My friends – No one, in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness
at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every
thing. 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 pray-
ers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
Had this speech been written and edited ten times over, it could not have attained a better quality. Lincoln allowed his sentiment to flow into his eloquent, touching and humble words. He asked the crowd for their prayers for he recognized that his presidency will be controversial and he will need “divine assistance.” His farewell address at the Springfield station turned out to be an impromptu glimpse into Lincoln’s genius.
Less than five months later, Lincoln is forced to make a Special Message To Congress to declare the need for Civil War. He summarizes the South’s aggressions and refers to it simply as,
“The distinct issue: Immediate dissolution or blood. And this issue embraces more than the fate of the United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy- a government of the people, by the same people- can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes…It forces us to ask: Is there, in all republics, this inherent , and fatal weakness?…Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”
This is brilliant prose in that he sets his premise as the immediate dissolution of the union or blood. But then he shifts his verbije to include words such as embrace, family, integrity and survival. On the one hand, he states there must be blood, but he justifies it in gentle terms combined with the theme of survival. Lincoln masterly ties it all together by stating,
“so viewing this issue, no choice is left but to call on the war power of the Government: So to resist force, employed for it destruction, by force, for its preservation. The call was made: and the response of the country was most gratifying; surpassing, in unanimity, and spirit, the most sanguine expectation!”
His prose guides his audience from blood, to family, to survival, to my hands are tied, to what else can we possibly do, and finally, the public is behind me. His ability to make a case is undeniable for these are mere sentences, yet the logic, the sequence, the sentiment and their strength are truly masterful.
Lincoln’s Second Inauguration speech, at times, is reminiscent of Shakespearean eloquence.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as
God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to
Bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle,
And for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”
Poetic, statesman-like, strong with an eye for the future, and a flair for the dramatic, can justly describe these words. His prose, conviction and sentiment superceded all else. He draws the audience in like a fathers hug and embraces them with his words. With this he gives them the strength to persevere, to finish the war because their fight is just and peace is their noble desire.
The creme de la creme of Lincoln’s prose is his 263 word masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address. The battlefields at Gettysburg were witness to over 50,000 slain men. The magnitude of this massive death toll in a single field is unfathomable and the weight of the cemeteries dedication service was not lost on the President. In response, Lincoln took to his pen to write and continuously rewrite until he created what was fitting for the event. Lincoln had the foresight not to recreate the horror of the battlefield, individual heroics or the pain of the wounded and dead. Rather, he reminded his audience and future readers what this battle was fought for, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth in this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” According to historian Mason Lowance, President Lincoln aptly acknowledged that the war and the men who sacrificed before them is much larger than themselves and this single battle. Lincoln then went on to recognize that they are not worthy of consecrating the battlefields because the soldiers themselves did it as they lost their lives. The president’s words incandescently becomes a call to the nation to be strong and carry on the task these men died for, “…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall have not died in vain.” This is in essence a battle cry by the President, “ that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” These words have lived on since that day in 1863. They are simply timeless.
In the decades before Lincoln’s presidency technological advances in the printing press increased the public’s thirst for knowledge and news. In Daniel Howe’s, What Hath God Wrought, he discussed how the Second Great Awakening began to encourage education amongst other social progress. The transformation in America meant an increase in literacy rates and as printing technologies advanced and newspapers became readily available and affordable, there was an increase in political participation by the working class. By the time Lincoln took office, newspapers were the primary source of how the president could reach and speak to the public. Thousands would come to hear him speak on occasion, but the newspapers could reach millions. In 1860, there were three thousand papers being published. (footnote: Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspaper in the United States through 250 Years, 1690-1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 216.) There were war correspondents reporting on the battles. Lincoln recognized he needed to use his words in newspaper print to persuade his public. As a young lawyer, he learned the art of rhetoric and persuasion. Inspiring, strong, heartfelt and fine prose served as the President’s tool to speak to his public in mass. Reading his printed words gave the North something to hold onto because they reflected his sentiment and strength. Lincoln kept his Gettysburg Address short in order that it would be printed in its entirety on the newspapers front page. He was aware there would be much criticism, yet he also trusted the American people enough to make their up their own minds. Newspaper print worked to serve Lincoln’s need to reach and communicate with the masses during wartime. His words kept his half of the nation strong during the darkest of times.
