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LESSONS: GRADES 4-8  ›  The Presidents Speak
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CORRESPONDING TEACHER'S TEXT

In a democracy, the people speak at the ballot box. Their votes send a message to representatives at all levels of government, including the highest level of all, president of the United States. In turn, the president has communicated with his fellow citizens by many means, and throughout American history he has made use of the most advanced technology at hand. In order for a representative government to work best, the nation’s leader must have contact with those he serves.

In 1796, George Washington (1789-1797) considered how he was going to tell the nation that he would not serve a third term as president. In those early days of the republic, there was no constitutional restriction on the number of terms a president could serve, and some assumed (or hoped) Washington would serve for life. He chose to publish his farewell address in a Philadelphia newspaper. He would never present the address as a speech in public. Washington chose this means of communication for mostly personal reasons. Not only did he feel uncomfortable speaking before crowds, such a message in front of Congress would have given senators and representatives a chance to persuade him to change his mind. Washington knew that whether or not he gave the speech in front of Congress, his words would be published in newspapers from north to south. Letters that he wrote to officials and even some private citizens were published in their entirety; after-dinner speeches were printed in the newspaper; even his last will and testament would be disseminated through pamphlets after his death.

Ever since Washington, presidents have discovered ways to reach the nation’s citizens with their message. Washington and James Monroe (1817-1825) took extended tours of the country, traveling by horseback and carriage. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) had access to the telegraph during the Civil War, and in 1879 the first telephone was installed in the White House. But these inventions were not conducive to mass communication. Personal appearances and published speeches continued to be the primary way for the president to speak until the advent of radio.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913) purchased automobiles for the President’s House, which helped him travel more easily while, no doubt, causing a stir to see the president in a "horseless carriage." Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) made the first radio broadcast from the White House, but it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) who made excellent use of the radio, soothing a troubled nation with his "fireside chats" during the Depression. Harry Truman (1945-1953) was the first to televise an address from the White House, while Richard Nixon (1969-1974) used a radiotelephone to speak to the first astronauts on the moon in 1969. Today, the White House is equipped with the most sophisticated communications technology available.


Objectives:

By successfully completing this lesson and activities, students will:

  1. Understand how the president of the United States has communicated with American citizens throughout the nation’s history, and be able to construct a technological timeline to illustrate how inventions have helped the president increase his audience.

  2. Practice their math and graphing skills in their attempts to compute and track percentages of Americans who have had access to the president’s message through time.

  3. Analyze the effectiveness of speakers by listening to audio clips of the presidents, judging their oratorical skills, and examining the importance of public presentation skills in a political leader.




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