President Grant’s “Era of Silence”

In this day and age, every word and every sound bite from a President is captured and re-circulated through social media, broadcast and online news reports, and in print.

Today’s president has a substantial communications staff. They create, manage, and collect all sorts of information. This staff impacts public perception of the president, his policies, and his administration. One may ask if this is a 20th century phenomenon or if this has always been case?

In looking back at presidents in the 19th Century, their utterances were captured by journalists and printed by a variety of newspapers, illustrated weeklies, and political ephemera. But dissemination was spotty. Not until the telegraph did news reports span the nation quickly enough to really impact a president or campaign.

The article below, from Frank Leslie’s Weekly discusses the beginning of President Grant’s administration and his decision to pursue an “era of silence.”

This article is one of many that can be found in Frank Leslie’s Weekly on politics, politicians, election campaigns, congressional issues, and even the president’s thoughts and musings (or lack thereof).  Political cartoons, drawings, and eventually photographs were essential in conveying views on specific issues and politicians to the partially literate and illiterate public.

The Era of Silence.

President Ulysses S. Grant

President Ulysses S. Grant

It is generally supposed that under the coming administration of President Grant there will be a great change in the conduct of public affairs, and we are not sure but that there are good grounds for such a belief. Already in the debates in Congress we see a shadow of coming events, and if the rising sun has so much power, what may we not expect from its meridian splendor? The plaintive pleadings of the Danish Minister that we should exchange dollars, of which we have too few, for land which he has to spare, but of which we have quite enough, fall on ears deaf to the voice of the charmer. The more robust and potent influences of the managers of railway schemes fail to extort from Congress enormous grants of the people’s lands for their own sordid purposes. Everywhere there are signs that greed, peculation, and corruption are vanishing before the advent of an able and purified government, and the people rejoice and take courage.

It would be exaggerating the influence of the Presidential office to say that the personal habits of our Presidents have made any impression, even of a transient kind, on the people of their times. Even the intense individuality of Andrew Jackson failed to leave a mark on his generation, and a few terse phrases, familiar to everyone, are all that survive of that fiery character. It will not be held by any one acquainted with the true spirit of our republican institutions that the deficiency we allude to ought, in any respect, to detract from the veneration due to the characters of a long line of illustrious Presidents. It may be, indeed, that the possession of any strongly marked peculiarity of character, or even of dress, or of speech, would be fatal to the hopes of an aspirant to the Presidency, and we will not dispute the justice of the popular belief, that the qualities of mind and heart required in a President are incompatible with the existence of those distinctive traits by which men of inferior mental and moral calibre seek to attract to themselves the attention of the public.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.
Still it is not difficult to imagine that there might be in a President some peculiarities which would serve to distinguish him not alone from former Presidents, but also from all, or nearly all, other public men, and these peculiarities might be, further, of a kind which would commend themselves at once to public opinion, and be deemed worthy of general imitation. What if a President should thus set a fashion, should thus establish a custom differing essentially from that of his predecessors, and which, by its simplicity and obvious propriety, should commend itself to his successors?

Washington, D.C., The Inauguration, President Grant Taking the Oath of Office

Washington, D.C., The Inauguration, President Grant Taking the Oath of Office

In nothing has General Grant been more remarkable, in no respect has he more widely departed from the examples of the past Presidents, than in his power of silence. Even on those occasions when it was imperative on him to make some public reply, his speech has been characterized by a brevity and crispness which stand in refreshing contrast to the orations that any other public man would, in his position, have poured into the public ear. We gave one instance last week, and our readers must be familiar with others of the same kind. But suppose this example should be infectious, that word-spinning should be—in the language of Wall street—at a discount, that men should come to be esteemed by what they do, and not by what they say, that long speeches should be considered as signs of a plethora of words but paucity of ideas, who can measure the sense of relief which the reading and listening public would experience?

Nothing oppresses the general reader now-a-days more than the difficulty of selecting what he shall read, while to those whose duty it is to keep abreast with the literature of the day, especially with its journalism, there is added to the sense of incompleteness a feeling of confusion and inexactitude very unfavorable to the precision of thought which ought to be the aim and end of every student. There are certain things which everybody must read; but who pretends to read the speeches reported? Who, still less, would have the patience to listen to them? It is said of Magliabecchi, that, give him the name of an author and the title of his book, he could foretell very accurately all he would be likely to say on any subject. It requires less acquaintance with the current of politics in our day than the eminent Italian had with the literature of his, to know beforehand how most public speakers are sure to treat any particular topic. Everybody can anticipate what Wendell Phillips will say about Grant, what Butler will say on reconstruction or Johnson, what Sumner will say on the slave trade, Train, on Ireland, Choate, on New England, or Walbridge, on free trade; and the consequence is, that their “great speeches” are never read, and even the condensed reports given by the press are only skimmed over by the public. We are content with the bare outline, and can fill up tissues and nerves of the skeleton at our pleasure. The fact is, that speeches, as now delivered, carry no conviction to anyone, but those already convinced, and it would be to the manifest convenience and advantage of the public if the tricks of oratory were less indulged in, and only the pith and marrow of the speaker’s sentiments found utterance.

It is related of a celebrated Mohammedan preacher, that he thus addressed from the pulpit a congregation assembled in the mosque: “O sons of the faithful, do you know what I am going to say to you?” And the people, answering, said: “Yes, we know.” “Then,” said he, “what is the use of my telling it to you?” The following Friday he again began: “O sons of the faithful, do you know what I am going to say to you?” And the people replied: “No, we do not know.” “What!” said he, “have I preached to you these many years, and you yet do not know?” Again, the next Friday, he began: “O, sons of the faithful, do you know what I am going to say to you?” And the people, having consulted together, answered: “Some of us do know, and some of us do not know.” “Then,” said the preacher, “let those who do know tell those who do not.” It is not unreasonable to suppose that the people, having been wearied with long harangues, gladly hailed the commencement of a new fashion of address, which, for aught we know, may continue to the present day, to the great advantage of both preacher and audience.

Henry Ward Beecher said lately, as reported, “that gas and he came to Brooklyn at the same time.” His audience laughed, probably being reminded of the metaphorical sense in which carbureted hydrogen is sometimes vulgarly used. It is very certain that a similar coincidence will never be remarked about General Grant’s coming to Washington.

Source: Frank Leslies Weekly, February 20, 1869
First image: President Ulysses S. Grant,  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-13018 (b&w film copy neg. of cropped image) LC-BH82601-3703 (b&w film copy neg.)
Second image: Frank Leslie’s Weekly, March 15, 1873 – Caption: Washington, D.C., The Inauguration, President Grant Taking the Oath of Office

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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