Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is, of course, one of the most iconic speeches in American history. But in 1863, it got decidedly mixed reviews – one newspaper even called it “silly, flat and dishwatery.” So how did it become one of the most famous speeches in the United States? This episode of BackStory explores the evolution of an icon, and asks, more generally, what kinds of speeches – and speakers – endure in American history.
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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of the show. There may be small differences in between this broadcast and the transcript below.**
ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. 150 years ago this week Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, The Gettysburg Address. It’s often remarked that the speech didn’t make a huge splash in its own time, and, if so, that would fit into a long tradition of presidential flops.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: The school books very often spoke to the fact that American leaders were quite poor speakers and that what we needed to build was a country of eloquence.
ED: So how did we build that country of eloquence? Oddly enough by giving schoolkids speeches by Indians to memorize that accused white men of murder.
CHILD SPEAKER: This has called on me for revenge. I have sought it. I have killed many.
ED: Today on BackStory, a history of American oratory. We’ll tackle the speeches still recited in classrooms as well as a few others that didn’t quite make the cut. That’s all coming up, so don’t go away.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: 19th century guy.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER: 18th century guy. In the summer of 1863, the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania rotted.
MALE SPEAKER: In many instances, arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude.
PETER: This is a letter from Gettysburg judge David Wills to the state’s governor about the fetid corpses that lined the streets.
MALE SPEAKER: And my attention has been directed to several places where the hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them.
BRIAN: The Civil War battle that had raged in July had left some 5,000 dead and the tiny town uprooted. And historian Harold Holzer says it was Wills’ job to put things back together again.
HAROLD HOLZER: David Wills’ main purpose, after he gets the dead temporarily buried and off the ground, is to create a final resting place, as Lincoln would put it, that would do honor to the unidentified fallen.
PETER: But Wills also knew there’d be an even more difficult job, to give people something to remember Gettysburg by other than death and destruction.
BRIAN: What he came up with was this, a high profile event to dedicate the new cemetery there. He gathered notables from around the country in Gettysburg to memorialize the cemetery.
HAROLD HOLZER: It was a brilliant PR conceit to have a massive event, if for no other reason that the war hadn’t ended at Gettysburg. There was a great feeling that this was an event that would not only do honor to the fallen but would create a precedent for how properly to honor Union casualties.
PETER: At that time, the centerpiece of an event like this would be a speech. And so who would he invite to give this address at Gettysburg, to say the words that would echo for decades to come? Well, the choice was clear. There was only one person who came to mind, and that was Edward Everett.
MALE SPEAKER: Standing beneath this serene sky over looking these broad fields, now reposing from the labors of the waning year–
HAROLD HOLZER: If you were looking for one person who would draw crowds and draw attention and be up to the demands of this great occasion, it was Edward Everett of Massachusetts, who was, as Lincoln put it, probably more famous for being famous than anybody in the country. He had been president of Harvard, a senator, a governor, an ambassador to England, a vice presidential candidate and very famous for giving public speeches from memory. So he was the obvious choice.
MALE SPEAKER: Ten coffins of funereal cypress receive the honorable deposit.
ED: As it turned out, Wills was right. November 19, 1863 would be remembered for generations, but not because of the two-hour speech Everett gave that day. It was two-minute followup by President Lincoln that would go down in history.
MALE SPEAKER: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation–
ED: This is the earliest recording of the Gettysburg Address that we were able to find. It’s from a commemoration in November 1913, the 50th anniversary of the actual speech. As for what the speech would have sounded like and looked like when Lincoln delivered it, well, we don’t really know. And here, Harold Holzer says that documentary record doesn’t really help.
HAROLD HOLZER: One eyewitness claimed he rode to the cemetery in a noble charger. Another said he rode in a horse that was so small for his long legs that his boots were practically dragging along the ground. Some eye witnesses said he was received with tumultuous cheers. Others said there was sort of a grave silence.
PETER: And what about the famous words themselves? Well, early writers claim that Lincoln dashed them off on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg while others say he struggled with them for weeks. Even today, historians continue to debate the meaning of those words in their own time. Some say people would have understood them as being all about union while others argue that they were clearly about emancipation.
BRIAN: But most agree that regardless of how the speech was understood it didn’t really stand out as especially important in its own time. So how did it become so famous? And how do other speeches that are big hits in their own time fade from the memory of later generations?
