It can be immensely instructive to pay attention to what someone says last. This is especially true of presidents, whose words in general are under more scrutiny than most because of the office that they hold, and whose last words are an attempt to shape policy decisions and the mindset of the American people for many years to come. As is only fitting on a day where I am at work with an impending ice storm and where so many people have decided not to leave home, I figured I would talk about some of the more notable farewell addresses, both intentional and intentional, from our nation’s presidents over time, at least those which are worth reflecting upon and remembering as being different from the norm. Although it is very likely that some of these addresses will be familiar, I hope that at least some of them will not be and so will provide something new to reflect upon.
The most familiar of all presidential farewell addresses, and the one that set the template for the rest of them, was that given by our first president, George Washington. This address, which was largely written by Alexander Hamilton , cautioned America as a nation to avoid engaging in entangling alliances with European imperial powers. To be sure, Washington did not intend the United States to be isolationist. With America’s internal development as a food-growing and nascent industrial power as well as a nation whose balance of trade depended on the export of plantation crops, clearly the United States was a nation connected by trade to the nations of Europe. Nor did Washington desire a craven foreign policy as a mere appendage of corrupt European states; he had, after all, led the Continental Army to secure American independence and had been a firm nationalist after that. What he desired was that Americans not be caught up in the warfare over European matters not of interest to Americans. No doubt he was aware as many Americans were that America’s peace had long been plagued by the imperial ambitions of diplomats and rulers in far away European capitals, to the extent that most colonial wars are known even today by reference to the ruler in whose reign and for whose interests they were fought (King William, Queen Anne, King George). The lone exception, ironically enough, was that of the French & Indian War started in large part by George Washington himself. Without isolationism, the United States managed to heed the advice of George Washington for a long time, only engaging in entangling alliances with Europeans in the aftermath of World War II, a change in longtime policy that many Americans in this age of retrenchment see as increasingly unwise.
The continuing influence of European matters on American history can be seen in an inaugural speech that ended up being, by accident, a farewell address at the same time. William Henry Harrison had stormed to victory in 1840 with a populist campaign that cheered on his drinking of log cabin cider and his military heroism as the victor of the Battle of Tipperconoe. Yet although he won the presidency with a populist appeal, he was in fact a wealthy Virginia-born aristocrat with a great deal of classical learning, and in his inaugural address he sought to convey this erudition and knowledge to the public. Even after substantial editing from fellow Whig Daniel Webster, his speech went on for hours and given the chill in the air, it is lamentable but not particularly surprising that the aged Harrison ended up getting pneumonia and dying slightly over a month later, having given exactly one major speech as a president. The European influence here, of course, is in the classical heritage that forms a large part of the American civic culture. This is important even in contemporary times where concerns about populism, corrupt elites, and governments devoted to panem et circenses (bread and circuses) haunt our political discourse. Harrison’s presidency, as short and obscure as it was, was testament to the lingering and serious importance of European history on our culture.
Another accidental farewell speech came from the man whom I believe to be our nation’s greatest president ever, Abraham Lincoln. On April 11, 1865, shortly after the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia signaled to all the impending ruin of the Confederacy, Lincoln made a short and somewhat impromptu speech on the balcony of the White House where he spoke of the need to fulfill the promise of civil rights for blacks after their brave defense of the Union. One discontented witness of the speech apparently said that it would be the last speech that Lincoln would ever give. The man was John Wilkes Booth. Three days later Lincoln was assassinated on a trip to the theater. What was meant as a short speech meant to shape the President’s vision of reconstruction led to his death, and left his final speech as a challenge to the United States that would not be fulfilled for nearly a century as the intransigence of many in the Deep South, and not only there, would long make a mockery of the promise of equality for all under the eyes of the law.
The final farewell speech I would like to examine today is, like the others, a speech that has long been viewed as an important speech. Ironically enough, given Eisenhower’s background as successful general, the subject of that farewell speech that has been remembered is Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex, a problem already in the 1950’s and even more of a problem today in light of the problems of crony capitalism and widespread insider trading within government circles. Eisenhower’s most conspicuous strength as a general was his diplomatic ability as a leader of a coalition and as a master of the logistics of contemporary warfare. It is therefore striking that his concerns with the military-industrial complex arise on those two grounds–in a relationship that is too cozy between customer and producer, between public government and private enterprise, and in a relationship that leads to a substantial amount of hard-earned public capital being diverted through corrupt relationships with military contractors. At any rate, the speech has long been recognized as a worthwhile one and it also, like the best presidential farewells, presents a challenge for the people of the United States.
What do these presidential farewells, intentional or not, have to tell us as Americans? Many of them deal with longstanding issues within our culture and society. George Washington cautioned Americans on the spillover affects of imperialism and the need for the United States to chart its own course based on its own interests. Harrison reminded us through his lengthy speech of the heritage of classical European culture, especially with regards to political philosophy, that continues to be important in the American experiment in self-government. Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans of the obligations the nation had to its black citizens which long remained unfulfilled. Dwight Eisenhower reminded Americans in the grips of fears over the Cold War about the dangers of too cozy a relationship between the United States government and privileged businesses, a problem that remains severe today. In all of these cases a speech made at a particular time, sometimes without having been intended to have been a final speech, gave timeless voice to issues that the United States continues to wrestle with as a nation. We would do well to strive for the same mix between timeliness and timelessness in our own discourse.
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