 4 retirement date was prescribed in 1789 by a resolution of the Continental Congress.

[11] Adopted on February 6, 1933, the Twentieth Amendment, section 1, states: “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20 day of January.”

[12] William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1993), s.v. “speech-writer,” 738. The first full-time White House speechwriter, Judson Welliver, was the “literary clerk” for presidents Harding and Coolidge.

[13] GW interview with Pauline Testerman, audiovisual archivist, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO, October 16, 2001. Truman was paradigmatic in other ways, as well. He delivered the first live televised state of the union address on January 6, 1947, and the first live televised inaugural address on January 20, 1949, in addition to the first live televised farewell address on January 15, 1953.

[14] Prior to President Obama’s scheduled speech, farewell addresses have been given by back-to-back presidents only three times in U.S. history: Truman (1953) and Eisenhower (1961); Carter (1981) and Reagan (1989); Clinton (2001) and George W. Bush (2009).

The featured image is “A View of Mount Vernon With Washington Family On the Terrace Artist” (1796) by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been enhanced for clarity.

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