ED: Those are two of the questions we’ll be exploring for the rest of the hour today. We’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a look at the role of oratory in American life. We’ll hear why the limit of a dying Indian was recited by schoolchildren in America’s early years, and we’ll revisit a presidential speech that’s remembered for words that weren’t even in it.
BRIAN: But first, we’re going to spend a few more minutes with the Gettysburg Address. Peter, Ed, as I understand it, when the speech was actually given in 1863 it was basically spun by the papers in strictly partisan terms, no different than any other speech. The Republicans called it a great success. The Democrats, they kind of trashed it. One newspaper, I think, even said it was dishwatery.
BRIAN: So how did to speech change in our memory, our understanding of it? After all, millions of words were spilled on those battlefields along with the blood of American soldiers. Why did this speech out of all the speeches given becomes so important in our memory?
ED: Well, let me tell you one thing that’s obvious. If the Union hadn’t won, the words would mean something different.
ED: You know?
ED: But as it turns out, throughout the 1860s and the 1870s, goodness gracious, it’s not clear what’s been won or lost in the war. People are still fighting over the black vote, over of the limits of black freedom. But by the 1880s, and not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s at a reunion at this battlefield that the Gettysburg Address sort of comes back into visibility or audibility when it’s first read at a reunion at the battlefield. And then in 1895, it’s actually put in bronze for the first time at the battlefield.
BRIAN: And Ed, which words are really resonant for Americans on the eve of the 20th century?
ED: Well, what they love about this is that it’s about putting the nation back together.
ED: A new nation conceived in liberty. People love those words. The fact that the word slavery never appears here, unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been far more important in the Lincoln corpus and in the American memory before this, is precisely what makes it so valuable.
BRIAN: So how do they handle stuff like a new birth of freedom or all men are created equal? How can they processes that without really addressing slavery, emancipation?
ED: Yeah, Brian, but here’s another way of thinking about it. What’s the first great American film, Brian?
BRIAN: Right. That thing about not being so equal, Birth of a Nation.
ED: Birth of a Nation.
ED: It seems so strange that Birth of a Nation would not be about the actual birth of a nation but the birth of the nation as a rebirth after the Civil War and reconstruction.
BRIAN: And it’s a white rebirth, right, Ed?
ED: Oh, exactly. Matter of fact, it says in the opening credits about the Aryan people. And I kid you not. OK? This nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom. And that’s what they mean. The nation was born, not reborn but born, in the decades after Reconstruction, after the black menace had been put down and the proud Aryan people of the North and the South had been reunited.
ED: So it’s spooky to think about of all the great language in the Gettysburg Address, in the early 20th century what’s picked up is the racialized language of a unified nation of white people.
PETER: And the key word here is people, the people, a singular people. It’s a united people. It’s not this universal people that will take in everybody. This is not the people of the Statue of Liberty, welcome to our shores. This is this particular people in world history.
BRIAN: Well, I can tell you what else is cited in the Gettysburg Address by progressive presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson well into the ’20s in the ’30s, and that is the notion that this is– and now to quote from the speech– “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” that these ideas of a democracy– you’re right, Peter, a democracy that happens to exclude–
PETER: Right. Right.
BRIAN: –women as voters and African American voters. But you know, if you want a unitary people, you’ve got to get there somehow.
BRIAN: This is a democracy that stands for all of the people. And it stands for those people through powerful presidents. And it’s really in the first 20 years of the 20th century that presidents claim their power from representing all of the people.
PETER: And they have a mission, don’t they, Brian? That is, the American people, it’s a great people, a great nation, that has work to do on this planet to promote the progress of civilization.
ED: And this helps explain something, Brian, that I’ve never really understood. How is the humble, humane Lincoln memorialized in that enormous white mausoleum thing at the Lincoln Memorial in the 1920s, right? It looks imperial rather than sort of democratic.
PETER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
BRIAN: How can we have such a powerful monument in Washington of Lincoln? You’re right, Ed. It doesn’t represent the humble Lincoln. But it does represent the early 20th century view of what makes a president powerful. And that is that he stands for all of the people.
ED: And what fits your interpretation so well, Brian, are the very last words of the Gettysburg Address, “shall not perish from the Earth.” The United States is saving this for everybody, that it’s a global role. So Brian, the meaning of the Gettysburg Address is pretty much fixed by 1922. Is that what we’re saying?
BRIAN: No, Ed. And that’s because in the late 1950s and the early 1960s that reconciliation, that structure that is forged on the understanding that the South will exclude African Americans from the people, it comes undone. It’s challenged by the Civil Rights Movement.
