The President as Interpreter-In-Chief

By Mary E. Stuckey | Go to book overview

was profoundly to influence the rhetoric of the presidents who followed them.


Summary and Conclusions

From the earliest colonial beginnings, the tenor and quality of politics in the United States have been reflected in the tenor and quality of our national public rhetoric. During the colonial period, rhetoric was predominantly confined to the pulpit and was viewed as a means of teaching and uniting many small communities. By the end of the revolutionary period, written rhetoric dominated as an effort was made to reach a broader and more diverse audience.

The first major change in American public rhetoric is associated with the mass politics and appeals of the Jacksonian era and the "new age of demagoguery." The president still had not assumed a speaking role; his voice was heard through the press and surrogates. The partisan press is a key feature of this period. Rhetoric was both written and oral as the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements gained momentum and popularity.

During the Civil War, the debates over slavery and Union were waged in the Chautauquas and on the floor of Congress as well as on the campaign trail, which had become an increasingly popular means of reaching the common people. Orators of the caliber of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln dominated both public speaking and public politics.

In the post-Civil War era, politics was replaced by business as the preeminent profession in the United States, and political rhetoric began a slide that would result, by the twentieth century, in "public speaking." The age of eloquence was ended, and public speech, which in the United States had always had a profoundly pragmatic orientation, became informational, terse, and utilitarian. By this time, however, the president has begun to speak publicly, and his speech is more inspirational, more focused on the office as a "bully pulpit" than has been the case before.

Eloquence enjoyed a resurgence under the reforming presidents of the early twentieth century, for

if popular rhetoric was proscribed in the nineteenth century because it could manifest demagoguery, impede deliberation, and subvert the routines of republican governance, it could be defended by showing itself necessary to contend with these very same political difficulties. Appealing to the founders' general arguments while abandoning

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