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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.


By successfully completing this lesson and activities, students will:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


Download Lesson Plan

In a democratic nation like the United States, where citizens determine by their votes who will serve them in government, it is important that citizens have contact with their representatives. On the highest national level, this means that Americans need to know what the president is thinking, what his plans are, and how he hopes to tackle those challenges that concern them. Throughout history, presidents have used all technology available to help them reach greater numbers of Americans. As new inventions increased the ability to communicate, presidents made good use of them.

When first president George Washington (1789-1797) took office, he decided that he would visit every state in the nation — from New Hampshire to Georgia. He took trips at different times, one to the north and another through the southern states. He traveled on horseback and in a horse-drawn carriage. The journey to the south took more than two months and Washington traveled almost 2,000 miles. Washington believed that this was the best way to get to know the American people, the cities and towns they lived in, the land they farmed, and the system of roads upon which they traveled (the roads were mostly sandy, muddy, or bumpy).

Washington also knew that the American people were curious about him. What did Washington look like, they wondered? What sort of man is he? Most Americans had never seen him face-to-face, and many had not even seen a picture of him. More importantly, the citizens had never seen a president — any president — before. Washington’s tour of the United States marked the first time a president had communicated with the nation. Even though Washington knew his speeches to Congress would be published in newspapers, this was not the same as making contact with Americans.

James Monroe (1817-1825), our fifth president, served more than 30 years after Washington but still found that the best way to speak to citizens was by touring, just like Washington did, by carriage and horse. He really had no other choice at that time in history. Transportation and communication would move forward during the Civil War and afterward, and presidents have always taken advantage of new technologies. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) used a telegraph to keep in touch with his battlefield generals. He walked across the White House lawn to the War Department where the telegraph was installed.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) spoke on the telephone to the instrument’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Two years later, Hayes had his own telephone in the White House. But the invention was so new that very few homes or offices in Washington had phones, so Hayes had few people to talk to. In fact, the president’s telephone number was "1." Men who were campaigning to be president used another invention, the phonograph. Recordings were made of campaign speeches, to get the word out about a candidate and his political views before the election. In the presidential race of 1908, for instance, records (or "disks") of William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan could be purchased and then played at a church, or other gathering place, in towns which these presidential candidates could not visit by train. The records would come with a photograph of the candidate, so voters knew what he looked like. In 1920, Warren G. Harding also used the phonograph, recording a speech into a horn that caused his voice to press a needle into a wax disk.

The White House was brought into the modern age of communication when Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) made the first presidential radio broadcast from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Compare the number of people presidents could reach before and after radio. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), a very popular leader, spoke to only 10,000 people at his inauguration. One hundred years later, President Warren Harding (1921-1923) was heard before an audience of 125,000. President Coolidge broadcast his inaugural address to 23 million radio listeners on March 4, 1925. His voice was carried through telephone lines across the nation. No one knows exactly how many people saw George Washington on his carriage tours, but even if he saw 1,000 people every day lined up on the streets, or at ceremonies, only about 100,000 Americans would have seen him — and this was after three months of traveling! In just an instant, 23 million Americans heard Coolidge speak.

Probably the most successful communicator on the radio was Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945). From the room now known as the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House, Roosevelt used his "fireside chats" to talk directly to Americans about the problems they were facing during the Great Depression in the 1930s and during World War II in the 1940s. Families and friends would sit in their living rooms, by their fireplaces, and listen to the president on their radios. On Sunday night, March 12, 1933, 60 million Americans heard Roosevelt present his first "fireside chat." His calming voice and simple language helped all Americans understand complicated issues and made them believe that the president was working hard to correct the problems they faced in their everyday lives. Before the United States joined the fight against Adolph Hitler’s Germany in World War II, Great Britain asked for America’s help in their struggle against the Nazis. When Roosevelt wanted to explain why the U.S. was lending England guns and ships, he compared it to lending your neighbor a garden hose while his house was on fire — you lend your neighbor what he needs in an emergency, and worry about being repaid later.

Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) was the first president to appear on television from the White House. On October 5, 1947, he spoke about the world food crisis. His speech was seen in New York and Philadelphia. Just two years later, about 10 million viewers saw Truman’s inauguration, and more than 100 million heard it on the radio.

Today, you can turn on the television and see the president almost any day of the year. You can read entire speeches on the Internet and send an email message to the president by visiting the White House website, When the president must leave the White House on business or on vacation, he can speak to the American people from anywhere in the world using satellites to beam his message around the globe.

Audio Activity: Sound Bites

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Below you can select an audio clip from U. S. presidents going back one hundred years. Form a small group and listen to several of the speeches. Pretend you are an assistant to the president. When the president asks you for an honest opinion of his speech, what is your answer? What are his strengths? How can he improve? Write a memo to the president with your suggestions.

Thinking about the president, other leaders, or public figures, compare what the speaker says — the content — with how he or she says it — the delivery. In your opinion, what is the balance between content and delivery? Is one more important than the other? For extra credit, videotape a speech of the president, first lady, or other public figure. Study their delivery — the way they emphasize certain phrases, how they react to their audience, whether or not they use humor or tell stories to get their point across. Play the tape back to your class, pausing the tape when you want to comment on the speaker’s techniques or point out good or bad examples of public speaking.

Citizens of Trenton, New Jersey greet George Washington in 1789.

Library of Congress

Lincoln walks to the War Department building to use the telegraph. Painting by Tom Freeman, 1998

William Howard Taft makes a call.

Library of Congress

Warren Harding records his voice for the phonograph, ca. 1923.

Library of Congress

Calvin Coolidge was the first president to use radio extensively.

Library of Congress

In the 1930's, Herbert Hoover (right) used film to communicate with Americans.

Library of Congress

Lesson plan PDF

Activities PDF