Historians will begin parsing President Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago as soon as it hits the airwaves. Obama references George Washington’s 1796 farewell address in announcing that he will give the remarks in Chicago on January 10th. In his White House message the President says, “In 1796, as George Washington set the precedent for a peaceful, democratic transfer of power, he also set a precedent by penning a farewell address to the American people… I’m just beginning to write my remarks. But I’m thinking about them as a chance to say thank you for this amazing journey, to celebrate the ways you’ve changed this country for the better these past eight years, and to offer some thoughts on where we all go from here… So I hope you’ll join me one last time. Because, for me, it’s always been about you.” Eloquent.
President Obama is also a landmark President and his words on January 10th are sure to be important.
Washington wasn’t known as the most eloquent of the Founding Fathers. That’s unfair. He wasn’t concise, but there was a precision to the language then that is unknown today. Every demi-shade of meaning, every half tone of feeling was captured by the writers of that era. Without the benefit of telephone or internet, they had to put all of the inflection into their words. And they did.
Consider this passage from Washington: “Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, 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. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
Washington didn’t need to plea for history’s indulgence. His “defects” and “errors” will be forever outshone by his accomplishments and singular example. If his remarks were written today, Washington might have said he just didn’t have anything left in the tank. He had given it all. Washington’s eloquence was also evident in his bearing and aura. He reduced battle hardened Revolutionary War veterans to tears with his presence and just a single line in 1783. Veterans were seeking back pay from Congress and they requested a meeting with Washington. He met them and explained the new government’s fiscal constraints. At one point in his address he had to pause, and departing from his script he reached for his glasses, something unknown to his men, and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” His men had never seen him admit to such a vulnerability or human failing. They were humbled. The veterans unanimously voted to allow Congress to proceed at its own slow pace and for civilian rule to continue.
Washington’s main advice to future leaders was “to warn against foreign intrigues.” Obama has heeded that advice, although modern Presidents may not have that luxury. Obama has been criticized for being slow to act in Syria, and for not taking on the Russians more directly, for example. But Washington’s advice resonated strongly enough that his farewell address was regularly read in Congress up until the 1970’s. Perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda can put his address to hip hop and make it palatable to Congress today, a sort of coda to the “Hamilton” musical. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton edited Washington’s farewell address and Miranda will no doubt recognize Hamilton’s voice in the writing.
Washington’s main advice to future leaders was “to warn against foreign intrigues.” Obama has heeded that advice, although modern Presidents may not have that luxury.
President Obama is also a landmark President and his words on January 10th are sure to be important. President Eisenhower used his farewell address to warn of the military-industrial complex. President Truman talked about the life and death struggle of the Cold War, the profound difference in ideologies, and his decision to use the atomic bomb. President Obama will not miss this chance to make a statement that resounds for years. He will likely look back to the nation’s founding principles, hit on the touchstones of history that have made us who we are, and look to the future with some words of guidance. Barack Obama is an eloquent speaker and the lessons he has learned in his eight years of service will no doubt be distilled for us. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, the fact of Obama’s election and reelection says something about America that goes beyond the economy, deficits, and “foreign intrigue.” He will capture that historical moment as well. Washington was modest about the expected impact of his farewell. “In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish… ”
The great thing about democracy is that you can never predict an election. In any authoritarian regime the outcome is preordained. For us, it is not. And that should make us proud. As George Washington said, “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” And that includes the appellation Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Independent. So have a listen on January 10, and listen for words that will echo through history.