PETER: Yeah. And the very idea that there is a people is now made problematic. If we’re so deeply divided by Jim Crow and racial segregation and prejudice, then we can’t be a great people.
BRIAN: So when Martin Luther King is speaking before the March on Washington in 1963, King goes back to the very beginning of the Gettysburg Address, the words that are echoed from the Declaration of Independence.
BRIAN: And here’s the line from the Gettysburg Address dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. So we go from the end of the Gettysburg Address right back to the beginning. And Peter, I’m guessing you’re going to say the beginning of the nation as well.
PETER: Right. Lincoln becomes the authentic spokesman for these ideas that Jefferson had first articulated. And that gives us this wonderful storyline of American history going back to Jefferson through Lincoln to us today, all men are created equal. You know, the irony of this is that Jefferson, of course, and his fellow revolutionaries were not including slaves or free people in their notion of the American people. All men might be created equal under natural rights, but they weren’t created equal to the new United States of America.
In some ways, Jefferson’s words took on a new anti-slavery emancipatory meaning through Lincoln’s mouth. He’s the person who authentically articulates and those moving words from the Declaration, while Jefferson himself is seen as a slave holder, a hypocrite. He is in history’s dustbin, even as Lincoln redeems his words and makes them live in the new United States of America. That’s a Lincoln and that’s a Gettysburg Address that we can live by.
ED: And what’s so great, just as Lincoln’s displacing Jefferson, so does Martin Luther King stand before Lincoln and take his role in that drama.
PETER: That’s so right.
ED: We’re left with this paradox that the very words that Lincoln utters and that we’ve memorized and that we’ve put in bronze and tell our children to learn by heart actually become sort of a constant reproach to ourselves, a constant goad to ourselves to make ourselves better. It’s hard to see how 272 words could have done any more work in our history.
BRIAN: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, how a handful of 19th century women made millions in today’s dollars simply by speaking their minds.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the tradition of American speech making, from our greatest presidents to our tiniest citizens.
CHILD SPEAKER: During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle, an advocate for peace.
PETER: This is a speech said to have been delivered by a Mingo Indian named Logan in 1774, after a white frontiersman murdered his family.
CHILD SPEAKER: This has called on me for revenge. I have sought it. I have killed many.
PETER: Within just a few years, Logan’s speech had made its way into school textbooks and was being memorized and performed as a kind of recitation exercise.
CHILD SPEAKER: Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.
PETER: Years later, one magazine editor would write that no piece of composition ever did more if so much as the speech of Logan to form the mind and develop the latent energies of the youthful American orator.
ED: Though it may have been one of the earliest Indian speeches to make its way into American school rooms, it was hardly the only one. In fact, there was a whole genre of these speeches. Some were actually given by Indian leaders, and others were made up by magazine and textbook editors. But they all shared a common core, pointing out the ways in which white people had wronged Indians by cheating and lying, by stealing land, by murdering innocents.
PETER: Which raises the question, why on earth would white Americans celebrate speeches that focused on white treachery? I put the question to Carolyn Eastman, a historian who’s written about oratory in early America. She explained that people then valued eloquence and found it in some unexpected places.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: Americans had very few oratorical leaders to look up to.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: Most of the early presidents were sort of notoriously bad speakers themselves.
PETER: You’re not talking about Thomas Jefferson, are you?
CAROLYN EASTMAN: I am indeed.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: And then I’m also speaking about George Washington.
PETER: Oh, yeah.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: You know, George Washington, a number of his speeches did circulate in school books and newspapers and so on. But he was a notoriously poor speaker. And it conflicted with Americans’ post-revolutionary sense of what it was necessary in a republic. That is Americans believed that what a republic required was a strong orator and leader to direct the republic, to lead it forward.
PETER: Well, to persuade.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: That’s right.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: That’s right.
PETER: Because it is a government based on the principle of consent, isn’t it?
CAROLYN EASTMAN: Mm hmm.
PETER: And Carolyn, many observers of Indian culture at treaties and so forth would think that Indians were natural republicans. Because they had chiefs maybe, and in early encounters they were called kings and so forth, but there’s no real nobility. In fact, all Indians are noble. That’s the noble savage idea, right?
CAROLYN EASTMAN: Mm hmm.
PETER: So they come by something naturally that we need to achieve in our new republic and civilization.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: That’s right. There were a number of admiring portrayals of Indian culture published at the time, portrayals that described these sort of perfect republican scenes of a speaker getting up in front of a perfectly hushed audience of fellow Indians within the tribe, speaking powerfully to a question of import, and then sitting down and allowing someone else to stand up and offer an opposing viewpoint. And those portrayals of a kind of perfect republican society built on reason and persuasion, Americans were quite envious of that kind of scene.
