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.
Hoover states the GOP credo: Smith’s opponent (who did not raise the religious issue) hymned the praises of “rugged individualism”: During the war we necessarily turned to the government to solve every difficult economic problem. … When the war closed … we were challenged with a peacetime choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines—doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. …
The Republican party from the beginning resolutely turned its face away from these ideas and these war practices. … By adherence to the principles of decentralized self-government, ordered liberty, equal opportunity, and freedom to the individual, our American experiment in human welfare has yielded a degree of well-being unparalleled in all the world. It has come nearer the abolition of poverty, the abolition of fear of want, than humanity has ever reached before.
Willkie challenges “one-man government”: In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first President since Grant to seek a third term. His opponent, Wendell Willkie, seized upon the issue: Yes, we are sick of one-man government that calls an Ambassador of the United States “My Ambassador.” It used to be “My Friends.” Now it is “My Ambassador.” Pretty soon it may be “My Generals.” It certainly is “My Captains.” After awhile it will be “My People.” But there is one thing that is perfectly clear after November 5—it isn’t his White House.
F.D.R. defends his dog: Seeking still another term, in 1944, President Roosevelt brought down the house at a Teamsters convention on September 23: [The] Republican leaders have not been content with attacks upon me, my wife, or my sons—they now include my little dog, FaIa. Unlike the members of my family, he resents this. Being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two, or three, or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.
I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to object to libelous statements about my dog.
Harry gives ‘em hell: Whistle-stopping in Dexter, Iowa, on September 18, 1948, Harry S. Truman made a lowlevel attack on his opponents, the kind of black-and-white oratory that was to win him a surprise victory in November: The Democratic Party represents the people. It is pledged to work for agriculture. It is pledged to work for labor. It is pledged to work for the small business man and the white collar worker
But the attitude of the Republican gluttons of privilege is very different. … [They] are cold men. They are cunning men. And it is their constant aim to put the government of the United States under the control of men like themselves. They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship. You have already had a sample of what a Republican administration would mean to you. Two years ago … a Republican Congress—the notorious “donothing” Republican Eightieth Congress [was elected] … This Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back.
Dewey anticipates victory: No one was more surprised by the voters’ verdict than Truman’s Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey. Winding up his campaign on October 31, he had said: This is the eve of victory. Let us use our victory, not for ourselves—but for an America that is greater than ourselves. Let us humbly pray that our children and their children will look back on this election of 1948 and say with thankful hearts: “That was good for our country.”
Stevenson talks sense to the people: Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois was among the most literate and, to his supporters, most moving speakers in the long history of presidential campaigning. Accepting the Democratic nomination in July, 1952, he said: When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissension, and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable, and hostile power abroad.
The ordeal of the twentieth century —the bloodiest, most turbulent age of the Christian era—is far from over. Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come. … Let’s talk sense to the American people! Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions.