Commencement Addresses Delivered by Incumbent U.S. Presidents, 1914-2010: A Historical Analysis

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 4/10 |

The first Presidential commencement address at a historically-black institution was delivered by Herbert Hoover at Howard University in June 1932. Hoover, who was pre-occupied with the Great Depression, was on a harried speaking engagement. Dressed in an ordinary suit and tie, Hoover began: “It is an inspiration to come into this great institution of higher education for the Negro race. Nothing that the Federal Government has done reflects more credit upon it for the meeting of an obligation than this institution to bring to a great segment of our population the means of overcoming a handicap for which they were not responsible and of leveling upward for them an equal opportunity to share in the full measure of citizenship with their brethren of other races. It is vital in a democracy that the public opinion upon which it rests shall be an informed and educated opinion. The Negro race comprises 10 percent of our population, and unless this 10 percent is developed proportionately with the rest of the population, it cannot pull its proper strength at the oars of our pressing problems of democracy” (Hoover, 1932).

Given that Civil Rights for African-Americans were almost non-existent at that point in time, the timing and manner of speaking suggests that this address was ceremonial in nature. Timing-wise, this speech could be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the “Emancipation Proclamation” because the status-quo since the Emancipation was still active. The “Emancipation Proclamation” was still in effect because no African-American was enslaved. However, almost 70 years since then, they were still being denied common rights. Similarly, the timing of Hoover’s address could also be commemorating education at Howard because the institution was founded 65 years ago up to that point.

President Harry S. Truman’s June 1952 appearance at Howard was the school’s second Presidential commencement address. However, Truman became the first President to specifically address black disenfranchisement in his commencement address. He spoke candidly of the issue:

“I wish I could say to you who are graduating today that no opportunity to use your skills and knowledge would ever be denied you. I can say this: I know what it means not to have opportunity. I wasn't able to go to college at all. I had to stay at home and work on the family farm. You have been able to get the college education that is so important to everyone in this country. Some of us are denied opportunity for economic reasons. Others are denied opportunity because of racial prejudice and discrimination. I want to see things worked out so that everyone who is capable of it receives a good education. I want to see everyone have a chance to put his education to good use, without unfair discrimination” (Truman, 1952).

Unlike Hoover’s short 377-word address, Truman’s speech was much longer. It showed a noticeable, gradual trend in the acknowledgement of the struggle for equality among African Americans.

Like most of his predecessors’ commencement addresses delivered up to that point, Truman’s speech was no accident. First, the venue was appropriate because, due to its Washington-centric location, Howard is one of the most well-known (if not the best-known) of all the historically-black colleges in the U.S. The most effective rhetorical techniques in Truman’s address were blending ethos, logos and pathos. Truman’s ethos as President would have been enough in and of itself to speak on the topic. However, he increased his ethos substantially when he used logos to reveal that he was someone who experienced the longing for an education. Truman’s pathos was particularly effective during the first and last sentences of this part of his speech. The phrases “I wish” and “I want to see” appeals to the audiences’ emotions because Truman was convinced that his goals were a noble cause. He felt the need to share his personal experiences through logos to enhance the appeal of these goals while he still had time in office. Although the movement was still in its infancy by that point, it made enough of an impact to coax Truman to take action at the podium stand.

On May 30, 1964 Johnson gave the commencement oration for the University of Texas (UT)-Austin. In his speech, delivered at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he advocated equal rights for African Americans. He directly asked his audience: “Will you decide to leave the future a society where a man is kept from sharing in our national life because of the color of his skin, or the church he attends, or the place of his birth? Or will you join to give every American the equal rights which are his birthright?” (Johnson, 1964). Without a doubt, the Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important social upheavals of the 1960s. Johnson, during the latter part of his speech, utilized pathos and ethos in several ways to build support for this measure. Like the address the week prior at the University of Michigan, Johnson’s address at UT-Austin had an audience that was still recovering from Kennedy’s assassination. In a sense, Johnson was subtly asking the audience, “What better way to honor President Kennedy’s memory than to pass into law a policy he felt was important?” Since Kennedy’s death was fairly recent at the time, the public was almost guaranteed to give the matter more due consideration compared to later years.