PETER: Yeah. And let me just guess here. This is not what you would see in the usual assembly–
CAROLYN EASTMAN: No.
PETER: That is of the legislatures, of the new states, or even Congress where we have the creme de la creme. You wouldn’t get that kind of oratory, would you?
CAROLYN EASTMAN: No, you wouldn’t. You would get a lot of back and forthing, a lot of anger, a lot of people needing to compromise, and a lot of rowdy audiences. I think that one of the things that Americans admired so much in these idealized portrayals of Indian tribal meetings was the kind of perfectly hushed audience waiting and listening and considering what each speaker had to say and not being persuaded by a demagogue but being persuaded by pure, beautiful republican persuasion.
PETER: Yeah. I’m still waiting for that kind of audience. We hope that our listeners are like that. But there’s another dimension to this, and we’re still dancing around it. That is you seem to be suggesting that feeling bad about doing terrible things the Indians, it’s part of what makes an American patriot. Can you connect the dots for us? Why is it good to feel bad about yourself?
CAROLYN EASTMAN: This is something that affected me quite a bit when I was first looking at the documents. I couldn’t figure out what it was about these very affecting lines in Indian speeches. You had Indians saying things like, you call us brothers, but you treat us like beasts. You wish to trade with us that you may cheat us. You would give us peace, but you would take our lands and leave us nothing worth fighting for.
These lines are extremely direct. The censure is quite powerful. And I think that these speeches were productive of a kind of sense that Americans needed redemption. They needed to acknowledge their guilt, and they needed to experience a shared sense that we share this responsibility, but we can be redeemed. We can make up our minds that we can do better in the future, that we have a responsibility to do better.
PETER: Right. So Carolyn, in some ways this sounds very much like the conversion narrative, that is when you’re born again. Is there a parallel, then, between this being born American, this is a new nation, and sloughing off the old man, the old Adam, the old sinner, that is your provincial identity? Now you’re an American, and part of that is this redemptive process you’re talking about.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: I wondered about that. Is it possible that the speeches allowed Americans to think of themselves as being different from the British, different in terms of their capacity for redemption?
PETER: Yeah. Yeah.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: And I ultimately decided something slightly different.
PETER: Oh, I liked that. That was making sense to me. But go ahead.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: I think there’s a way in which the speeches, at the same time that they offer the possibility for redemption, they also tell a different history for Americans. That is rather than the history that begins with the kind of ferment and turmoil of the revolution, the moment when Americans decide to separate themselves from Britain after considering themselves Britons for decades–
PETER: Right. Of course.
CAROLYN EASTMAN: –instead the Indian speeches told a different history. This was a history of a long period of shared guilt in which the revolution didn’t really matter at all. The history in the Indian speech terms was often told as when we were great and you were small. And it was a story about the long history of American civilization. When the whites first arrived, they were weak, and the Indians were strong. And the Indians took care of the white people and make sure that they were fed.
But over time, there was a reversal of fortunes. All of a sudden, the Americans had become infinitely more powerful. The Indians had been weekend. And so there was this moment, then for Americans to consider that perhaps their responsibility to the Indians was reflective of that long history. They required that whites respond in kind, that they show the kind of kindness and responsibility to the now powerless that they once received when they came.
PETER: Carolyn Eastman is a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her book is called A Nation of Speechifiers, Making an American Public After the Revolution.
BRIAN: Starting in the 1820s, Americans begin turning out en masse to hear lectures by noted traveling speakers. A new institution was coming into being, the lyceum. By the late 19th century, the lyceum was the most significant form of entertainment in the country. Star lecturers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass drew enormous crowds. Americans flocked to hear talks on subjects ranging from rights for African Americans to Middle Eastern harems to the natural wonders of the American West.
PETER: They also increasingly heard speeches on women’s rights. Suffragists joined the lyceum circuit for multiple reasons. Conviction was one. Here was a chance to bring the message of women’s suffrage to new audiences. But there was another reason too.
LISA TETRAULT: Many of them also were broke.
BRIAN: This is Lisa Tetrault, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University.
LISA TETRAULT: These were people who lived in an extremely volatile economy. There were depressions that hit nearly every decade. Men were failed often. They would go into business, they would have a period of productivity, and then they would fail. Many of these women were married to men who were economic failures, and so they needed to earn money. And that was the other attractive piece to this particular form of activism.
