Presidents give speeches. We take that for granted. Suggesting that a President should refrain from public speaking is about as inconceivable as imagining that a President would choose to live in a condominium and forego the use of the White House.
The image of POTUS speaking from behind his bullet-proof podium is so deeply imprinted in our consciousness that we tend to overlook the fact that it wasn’t always this way. For over half of the nation’s history, talkative Presidents were the exception. One, in fact, was almost removed from office because he talked too much.
George Washington’s influence on the presidency cannot be overstated. Everything he did set a precedent for his successors. The same cannot be said for his practice of public speaking — at least in terms of modern presidents. During his two terms of office, he averaged three speeches per year.
This sounds shocking to our ears, but he was a blabbermouth compared to his successor, John Adams, who averaged one speech per year for his single term. Thomas Jefferson was a bit more verbose: he averaged five speeches per year for his two terms. His successor, James Madison, made up for any of Jefferson’s verbal excesses. He made no speeches during his two terms. He was the Father of the Constitution, led the United States to victory in the War of 1812, was reelected to a second term, and did not feel the need to step up to a podium a single time.
The first 25 presidents, from George Washington to William McKinley, averaged 12 speeches per year. Even Andrew Jackson, considered by many to be the father of the populist movement, averaged one speech per year.
The shockingly-low number of 12 speeches per year is as high as it is because of two 19th-century presidents who ruined the bell curve. Abraham Lincoln is one, who spoke frequently, using his oratory gifts to help save and heal the Union during the Civil War. The other exception is his successor, Andrew Johnson. Although Lincoln is remembered fondly for his words, Johnson’s tongue almost got him booted out of office.
Andrew Johnson got along with Congress about as well as Cain got along with Abel. Actually, Cain and Abel probably had a warmer relationship. Johnson defied Congress at every turn and took his fights to the public. He toured the country, making speeches in which he railed against Congress and blamed the institution for the nation’s problems.
It is generally known that Johnson was the first president to be impeached. Most people remember that the primary issue was Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act. What is often overlooked is that one of the articles of impeachment charged him with talking too much:
ARTICLE 10. That said Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof, and of the harmony and courtesies which ought to exist and be maintained between the executive and legislative branches of the Government of the United States, designing and intending to set aside the rightful authorities and powers of Congress, did attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States, and the several branches thereof, to impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress and the legislative power thereof, which all officers of the government ought inviolably to preserve and maintain, and to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress and the laws by it duly and constitutionally enacted; and in pursuance of his said design and intent, openly and publicly and before divers assemblages of citizens of the United States, convened in divers parts thereof, to meet and receive said Andrew Johnson as the Chief Magistrate of the United States, did, on the eighteenth day of August, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six, and on divers other days and times, as well before as afterwards, make and declare, with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces, as well against Congress as the laws of the United States duly enacted thereby, amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing, … Which said utterances, declarations, threats and harangues, highly censurable in any, are peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate of the United States, by means whereof the said Andrew Johnson has brought the high office of the President of the United States into contempt, ridicule and disgrace, to the great scandal of all good citizens, whereby said Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, did commit, and was then and there guilty of a high misdemeanor in office. (Emphasis added)
Although Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives, he survived removal from office when the Senate acquitted him by one vote.
Imagine how different life would be today if politicians knew they could lose their jobs for talking too much.
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Categories: Customs, Government, History, Personal Descriptions and Insults, Politics, Presidents, US History
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