The Tumult & The Shouting

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The presidential campaign speech is, like jazz, one of the few truly American art forms. It is not, of course, unknown in other democratic countries, but nowhere else has it achieved the same degree of virtuosity; nowhere else is it so accurate a reflection of national character: by turns solemn or witty, pompous or deeply moving, full of sense or full of wind. The excerpts below have been selected from over a century and a half of successful—and unsuccessful—presidential politicking.

Jefferson calls for unity: By 1800, with George Washington only a year in his grave, political infighting was already savage. Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, on March 4, iSoi, was an attempt to salve the wounds opened in the bitter campaign of 1800 between the Federalists and members of his own Democratic-Republican party: Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve the Union or to change its Republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a Republican government cannot be strong; that this government is not strong enough. … I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth.

Lincoln condemns slavery: On February 27, 1860, seeking the support of eastern Republicans, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union in New York. The speech, which dealt with the burning issue of the day, helped win him his party’s nomination over betterknown candidates at Chicago in May: If slavery is right … we cannot justly object to its nationality—its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension—its enlargement. All they ask, we would readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they would as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. … Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and wrong .…

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that Right makes Might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.

Bryan denounces the “cross of gold”: This is the peroration of the speech- perhaps the most famous in convention annals—that won William Jennings Bryan the 1896 Democratic nomination; You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying unto them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

T.R. at Armageddon: Failing to recapture the regular Republican nomination in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive,or Bull Moose,ticket. On August 6 he addressed the party’s Chicago convention in stirring—and characteristically d/amatic—words: It would be far better to fail honorably for the cause we champion than it would be to win by foul methods the foul victory for which our opponents hope. But the victory shall be ours, and it shall be won as we have already won so many victories, by clean and honest fighting for the loftiest of causes. We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.

Harding appeals for “normalcy”: Seeking delegates for the 1920 Republican nomination, Senator Warren G. Hording of Ohio uttered these deathless words in Boston on May 15: America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; … not surgery but serenity.

Al Smith battles bigotry: In Baltimore on October 29, 1928, near the end of his campaign, the first Roman Catholic to receive a major party’s presidential nomination spoke out on a question troubling many voters: On my recent visit to Indiana, my attention was called to a blazing cross alongside the railroad track, where the car in which I was had to pass, and I was informed that this was intended as a defiance by the Klan of my presence in the State. … What a hollow mockery—men professing a belief in Christianity and in America find it necessary to raise between heaven and earth the emblem of the Christian faith as a defiance to me because of my religious belief.

… I repeat my firm adherence to the American doctrine of the absolute separation of Church and State. Political activity of the Church is the negation of that separation.