BRIAN: Tetrault says the amount of money women earned on the lecture circuit varied a lot. The most famous speakers might earn as much as $40,000 a year, close to $1 million today. Most women earned much less, perhaps $4,000 or $5,000 a year. But even that was far more than the $1,000 or so they could earn as, say, a teacher. I asked Lisa Tetrault what life was like for the women who made a career of speaking on the lyceum.
LISA TETRAULT: Amazingly grueling. You are on the move, traveling tremendous distances, and you were speaking sometimes as many as 6 nights, 7 nights a week and oftentimes 2 to 220 nights a year. And these lectures would be spaced at incredible intervals, so you would be speaking and then sleeping in some sort of crude accommodation sometimes and then having to get up in the morning to go catch a stagecoach. And the stagecoach driver woke up hungover and drunken, so your stagecoach left late, which means you got your next engagement late.
Then you slept in another strange place, and then you got on a train. And maybe there was a lot of snow on the train tracks at some point, and so the train got derailed. It was an incredibly grueling life.
And Elizabeth Cady Stanton has a really funny story where she gives a lecture and then goes to catch a train, and the train’s not there. So she just rolls up her bag and lays down on the bench and goes to sleep. But she’s awoken by hearing a bunch of men in the adjacent room debating the merits of her lecture that night. So it was a jet-setting life, if you will, and one that was sometimes exhausting.
BRIAN: Well, how would a woman get into the lyceum circuits? How would she go about becoming a lecturer?
LISA TETRAULT: A woman would often do her training with a suffrage organization, where she would go and learn the craft of speaking. It was not something you just did randomly. You had to learn the skills of being a public orator. You had to learn how to please an audience, how to project, all of these types of things.
So one of the things people did is they got jobs with suffrage organizations and went out with veteran speakers and learned how to give a lecture. And then, in time, they started to try to look, then, for more lucrative opportunities. Suffrage organizations couldn’t pay very much.
A woman named Mary Eastman, for example, apprentices with a suffrage organization and then becomes so good at her craft that she’s able to then go out and get independent engagements that she would arrange herself, or she would hire an agent who would get them for her. And at that point, the suffrage organizations had lost her oratory skills. She would go off then and pursue top dollar through work with an agent and then maybe get hired by one of the big lecture bureaus.
BRIAN: So how did the organized suffrage movement feel about this? It sounds to me like they were losing some of their best talent. Or was it not so competitive? I can imagine them thinking, well, we’re training these people, and now they’re going out and speaking in front of audiences and delivering a message to people we might not be able to reach.
LISA TETRAULT: There were mixed reactions. Many of the people who then went off and were independent lecturers remained tied to suffrage organizations. So they didn’t necessarily lose their services or even their allegiance. But they did lose control over what they might say on the lecture circuit, and that could sometimes give people distress.
Sometimes suffrage organizations wanted a more coordinated message. And women had to think about pleasing a paying audience, so they didn’t always gauge their lectures to reflect the kinds of things suffrage organizations might have wanted them to say.
BRIAN: What’s an example of women on the lyceum circuit getting off message, as they would say today?
LISA TETRAULT: There was a woman, Matilda Joslyn Gage, for example. And she had several lectures that she would advertise. One of them was woman’s right to the ballot. But then if that one wasn’t promising in terms of door receipts or wasn’t going to attract a big enough audience, or even if there had already been a reform speaker there last week, she had in her back pocket a lecture on women in ancient Egypt.
BRIAN: Always of crowd-pleaser, right?
LISA TETRAULT: Right. Still about women, but not necessarily going to help with the cause for suffrage.
BRIAN: And would she adjust on the fly? Would she–
LISA TETRAULT: She might. She might.
BRIAN: –start out talking about suffrage, take a look at the crowd, and say, this is definitely an Egyptian crowd.
LISA TETRAULT: She could tell by the headdress. She might. Chances are, the people would have come expecting to hear one lecture that would have been pre-advertised, so she probably wouldn’t. But people did extemporize on the spot. And since they did often speak extemporaneously, they could shift their topics to meet what they perceived the interest of the crowd to be.
BRIAN: I’ll commit the cardinal historical sin of asking a counterfactual. But how would the women’s suffrage movement have been different if the whole lyceum network had not existed?