Johnson’s second use of ethos occurred at the end of his commencement speech. Unlike appealing nationally in Kennedy’s memory, he appealed more regionally to UT-Austin itself. However, the issue of Civil Rights was still at the heart of his talk. He concluded: “The inscription over the Main Building at the University of Texas reads, ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth shah make you free.’ Only by opening the truths of knowledge to all our people can we free them for a future of greatness” (Johnson, 1964). Johnson’s ingenious use of the school’s motto—a source of tradition and pride for every school—conjures up affection for the university. Johnson placed UT in the national spotlight because it's motto would be the one of the goals of Johnson’s Presidency. Johnson, no doubt aware of the publicity surrounding minority access to education, made this one of his primary goals for the “Great Society” programs he passed.

When advocating a policy, the President can refer to a long line of predecessors. Lara Brown (2007), a Political Science Professor at Villanova University explains the significance of this rhetorical strategy: “When presidents reference other presidents, it is important, even when they say it is not. These references are rhetorical ploys that invite comparisons, offer justifications, and provide gravitas to the president on the subject matter” (Brown, 125). Since the President comes from a long line of predecessors dating back over two centuries, the office commands significant authority. The President’s ethos reminds the audience that, since their predecessors led the country through times of peace and discontent, the U.S. under their leadership will stand the test of time both domestically and abroad.

Bill Clinton referred to two of his predecessors during his 1996 Princeton speech, stressing the university’s long history of being in the shadow of Presidents. He began his speech by remarking: “It's a great honor to be here in celebrating Princeton's 250 years. I understand that Presidents are only invited to speak here once every 50 years. President Truman and President Cleveland—you've got to say one thing, for all the troubles the Democrats have had in the 20th century, we've had pretty good timing when it comes to Princeton over the last 100 years” (Clinton, 1996). By itself, these remarks indicate a common pattern among Presidents—their speaking presence is by no means an accident. In Clinton’s case, we can see a clear chronological pattern. As the United States’ fifth-oldest college, Princeton University’s long history pre-dates the U.S. because it was founded prior to American Independence. In light of this long history, it has created ties with many Presidents. Future U.S. Presidents James Madison and Woodrow Wilson were educated there, U.S. President Grover Cleveland was born nearby and Harry S. Truman delivered the 1947 commencement.

Likewise, at another Ivy League University, John F. Kennedy quoted one of the greatest U.S. Presidents when getting to the heart of his message. At Yale University’s 1962 Commencement, he spoke: “Nearly 150 years ago Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘The new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.’ New words, new phrases, the transfer of old words to new objects-that is truer today than it was in the time of Jefferson, because the role of this country is so vastly more significant. There is a show in England called ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.’ You have not chosen to exercise that option. You are part of the world and you must participate in these days of our years in the solution of the problems that pour upon us, requiring the most sophisticated and technical judgment; and as we work in consonance to meet the authentic problems of our times, we will generate a vision and an energy which will demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and the strength of the free society” (Kennedy, 1962).

In Kennedy’s case, he chose to directly quote one of his predecessors towards the end of his speech. Not only did Kennedy quote history, but he also made history himself by becoming the first speaker at Yale since 1903 to deliver a commencement speech at a traditionally speechless event. Jefferson, who was one of the United States’ founding fathers, tackled many of the same issues that the people of 1962 were facing. The key issue at hand, according to Kennedy’s State of the Union Address that year, was “to fulfill the world's hopes by fulfilling our own faith” (Kennedy, 1962). While the issues were the same, they were re-branded with modern words.

Similar to previewing and advocating a policy, a President may also use the commencement podium to justify a policy already passed. Certainly, a President must display significant ethos for the audience to believe the President’s message (Moore, 335). Regardless of the policy that they are trying to defend, the universal goal of any President is to build unity amongst the people, including those who are neutral or negative to their views.

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