How to say “good-bye” like a president

Perhaps it’s because my internship here at the National Constitution Center is coming to an end, or because summer is fading and the Center’s George Washington exhibition will soon close, but I’ve been wondering what our first president has to teach us about saying “good bye.”

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Yale University Art Gallery

Exiting the stage was on Washington’s mind in the summer of 1796.  After serving his country as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and as the nation’s first president for eight years, he was finally retiring to the quiet of Mount Vernon as a private citizen.  How do you begin to bid adieu to the nation that held you in such esteem? 

Somehow Washington managed — quiet eloquently, too.  Though his Farewell Adress was never publicly read, it was published in newspapers across the young United States on September 19, 1796.  His good-bye set a precedent for succeeding presidents to address the nation before they left office.  Four key similarities link Washington’s farewell with those of his successors.

“…that debt of gratitude which I owe…”

Just like at the Academy Awards, you must thank all those people who helped you get to where you are.  Washington thanked his “beloved country” for the opportunities and support it offered him throughout his tenure.  Presidents often thank the American people for their support (and votes) throughout the years, like Andrew Jackson did as he thanked Americans for their “kindness” and “confidence.”  President Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush also thanked their families, their Vice-Presidents, and their Cabinet members for all their help, too.

“… with good intentions, contributed toward…the government…”

Sometimes you just have to have the last word, and the President is no diferent.  Washington felt compelled to explain to the people that he had tried to do what was best for the nation in every decision he made.  It was as if he needed to prove his decisions so that he would be remembered and understood, though he was the first to admit “the inferiority of my qualifications.”  Washington defended his neutral position in the war that was raging between England and France at the time because it was his “predominant motive…to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature…”  Similarly, President Truman spoke about the difficult decision he made to end World War II with the atomic bomb, while he defended his decision not to use it again against other Communist forces. 

“The unity of government…is also now dear to you.”

The nation must be united, whether it is united behind a single leader or a cause or united simply by our American values.  Washington repeatedly reminded the American people of their need for unity.  He considered it “a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence…”  Succeeding presidents obviously agreed with him, as every one highlighted the need for a unified American people to ensure a successful nation.  President Reagan reiterated that “We the People” drive the American government together.  President Jackson reminded Americans of the words of Washington’s Farewell Address as he argued against sectional differences and party divides and in favor of unity.

“In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels…”

Even as the President leaves office, he offers words of wisdom to his successor and the American people in hopes that the nation will continue to succeed.  Washington also passed on advice in order to see the new republic become a lasting one.  He warned against the danger of divisive “parties in the State,” particularly those founded on the basis of geography.  Washington also strongly advised to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” so that the new nation would not be dragged into wars it could not afford to fight.  That’s advice that subsequent presidents seem to have honored in the breech: President Clinton encouraged world connections through policy and trade in order to keep peace.  President Eisenhower urged for peace after four major wars, along with military readiness.  President Carter encouraged Americans to stand for basic human rights at home and abroad.

Times change, but not the need to say “good bye.”

Rachel Bradshaw has worked as the Education Assistant at the National Constitution Center for the past three summers.  She is now leaving the Center to complete her master’s in Political Science at Lehigh University.

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