LISA TETRAULT: I think it would have been much weaker. The women’s rights movement as far back as the antebellum period all the way through the 19th century relied fundamentally on oratory and lectures as a central piece of its organizing model. And it remained really central all the way through to the winning of the 19th Amendment. So I think without lecturing we would have had a much more attenuated movement, and we would have had really, really broke organizations that would not been able to raise money because they wouldn’t have been able to pass a hat and charge admission at the door at the end of their conventions. And we would have had a lot of women who wouldn’t have been able to support themselves as reformers.
Also, the lyceum contributed to the shape of the movement, not just its vibrancy but also to the forms that it ended up taking. The movement was not a kind of bureaucratic, tightly-organized, top-down movement with leaders at the helm giving marching orders to people. This was a movement that people went out and kind of pioneered on their own.
They could go out and they could the lectures on their own. And some people stayed away from any organized allegiance so that they could be their own show. They could be a one-woman movement, in a way. And the lyceum created this really decentralized fleet of one-woman movements who went out and pioneered their own ideas about women’s rights and about woman suffrage.
BRIAN: Lisa, I’m going to push you on that. Because the metaphor that was used for political parties were armies and machines, well-oiled machines. They were effective political organizations. Might the women’s suffrage movement have been stronger if it hadn’t been so decentralized?
LISA TETRAULT: It would’ve been differently strong, I suppose you could say. And each had its merits. I think the kinds of decentralization that the lyceum movement encouraged created a great deal of vibrancy of its own. It was a kind of decentralized vibrancy, however, that drove movement veterans like Susan B. Anthony crazy. She was really put out by the fact that all these women were out diving into activism on their own and not taking marching orders from the people who she thought knew best, which were the more veteran activists of the movement.
So I think there are lots of ways in which you can look at social movements. I don’t know that a tightly coordinated and centralized social movement gives a certain kind of vibrancy, but that might be a more one-note vibrancy. Whereas the sheer numbers of people on the lyceum and the many notes that they were singing meant that you had a kind of chorus that is its own type of strength.
BRIAN: Lisa Tetrault is a historian at Carnegie Mellon University. Her book is The Myth of Seneca Falls, Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848 to 1898. Tetrault talked about the one-woman movements that populated the lyceum circuit. We tell the story of one of those women, Anna Dickinson, this week on our website. Drop by and have a listen. That’s at backstoryradio.org.
ED: It’s time for another short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, a President mysteriously disappears to do some soul-searching and has to come up with a speech to answer for himself when he returns.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by talking about American oratory, from the speeches that loom large in our memory to the ones that just fade away.
PETER: As always, we’ve been inviting your comments on the topic on our website. And we’ve got one of those commenters on the phone with us now from Paris, France. It’s mark. Mark, welcome to the show.
MARK: Hi. My question for you, I was just at the annual meeting of the Federation of Gay Games, and I had several opportunities to speak. And each time I spoke, I was using a microphone. And whenever I use a microphone to speak, I start wondering, how did they do it before they had microphones?
What was it like to speak to large crowds indoors or, even worse, outdoors without a microphone, without amplification? Was the rhetoric different? Was the speaking technique different? Were people’s reactions different to that kind of speech without amplification?
PETER: If you go back to some of the great speakers of the earlier period, good speakers could hold a crowd of several thousand. And those were big, big crowds.
I think the important thing is, one, the 18th century was a quiet world. The ambient noise that we now take as normal did not exist. People were attuned to listening more carefully. So it’s partly technique.
People were louder. I think the best way to think about this is to see the way theater dramas were enacted in the early period. And it’s loud.
People are shouting. They don’t pretend intimacy on the stage, they’re pointing themselves out to the audience, and they declaim. All of that is now unfashionable, because we want to create this pseudo intimacy of being right there with you.
BRIAN: Yeah. Mark, I would say in the 20th century the real break point is not so much the amplification through microphones and speakers. Microphones were invented in the late 19th century, but they were used primarily for things like telephones not for public speaking. And presidents began to use loudspeakers certainly by the teens and the ’20s. But the real break was not amplification for people who could see you. It was speaking to people who could not see you through radio.
MARK: So recordings.
BRIAN: Recordings through phonograph records, which Taft used, as early as Taft, and then radio. The real breakthrough, speaking of volume, came when a president decided to get softer. And that was Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fireside chats. He was the first to use this medium to create a sense of intimacy.
BRIAN: And it’s ironic that it would be getting softer that seems to capture the hearts and souls of millions of Americans during time of challenge and crisis during the Great Depression.
