After her defeat in the presidential election by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech on November 9, 2016. Concession speeches are an occasion for the losing candidate to bow out gracefully and to show the maturity it takes to accept defeat. Hillary Clinton's address demonstrated that she was well aware of the opportunity the speech afforded her:
But I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don't just respect that. We cherish it.
In the history of concession speeches there is a greater example of putting "the peaceful transfer of power" above petty squabbles. After an all-but unprecedented presidential election in 2000, which included recounts and the U.S. Supreme Court weighing in, Vice President Al Gore conceded the election to George W. Bush. The country was bitterly divided by the election process itself, and confused and suspicious of the opposition during the uncertain time between Election Day and Gore's concession. In the speech, Gore tried to begin to heal those wounds and bring the country back together:
President-elect Bush inherits a nation whose citizens will be ready to assist him in the conduct of his large responsibilities. I personally will be at his disposal and I call on all Americans — I particularly urge all who stood with us — to unite behind our next president. This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done. And while there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president.
Both Secretary Clinton and Vice President Gore highlight that a peaceful, civil transfer of power is an essential component of American democracy, and they urge unity despite the differences among the people of the United States.
A concession speech is also a time for the speakers to reflect on their life. It is often, but not always, a bit of a farewell to politics, at least for a little while. Hillary Clinton's future in politics is uncertain, but she sounded like someone passing the baton to a younger generation when she said:
I have spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I have had successes and I have had setbacks. Sometimes really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what's right is worth it. It is. It is worth it.
If this is indeed a farewell from Secretary Clinton to the public stage, it is perhaps not going too far to say that in this quote, Secretary Clinton articulates one of the principles that has guided her life — "fighting for what is right is worth it."
One of the most famous, and profound, farewell addresses in American history is the "Letter to the American People" which George Washington wrote upon leaving office. Washington's composition of the address, because he had Alexander Hamilton's help in writing it, is even depicted in the "Hamilton" musical. Washington's letter is full of advice and warnings for the still relatively new nation. In leaving, Washington rejected the offer of "President for Life" as being too much like the role of a king. Investing too much power in one person is one of the many things Washington warned against in his address, here in the context of party loyalty being concentrated into one person, who could rule over all:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge...is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Here Washington briefly sketches how simple it would be for a ruler who had too much power to emerge from a democratic process that is intended to elect someone whose power is held in check by the other branches of government. Hillary Clinton did not issue any warnings in her concession speech, but rather tried to focus on unity and to state her beliefs. These elements are at the core of Washington's address too, but he chose to go into detail about the things that can distract or prevent such goals from being met.
Like those who have conceded or merely said farewell before her, Hillary Clinton's concession was a summation of a public life, with a dash of personal reflection and a vow to keep on fighting. How Hillary Clinton chooses to keep on fighting remains to be seen, but her concession speech was a touching, personal testament to her determination and her values. Eleven vocabulary words from the speech can be found here.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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