A Brief History
On March 6, 632, founder of the Islamic religion and Prophet, Muhammad, made his Farewell Sermon from Mount Arafat in what is now Saudi Arabia during his final Hajj. About 3 months later Muhammad was dead, risen to Heaven, giving this particular sermon and place of delivery special meaning to Muslims. Today we list 10 occasions when a person delivered their farewell speech, or what was supposed to be their farewell speech, or because of unexpected death, their last speech. What final speeches would you include in this list? (Note: These speeches are famous, not necessarily “great.” You are welcome to argue the merits or sincerity of any of them.)
1. Muhammad Farewell Sermon, 632.
References to the final sermon of Muhammad are found in various Hadiths, and transcriptions have been made in many languages, including versions in English. In short, Muhammad preaches to his followers to follow the teachings he passed to them and the scriptures of the Quran and sunnah. The place of the sermon, a hill in the plain of Arafat, is a Muslim Holy Place.
2. “Luckiest Man on the face of this Earth,” Lou Gehrig, 1939.
Lou Gehrig was the straight man to Babe Ruth’s outgoing character, the consummate teammate and team player, setting a record for playing in consecutive games for the New York Yankees that lasted for decades, until he was cut down by the debilitating and fatal disease known as ALS, or more colloquially, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” In spite of the fact that his baseball career was thus being cut short, and he was clearly dying a horrible death, Gehrig showed his appreciation to the fans and the public in perhaps the most famous sports farewell in history at home plate of Yankee Stadium. The packed stadium crowd gave him a 2 minute standing ovation and Babe Ruth gave him one of his patented bear hugs. Gehrig died less than 2 years later. His speech is sometimes referred to as “The Gettysburg Address of Baseball.” Sadly, no complete recording of the speech exists, just small parts.
3. Farewell Address, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961.
The 5 star general that led the Allies to victory in Europe in World War II and went on to serve 2 terms as President of the United States, stunned the nation when he gave his farewell address on television in 1961, warning us at length about the “military industrial complex,” a giant arms industry that dominated our country since World War II and the tooling up of the “Arsenal of Democracy” as FDR called it. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” The preceding is just part of Ike’s warning, truly astounding at the time. Since then, I have often wondered, why didn’t he bring this up while he was still in charge?
4. Farewell Address, Douglas MacArthur, 1951.
After a 52 year career in the US Army, from West Point to Mexico to Europe in World War I to the Pacific in World War II, MacArthur was a larger than life character, famous and well known to the public, largely due to his own flamboyance and self-promoting. When Mac took over the Allied (US really) effort in the Korean War in 1950, he chafed under the controls and limitations placed on him by President Truman, a man MacArthur did not respect as a Commander in Chief. Truman finally fired MacArthur when Truman could no longer tolerate the insubordination of being publicly second guessed by a subordinate, even one wearing 5 stars and a Medal of Honor. MacArthur delivered a farewell address to Congress, finishing with his famous line about “…I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good Bye.”
5. “I’ve been to the mountaintop…” Martin L. King, Jr., 1968.
The Reverend King was the most influential figure among many in the Civil Rights Movement, a beacon of hope for millions of African Americans and respected by a large number of White Americans as well. A realist, Rev. King knew his life was always in danger in the climate of racial hatred that pervaded the United States and he acknowledged that fact in his speech, a speech that ranks with the most famous and most beloved of all time, not just in Civil Rights History. Unfortunately, Rev. King’s fears came to pass on April 4, 1968, only one day after this famous speech. Ever since the tragic assassination of Rev. King, his last words of oratory continue to ring out, as poignant today as then. The circumstances of the assassination of Rev. King remain debated, with a near certainty that James Earl Ray did not act alone in planning and executing the shocking murder. Will we ever know the truth? We predict not any time soon.
6. Farewell Discourse, Jesus Christ, 33.
Following the Last Supper, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus addressed his 11 faithful disciples, as described by Chapters 14-17 in the Gospel of John. Briefly, Jesus told the Apostles that he would be leaving and that the Holy Spirit would be guiding them after he leaves. Jesus bestowed peace on his disciples and commanded that they love each other. Jesus also describes himself as the “vine” from which all life stems, with the Apostles as branches of the vine. Some clerics believe the “John” of the Gospel was the Apostle John, while many historians and some theologians believe the Gospel of John is anonymous and not written by an apostle, possibly written after the other 3 Gospels based on the different writing style and accounts within. The Gospel of John, for an example of difference, states the ministry of Christ took 3 years, whereas the other 3 (Synoptic) Gospels say the ministry of Christ took 1 year. Obviously, Christians believe the final instructions of Christ to be of the utmost importance.
7. Resignation Speech, Richard Nixon, 1974.
Until George W. Bush and Donald Trump, Nixon was the whipping boy of all the Republican presidents, even before he was forced to resign in order to avoid certain impeachment and ouster because of his complicity in covering up the Watergate scandal. The tearful, apologetic Tricky Dick was not the same irate, snarling troll that snapped at the press previously, or that had forcefully declared, “I am not a crook.” He begged for understanding and claimed that he had done his best for the American people, blah, blah, blah. It turns out he was a crook, although time softened the treatment of Nixon by the public and the media, and he became a somewhat limited elder statesman before he died.
8. Last Press Conference, Richard Nixon, 1962.
Nixon had actually made a “Farewell” speech back in 1962 after he had just lost the California Governor race against a Democratic opponent. Still bitter after losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy in 1960, Nixon took his frustration out on the press, saying, “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Well, we did have Nixon to kick around some more, as he reentered politics in 1968 and won the Presidential election, winning a second term in 1972 before getting swallowed up by the Watergate scandal (see above). Despite so many pundits declaring Nixon to be politically dead after his ill conceived remarks, his comeback was amazing to the point of miraculous.
9. Farewell to Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, 1861.
Of course this “farewell” was not the last speech Lincoln made, but it was the last one in Illinois when he was leaving to go to his inauguration as President in 1861, a presidency tortured by the horrendous Civil War that wracked the United States until Lincoln’s death at the end of a Derringer pistol wielded by actor John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Lincoln’s kind and considerate words showcase his love for his fellow man and his humility, and a recognition of the great task ahead of him, a task that might preclude his returning home alive. Oddly enough, Lincoln references a “Divine Being” in his speech, odd because while beginning his campaign for President Lincoln penned a letter declaring himself to be an atheist, but was talked out of following through with that announcement for politically prudent reasons: “My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
10. The Speech That Never Was, Winston Churchill, 1965.
Winston Churchill led Britain through their “Darkest Hour” in World War II, after a life in public service. Voted out of office in 1945, he reentered politics and was once again voted in to lead Britain in the 1950’s. Sadly, this man that made some of the most memorable speeches of the 20th Century did not make a farewell speech when he left Parliament in 1964, depressed and in ill health, although his fellow Members of Parliament gave him a rousing, unanimous endorsement and thank you from the British People for his lifetime of service. Churchill resigned his seat in the House of Commons and went home to die, which he did after a major stroke in January of 1965. His stirring words had galvanized British resistance to Nazi Germany, referring to “fighting on the beaches,” “we shall never surrender,” “their finest hour,” owing the RAF the freedom of the nation, and later making the phrase “Iron Curtain” a household line. Few men ever make a single speech that reverberates through History, and Churchill made several. Sadly, he never got a chance to make that final farewell.
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For more information, please see…
Copeland, Land, McKenna (editors). The World’s Great Speeches: Fourth Enlarged Edition. Dover Publications, 1999.
Safire, William. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. WW Norton, 2004.