A History of the Presidential Farewell Address

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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.




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