Courier messaging was not enough for Lincoln when it came to the battlefield and receiving information from his generals. He wanted current and constant updates. Although the telegraph had been invented years prior, its use was still advancing. By 1861, 15,389 miles of telegraph wire had been installed. During the war, eventually over six million military messages would be sent. (p8 primary source William Wilson) Once Lincoln tired of going back and forth to the telegraph office to receive and send messages, he had a telegraph office set up at the White House. As a young White House military telegrapher, William Wilson wrote this about his experience with the President Lincoln,
I saw a man before me with a kind heart and charitable disposition, who had a duty to perform that he intended performing with a conscientious exactitude. In the many telegrams he indited or dictated he displayed a wonderful knowledge of the country, its resources and requirements, as well as an intuition of the needs and wants of the people. September 26, 1861, was an appointed day for humiliation, fasting and prayer, and was general – observed throughout the North. We operators on the military telegraph were extra vigilant at our posts ; our boy George was engaged in preparing a “Daniels’ battery”‘ when, shortly after noon, Mr. Lincoln entered the War Department office. Spying George, he accosted him with ” Well, sonny, mixing the juices, eh ?” Then taking a seat in a large arm-chair, and adjusting his spectacles, he became aware that we were very busy. A smile broke over his face as he saluted us with ” Gentlemen, this is fast day, and 1 am pleased to observe that you are working as fast as you can ; the proclamation was mine, and that is my interpretation of its bearing upon you.” Then, changing the subject, he said, “Now, we will have a little talk with Governor Morton, at Indianapolis. I want to give him a lesson in geography. Bowling Green affair I set him all right upon ; now I will tell him something about Muldraugh Hill. Morton is a good fellow, but at times he is the skeeredest man I know of.”
Ultimately, the telegraph helped the Union Army win the war. The Confederate army was not able to compete with the North’s extensive network. As Commander In Chief, Lincoln was able to communicate with his men in the field and make strategic suggestions. Lincoln’s famous telegraph to General Grant, “Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.” It was a technology that served him and the Union well.
The telegraph was also used by the newspapers to send information to the office quickly. Historian Douglas L. Wilson wrote, “Lincoln’s ultimate audience at Gettysburg was the reading audience.” Wilson uses George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, to demonstrate the impact the speech had as being read in print, “The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion. ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ It was as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as ever spoken.” However, as with all politics, the speech did have its criticisms. The Chicago Times wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has pointed out to be intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Lincoln battled the press on many fronts, yet with his pen and telegraph he worked hard to get his own voice out to the public and to commanders both timely and clearly.
Revisionist Historian Howard Zinn, in 1988, espoused the view that the civil war was “not to end slavery, but to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources.” Zinn wrote that the war needed a “crusade,” so slavery became its poster child. If Zinn’s account for the war’s motives are accurate, how can he account for Lincoln’s ability to garner such support and loyalty? In Zinn’s scenario, Lincoln’s sentiment in his speeches at Gettysburg and the Second Inauguration were all an act. Zinn ignores and never broaches this aspect of Lincoln’s presidency. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in 1948, resorted to describing the president as “a strangely involved personality” and “physically lazy.” Hofstadter referred to Lincoln’s first presidential victory “as a performance that entitles him to a place among the world’s greatest political propagandists.” He referred to the Emancipation Proclamation, as containing “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” His progressive view believed that the war was unnecessary. Hofstadter had to concede that, “For all its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation probably made genuine emancipation inevitable.” Beyond this, Hofstadter view seems to be a product of his time. His skepticism and need to unveil what he considered the “myths” from the past revealed his need to impose his views on society in his quest to improve it.
Just about seventy years later, it was with great political insight that President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to use the radio, as his tool of choice, in establishing a connection with the American public. The two prior presidents tried unsuccessfully to use radio to reach their public audience. Roosevelt, similar to Lincoln, recognized the opportunity that a new technology had to offer. He too was cognizant of the need to control how information was sent out to the public. At the beginning of his presidency, forty percent of the public owned radios, but by the end of the decade the number went up to eighty three percent. As president, he gave over thirty radio Fireside Chats and on-air speeches. Direct, clear and friendly messages on the radio could hardly be misinterpreted. As a renaissance man in public relations, his insight, into the necessity of staying ahead of the news cycle, was a prudent and wise decision that ultimately created the public support he required for his economic and wartime agendas.
