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Campaign speeches that rocked political conventions

August 29, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


Will Mitt Romney or Barack Obama be able to rock their conventions with a stirring speech? Here’s a look past speeches and slogans that brought down the house, from Lincoln to Reagan.

Political parties and conventions weren’t part of the scene in America’s early days. Political parties, in particular, weren’t really envisioned by the Constitution’s framers.

But the election of 1800 featured bitter, partisan politics that led to the start of our current political-party system.

Political conventions followed in the 1830s, with the Democrats holding their first meeting in 1832, to nominate Andrew Jackson. The newly formed Republicans used conventions in 1856 and 1860 to nominate John Fremont and Abraham Lincoln, respectively.

Lincoln caused a stir at the 1864 National Union convention in Baltimore with comments to delegates that said the nation shouldn’t “swap horses when crossing streams.” There are several accounts of how Lincoln made the remarks and it remains part of his legacy.

The speech that started in all

It was a riveting speech in 1896 by a 36-year-old candidate from Nebraska at the Democratic convention that made convention slogans and speeches a big-time event.

William Jennings Bryan’s speech about “A Cross of Gold” in Chicago caused a sensation among the audience, and Bryan walked away with the presidential nomination.

"You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” Bryan said in the last sentence of his speech, addressing a heated national debate over gold or silver as a currency standard. He received a 25-minute ovation as delegates hoisted Bryan up on their shoulders.

Franklin D. Roosevelt took the stage at the 1932 Democratic convention to introduce “The New Deal,” his plan to remake the American political system as a response to the Great Depression.

“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” Roosevelt concluded. “This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”

Roosevelt’s speech was  a model for future candidate convention speeches, and it was also used, in part, by Ronald Reagan in 1980 to prove a few points.

Roosevelt’s final vice president, Harry S. Truman, used the 1948 convention point a finger of blame at Congress for the nation’s problems.

“Congress has still done nothing,” Truman pleaded at a deeply divided convention in Philadelphia. "With the help of God and the wholehearted push which you can put behind this campaign, we can save this country from a continuation of the 80th Congress, and from misrule from now on."

Truman survived a walkout by the Dixiecrat faction of the Democrats and successfully used the "do-nothing" Congress as a weapon against the favored Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey.

Four years later, the Republican nominee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, united the GOP convention in Chicago with claims he was ready to lead a crusade to take America back from “a party too long in power.”

“It is more than a nomination I accept today. It is a dedication—a dedication to the shining promise of tomorrow,” Eisenhower said in his conclusion.

Kennedy and Goldwater

John F. Kennedy used the 1960 convention as a platform to attack GOP candidate Richard Nixon and to position the Democrats as the party of the future.

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of the 1960s--a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils--a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats,” Kennedy said in a speech that linked his rhetoric with two past Democratic presidents: Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.

But perhaps that biggest convention stir was at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, when candidate Barry Goldwater made a memorable speech that Democrats used against him in the general campaign.

“Anyone who joins us in all sincerity, we welcome. Those who do not care for our cause, we don't expect to enter our ranks in any case. And let our Republicanism, so focused and so dedicated, not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels,” Goldwater proclaimed to a then-divided convention.

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” the candidate proclaimed to a frenzied convention audience.

Goldwater lost the election by a wide margin to Lyndon Johnson, but elements of Goldwater’s speech formed parts of the GOP philosophy later used by Ronald Reagan.

Reagan spoke at seven Republican conventions, and he directly quoted FDR’s 1932 Democratic nomination speech to illustrate how big government needed to be cut.

“I believe it is clear our federal government is overgrown and overweight. Indeed, it is time for our government to go on a diet,” Reagan said before quoting FDR’s 1932 speech and concluding, “The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands.”

In 1992, Bill Clinton linked his campaign to another young Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy in 1960.

“As a teenager, I heard John Kennedy's summons to citizenship,” Clinton told a convention audience in New York. But Clinton also tied his campaign to his middle-class roots in Hope, Arkansas.

“My fellow Americans, I end tonight where it all began for me--I still believe in a place called Hope,” he concluded.

And in another memorable convention speech, Barack Obama concluded his remarks in 2008 with a theme that will continue at the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte.

“America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future,” he told an audience in Denver.

For more about recent convention speeches, with full text and video, go to The American Presidency Project at

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