PETER: I think you’re right about that intimacy business. The distinction between public speech and private speech is absolute in the early period. Whereas now we want to hear what somebody has to say wherever he or she is, and we have this notion that somehow they’re communicating directly with us. But we know they’re not, so it’s all phony.
MARK: Can I ask a related question that’s kind of the opposite? I imagine the political stump speech and– what was it called?– the whistle-stop tour where, I guess, the same speech would be repeated over and over and over again. But perhaps the only way to reach large numbers of people is to speak to them in succession in different places. And I guess that probably gave the opportunity to customize your speech to your audience–
BRIAN: You bet.
MARK: –which seems impossible almost to do today, where you have something that’s supposed to be a private speech, like Mitt Romney’s 47% comment, becomes a message to everybody despite itself. But in the past when you had to repeat your speech, were they customizing it for different locations, different audiences?
PETER: I’d say to some extent. I think what’s happening more often it is that repetition makes the speech seem spontaneous and natural so that speakers don’t rely on written text. And they can improv a little bit. It’s looser. And that can enhance that feeling of connection and that he is customizing a speech, even when he’s saying the same old thing.
ED: So does this make it easier next time that you have to speak from a microphone that you can do it in historical perspective where you feel sort of–
MARK: Well, I’ll be glad I’ll don’t have to shout, because I–
PETER: Well, I was just going to say–
MARK: I can’t imagine how their voice didn’t give out, you know? I’m just amazed. So the answer is they were speaking loud and often for a long time and often over and over again. And I guess it meant that to be a politician you had to be physically tough.
PETER: Well, the only people who come close to that now are professional singers, opera singers. And even if they are amplified, you want to create the impression that you’re hearing the big voice. It’s possible to have bigger voices than we do.
BRIAN: Yeah. And the only other example I can think of from today of constantly shouting is Chris Matthews on Hardball.
PETER: Mark, thanks for calling.
MARK: Thank you.
BRIAN: Bye bye.
MARK: Bye bye.
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a look at the role oratory has played in American life. We’re going to zoom in on one more presidential speech that made the history books. But you’re only going to find this one in the index under flops. The story starts on Independence Day 1979.
MALE SPEAKER: Good evening. The news today begins with a mystery. The White House announced this afternoon that President Carter has canceled a television talk on energy, which he had planned to give to the country on television tomorrow night. The White House would give no reason for the cancellation, no detail.
BRIAN: On July 4, Americans were notified that their president, Jimmy Carter, was holed up in Camp David and not coming out. It was a strange thing to do at a bad time for the country. The Iranian Revolution had disrupted the flow of oil to the United States, and the result was gas lines, gas lines that stretched for miles.
People in those gas lines didn’t know if they were going to make it to work each morning. Fights broke out at gas stations. Even shootings were reported. The country was in a funk that was turning into a crisis.
GORDON STEWART: The country was seriously up in arms. There was total uproar.
BRIAN: This is Gordon Stewart, one of Carter’s speech writers at the time. Stewart says that people were looking to the White House for some way out of the energy crisis. But Carter had already given four speeches about energy. If he gave another one, people were just going to tune out, and Carter knew that.
GORDON STEWART: He said, I do not want to– and I believe the words are– bullshit the American people. Another energy speech is not going to work. I’m not going to give it.
BRIAN: And so the White House cancelled. And now the president and his aides were stuck at Camp David with the whole world watching. They knew when he came down from the mountain he had to say something, and so they got to work on a different kind of speech.
GORDON STEWART: We have the total attention of virtually every sentient being in the United States. We damn well better have a really great speech.
BRIAN: Carter started by inviting people from around the country to Camp David. He wanted them to just kind of come over like neighbors and chat about what they thought was wrong with the country. Meanwhile, speech writers and advisers tried to figure out what they should tell the American public.
GORDON STEWART: There were vigorous arguments going on amongst the senior staff and close advisers, including the Vice President, for what the speech would finally be. Now, of course–
BRIAN: That’s Vice President Walter Mondale.
GORDON STEWART: Walter Mondale, who had very strong views. Everything was on the line. Meanwhile, droning in the background, you could hear on television people saying, is the president OK? Has he lost it? What is happening here?
BRIAN: And after 10 long days, Carter came down from the mountain. Yes, to give another speech, one that would get people to sit up and do something.
JIMMY CARTER: Good evening. This is a special night for me.
BRIAN: At 10:00 PM on July 15, Americans saw Carter in a dark blue suit sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. His hands were folded together, and he had several large index cards face down in front of him. He began recounting his journey.
