President Barack Obama gave his final address to the country Tuesday night, addressing what he called victories and failures during his two terms and ending with his hope for continued progression in the country.
The presidential farewell address began with our nation’s first president, George Washington, but did not become a staple of American presidencies until the latter half of the 20th century.
Washington’s first “farewell address” urged Americans to stay together and to avoid partisanship, and was printed in a Philadelphia paper nearly six months before the end of his term.
The next address wasn’t given until Andrew Jackson published his in 1837 – nearly 40 years after Washington’s. That gap in time proved noteworthy in the differences between the two addresses – Jackson talked about how the U.S. and constitution were now engrained in society.
Jackson’s speech, like Washington’s and many of those that were to come, focused on the “common man” being involved in politics, which he said should not be left up to elites with money.
Andrew Johnson ran his farewell message in the New York Times in 1869 despite being impeached a year earlier.
Despite being president at the end of a tumultuous era in America following the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, he lashed out at his political enemies, drawing scorn from many other newspapers. Another farewell address was not given until Harry Truman’s in 1953.
Truman’s address was the first in speech form and was broadcast to all of America. He talked about the great changes American had undergone over the first half the century and during his presidency specifically, and asked his fellow Americans to consider the gravity of some of the decisions he had to make, including dropping the atomic bomb, and “how hard a job” the presidency is.
Since then, every president aside from John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated, has given a farewell speech. Even Richard Nixon, who resigned amid impeachment proceedings, gave a speech in which he said “au revoir” to America.
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia archives presidential speeches. You can find any of the past presidents’ farewell speeches there.