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How US Presidents Have Communicated with the Public—From the Telegraph to Twitter

February 24, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

From carefully staged speeches to radio to TV to Twitter, U.S. presidents have always leveraged the cutting edge to connect directly with voters.

Two centuries before Twitter, U.S. presidents understood the power of communicating directly with the people. From George Washington to Donald Trump, presidents have always adopted the latest media and technology to connect with voters and forward their political agenda.

George Washington’s State of the Union Address

George Washington was well-aware of the public scrutiny surrounding his presidency, the first experiment with executive power in political experiment that was the United States. America had just unshackled itself from an English monarch and was on high alert for any signs of despotism in its new president. That’s why George Washington played it very safe in his inaugural address, humbly declining to offer any suggestions or ideas to Congress.

Nine months later, on January 8, 1790, Washington fulfilled his constitutional duty (Article II, Section 3) to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Washington’s first State of the Union, like the first inaugural, was a “precisely calibrated political statement,” writes Anna Groves of George Mason University. The president praised Congress and gently offered suggestions regarding the creation of a national currency, a post office and a system of weights and measures, while also weighing in on more controversial topics (even then) like the national debt and immigration.

Washington knew that the speech would be published in the newspapers, so it was a message to the American people as well as Congress. Not unlike modern times, the president’s appearance was as important as his words. The Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser noted that Washington “was dressed in a crow coloured suit of clothes, of American manufacture.”

Abe Lincoln Masters Debate—and the Telegraph

As presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told HISTORY, Abraham Lincoln’s talent as president was the written word, but he first made his name as a gifted debater.

“He’s living in a time when you have to communicate through debates with people, as he did with Stephen Douglas,” says Kearns Goodwin. “They would be there for six hours, and [Lincoln] was so great at these debates.”

Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln speaking on stage during a debate with Steven Douglas and other opponents, October 7, 1858.

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