JIMMY CARTER: 10 days ago, I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society, business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary 10 days.
BRIAN: Then what can only be described as a therapy session began. One by one, Carter picked up the index cards and read complaints that he had received from his guests at Camp David.
JIMMY CARTER: Mr. President, you’re not leading this nation. You’re just managing the government. You don’t see the people enough anymore. Some of your cabinet members don’t seem loyal.
BRIAN: The list went on, nearly 20 quotes in total. And after reflecting on the job he’d been doing, Carter turned to the American people. He explained that their problems stemmed from something much deeper than the energy crisis at hand. Two decades of social upheaval, assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, they had all taken their toll on Americans. Carter labelled that–
JIMMY CARTER: A crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.
BRIAN: Then Carter shifted from therapy to proposing a solution. He suggested a massive World-War-II-style mobilization that would snap America’s dependence on foreign oil. He asked the government and everyday people to pitch in and conserve energy.
JIMMY CARTER: We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking. The strength we need will not come from the White House but from every house in America.
BRIAN: And believe it or not, he connected. Letters flooded into the White House, more letters than when Gerry Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. And the vast majority of those letters were positive. Not only that, the president’s sinking approval rating shot up overnight by 11%.
GORDON STEWART: People, I think, thought, ah, yes, this is what we had wanted to hear. We now have some reason to believe that the pain and suffering of our specific situations, in terms of gas, and the doubts and fears and anxieties are not intractable states of nature.
BRIAN: But then, just two days after the speech, Carter blew it.
MALE SPEAKER: Another surprise from President Carter today. He has been offered the resignations of all the members of his cabinet, a dozen of his senior White House assistants, and several other high-ranking officials of his administration, the whole top bunch.
BRIAN: It turns out he had asked his entire cabinet for their resignation. It was an attempt to show strength and decisiveness. What people saw instead was their president displaying the same lack of confidence that he had railed against in his speech. In just a matter of days, people stopped talking about a crisis of confidence and instead started referring to a malaise. The Democratic primary was coming up, and it didn’t take long for presidential hopefuls like Ted Kennedy to seize on that new frame.
TED KENNEDY: When we were facing the problems of depression in the 1930s, we did not say that that’s too complex and too difficult, that somehow the American people were in a malaise.
BRIAN: Gordon Stewart says that the word malaise was repeated so often in those weeks and months that people became convinced that Carter had used it in his prime time address. He hadn’t, but people started calling it the malaise speech anyway. For the next 30 years, Stewart would challenge guests at dinner parties over it.
GORDON STEWART: They would argue, and I would set them up. Sometimes I could set up a whole table of dinner guests. And anywhere from $50 to the price of dinner a head, I could come up with $500 in a night. And that helped me get over the frustration and pain of their misunderstanding.
BRIAN: But Stewart says Carter’s actions are only partly to blame for the undoing of his big speech. That’s because he was operating within a media environment where speed, brevity, and commentary quickly crowded out the president’s words.
GORDON STEWART: It was the birth of this whole way of framing things where people don’t any longer experience the thing itself. Only a few years after that, you would have news programs where, instead of listening to the president himself, you’d see the president start to talk, and then somebody’s voice would cover. The president tonight is showing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. So framing came to substitute for the real thing.
BRIAN: The crisis of confidence speech was intended to be more than just a speech. It was supposed to inspire Americans to change not only their energy habits but their sense of connectedness to each other and to the whole nation. Instead, it came to stand in for all of Carter’s failures as a president, from the Iran hostage crisis later that year to his failed re-election bid. In a way, his address to the nation did become more than just a speech, but not in the way that Jimmy Carter had hoped for.
Thanks to Gordon Stewart for helping to tell that story. He’s a former speechwriter for president Jimmy Carter. His current project, based on the principles of the crisis of confidence speech, is called thenextdeal.org.
JIMMY CARTER: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in–
PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we’ll be waiting for your online. Pay us a visit at backstoryradio.org and let us know what speeches have meant the most to you. And consider recording your own version of the Gettysburg Address and submitting it to the PBS website, where we found this rendition of the speech by Jimmy Carter. We’ll post a link to that from our own site.
As always, you can find a lot of other BackStory goodies on our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages. Our handle is BackStoryRadio. Don’t be a stranger.
ED: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, and Andrew Parsons. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
PETER: Special thanks to Angela Ray and Robert Vaughan and Omar Nazir for reading Logan’s speech.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
JIMMY CARTER: And a government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.