Roosevelt came into his presidency in an economic crisis mode. He needed economic reform and action to save the country from economic ruin. On March 3, 1933, his White House press corp was surprised with some new guidelines to follow. For example, no longer were “off the record” sources allowed to be used in their stories. If a newspaper wanted to print something that was said in a press conference, then that reporter had to physically attend the meeting. No quotations were allowed unless they were given, written, and signed quotations from his press secretary. The intent was not to restrict information, but to keep it as accurate as possible. In retrospect this was a brilliant move given the president held over 1000 press conferences during his time in office. In another move to control his communication with the public, after a week in office, he held his first Fireside Chat. In it the president reassured the nation that the government had stepped in to protect the banks. The government had declared a bank holiday so that federal examiners could determine the health of the banks. After they were found in good standing they would open again. Roosevelt slowly and in terms everyone could understand explained the crisis. Americans accepted his explanation and once the banks reopened the immediate crisis was averted. According to Historian Raymond Morley, “Capitalism was saved in eight days.” “It was the fireside chats that allowed Roosevelt to connect with large numbers of Americans. He deliberately slowed his speech to about 120 words per minute, well below that of the 170 words per minute at which most radio orators spoke.” Roosevelt became the fatherly figure, your neighbor, and your president all wrapped up into one. His prose was simple with relatable analogies and metaphors. The brilliance in his delivery created an immediate connection and trust in the president that was to last throughout his presidency. Thousands of letters came pouring into the White House mailroom relaying this message after his first chat.
At the end of his second term in office, Europe was at war. The American people felt by this time that they had such a close relationship and trust in Roosevelt that they elected him to an unprecedented third and fourth term. This anomaly in presidential elections can be ascertained by recognizing his relationship with the public via radio. As a president he transcended the lofty impersonal image of the man sitting in the Oval Office. Roosevelt distinguished himself simply by talking to the public in a conversational tone on a consistent basis. When the day came to prepare the country for war, Roosevelt provided the fatherly
strength and resolve through his voice and words that America desperately needed. In his address to Congress on December 8, 1941, he asked Congress to declare war on Japan. “No
matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through absolute victory.” The next day, the president’s
Fireside Chat artfully laid out the timeline of all the conquests and attacks made by what Roosevelt referred to as
“powerful and resourceful gangsters who have banded together to make war upon the whole human race.” He then goes on to address the press, “You have a most grave responsibility to the Nation now and for the duration of the war…It will be a long war, it will be a hard war…it will be a privilege to serve and work for the country…I repeat that the United States can accept no result save victory, final and complete… we must begin the great task that is before us by abandoning once and for all the illusion that we can ever again isolate ourselves from the rest of humanity… We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows.”
Hearing and not merely reading his words allowed the public to sense the weight on the President shoulders, the solemnity of what is ahead, yet he also imparted strength, a resolute will for victory. This was communication and statesmanship at its finest.
Throughout the war, Roosevelt continued to update the public for four long years. During his June 5, 1944, chat, he auspiously announced, “The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go!” Seven days later, during what was to be his last fireside chat, Roosevelt is asking everyone to continue to buy war bonds. He describes the liberation of France and continues to encourage and thank the public for their war efforts. He ends the chat with “Swell the mighty chorus to bring us nearer to victory!” Less than a year later, Roosevelt died from a brain hemorrhage. Roosevelt’s strength and resolve fortified Americans with faith during the darkest of times. Although he had his critics, very few criticized his radio genius. During his chats, he reached up to ninety percent of the public. No other president has enjoyed such a large and captive audience.
In January of 1940, Roosevelt spoke to Congress regarding human freedoms framed within in the context of the war in Europe.
We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way- everywhere in
the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants- everywhere in the world. The fourth freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor-anywhere in the world.
Although his words may not be as beautifully written as Lincoln’s, Roosevelt’s message and meaning is clear. The public understood what the war was all about and what it meant on a personal level. His Four Freedoms became a stronghold in thought for the American people. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Four Freedoms served as a battle cry and a rallying sentiment for the war effort. As a master of communication and staying ahead of the press, this speech also served to win him his third nomination for president a few months later. Roosevelt was asked to speak at the dedication of the Memorial On the Gettysburg Battlefield on July 3, 1938. During the time period of this address, the world is slowly moving towards war. Roosevelt’s remarks seem to denote an initial preparation for what is to come.
“But the challenge is always the same—whether each generation facing its own circumstances can summon the practical devotion to attain and retain that greatest good for the greatest number which this government of the people was created to ensure… Lincoln was commander-in-chief in this old battle; he wanted above all things to be commander-in-chief of the new peace. He understood that battle there must be; that when a challenge to constituted government is thrown down, the people must in self-defense take it up; that the fight must be fought through to a decision so clear that it is accepted as being beyond recall.
After working endlessly, and arguably without a lot of success, in this speech Roosevelt seems to be transitioning his focus from the internal economic New Deal Reforms to the world stage. Again, he proves himself to be ahead of the press. Richard Hofstadter offers the antithesis of this idea in his essay, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Patrician as Opportunist. He argued that Roosevelt merely quelled to public opinion rather than help to create that same opinion. “…he had a sharp intuitive knowledge of popular feeling. Because he was content in large measure to follow public opinion, he was able to it that necessary additional impulse of leadership which can translate desires into policies.” Hofstadter is criticizing Roosevelt’s ability to lead and to form his own opinions. Later in his essay, Hofstadter goes on to say, “To take his statements literally, to look upon them as anything more than a rhetorical formation of his preferences, would be a mistake; there seems no more reason to take his words as literal guide to his projected action than there would have been to expect him to fulfill both his 1932 pledges to balance the budget and give adequate relief to the unemployed.” This argument seems to ignore the actual leadership that Roosevelt committed to during his four terms in office. It is a difficult argument to make given that believed that the American people chose a four term president that could not lead without consulting public opinion first. Hofstadter’s argument truly falls short especially during wartime. He does acknowledge Roosevelt on a crumb size level when he states, “Roosevelt must be granted at least a marginal influence on the course of history.” (315) As a Consensus historian, perhaps, Hofstadter wrote this essay too soon in 1948.
Revisionist historian Howard Zinn focused in on the inadequacies of the Roosevelt administration in terms of social change. He wrote,
“It was a war of unspeakable evil. Hitler’s Germany was extending totalitarianism, racism, militarism, and overt aggressive warfare beyond what an already cynical world had experienced. And yet, did the governments conducting this war–England, the United States, the Soviet Union– represent something significantly different, so that their victory would be a blow to imperialism, racism, totalitarianism, militarism, in the world?
The Soviet Union rightfully deserves this criticism, however, to include the U.S. and Britain in with that of Hitler and Stalin is beyond the pale. Neither countries are perfect, but they certainly do not institutionalize murder. Regardless of this argument, Zinn has nothing to say regarding Roosevelt’s adept use of the radio and his connection to the American people. Although he does characterize him as a “well-off Anglo-Saxon male of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions”, whom the American public views as their savior for the time being. Zinn seemed to have very little respect for the American public, as if the citizenship is composed of sheep.
History judges men differently through time. The men themselves leave this world and become a subject of study written about through ideas and evidence. The only part of themselves they can leave behind is their words and their voice. Whatever the latest in vogue historical school of thought, it is hard to dispute the voices from the men themselves. We have Lincoln’s heart and mind on paper. We have Roosevelt’s heart and mind on radio recordings and paper. To argue that words or speeches shape history is to misunderstand the gravitas of what stands behind the words. Words themselves are merely a copius assortment of letters. What makes them important is why they are said, the trust behind who says them, and the sentiment of them. In a love song, words must have emotion through the artist’s voice. In a joke, a mutual understanding and perspective must be agreed on to initiate a laugh. In an essay, words can only take on legitimate meaning through demonstrated knowledge. Words have the power to connect two people together as well as millions. In time of war, words and communication can move a nation out of pride, fear or pernicious determination. In the United States, the written words of the Constitution binds it together into a single functioning nation. It is the words and voice of President Lincoln and Roosevelt that kept a nation strong during war time. By choosing to use the latest technologies available to them they were able to overcome many obstacles. By reaching out to millions, millions could feel the strength, resolve, knowledge and understanding that permeated their speech. Further, at the time of their presidencies, both men knew they were making history and their actions would be remembered and forever scrutinized. Both were harshly criticized by the press during their time in office. Even so, the public continued to vote them into office. They were well aware of their place in history. As for Lincoln, his speech was often concise, eloquent, as if, at times, he was a political Shakespeare, but he was direct and concise with military telegraphs. With Roosevelt, his actual voice consistently connected with families sitting by their radios at night. A president cannot enjoy success with the public with insipid speech. Albeit different styles and modes of communication, the common denominator between the two presidents was their undeniable strength and resolve which filtered into their communication. Their success stemmed from their ability to recognize the impact their words had on their ability to lead the nation onward. Shakespeare’s immortal words in the Twelth Night, “some are great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, lends itself to the suggestion that greatness is something that can be determined by timing, yet Shakespeare, of all people in history, knew that greatness could also be achieved through