When Did Presidents Start Using Speechwriters?

In an offhand comment, the always interesting Mark Kleiman says that "No American President since Lincoln has written his own speeches."

That struck me as unlikely. In searching on the web, I found a reference to William Safire having organized a society of former presidential speechwriters, "the Judson T. Welliver society, named for President 'Silent Cal' Coolidge's speechwriter, the first of his trade." That source also notes that Alexander Hamilton wrote at least some speeches for George Washington.

I wonder whether any of our readers can point me to more evidence whether Welliver was indeed the first presidential speechwriter, and to what extent Presidents from Washington through Harding used occasional speechwriters.

By the way, I once spent a day reading Coolidge's speeches online. They are very impressive, and, like Ted Sorenson's speeches for JFK, they seem to be a strong reflection of the president's character.

Coolidge's most famous line is contained in this January 17, 1925 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors Washington, D.C.:

There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of Goldsmith which everybody repeats, but few really believe:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Excellent poetry, but not a good working philosophy. Goldsmith would have been right, if, in fact, the accumulation of wealth meant the decay of men. It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. . . .

So there is little cause for the fear that our journalism, merely because it is prosperous, is likely to betray us. But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, and probably always will be some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others. But these are becoming constantly a less numerous and less potential element in the community. Their influence, whatever it may seem at a particular moment, is always ephemeral. They will not long interfere with the progress of the race which is determined to go its own for ward and upward way. They may at times somewhat retard and delay its progress, but in the end their opposition will be overcome. They have no permanent effect. They accomplish no permanent result. The race is not traveling in that direction. The power of the spirit always prevails over the power of the flesh. These furnish us no justification for interfering with the freedom of the press, because all freedom, though it may sometime tend toward excesses, bears within it those remedies which will finally effect a cure for its own disorders.

American newspapers have seemed to me to be particularly representative of this practical idealism of our people. Therefore, I feel secure in saying that they are the best newspapers in the world. I believe that they print more real news and more reliable and characteristic news than any other newspaper. I believe their editorial opinions are less colored in influence by mere partisanship or selfish interest, than are those of any other country. Moreover, I believe that our American press is more independent, more reliable and less partisan today than at any other time in its history. I believe this of our press, precisely as I believe it of those who manage our public affairs. Both are cleaner, finer, less influenced by improper considerations, than ever before. Whoever disagrees with this judgment must take the chance of marking himself as ignorant of conditions which notoriously affected our public life, thoughts and methods, even within the memory of many men who are still among us.

It can safely be assumed that self interest will always place sufficient emphasis on the business side of newspapers, so that they do not need any outside encouragement for that part of their activities. Important, however, as this factor is, it is not the main element which appeals to the American people. It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction. No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life. It is in this direction that the public press can lend its strongest support to our Government. I could not truly criticize the vast importance of the counting room, but my ultimate faith I would place in the high idealism of the editorial room of the American newspaper.

wt (mail) (www):
Are you trying to prove that Presidents before Lincoln did indeed use speechwriters, or that some Presidents since Lincoln have never used speechwriters?
5.9.2006 11:48am
James Lindgren (mail):
I'm not "trying to prove" anything. I'm just interested in the facts, whatever they are.

I think I interpreted Kleiman to mean that, starting approximately with Andrew Johnson or Grant, presidents usually gave speeches written by others, not that presidents never wrote their own speeches after Lincoln or that they never used speechwriters before Lincoln.

But Kleiman could have meant that Lincoln was the last president never to have used a speechwriter.

And, of course, it was just an offhand comment on Kleiman's part, so I think it would be better to focus on what the facts are, rather than parsing Kleiman's statement. I think that both Kleiman and I are "reality based," such that we would be guided by the evidence on this point.
5.9.2006 12:01pm
Mikeyes (mail):
According to Edmund Morris, TR wrote all of his own speeches. (This on an interview on PBS) Apparently Reagan wrote some of his speeches as did FDR. So, at least by one biographer, Lincoln was not the last president to write all of his own speeches.
5.9.2006 12:51pm
Coolidge fan:
More important - Calvin Coolidge was the greatest President of the 20th century, and one of the greatest ever. He is probably Exhibit A in demonstrating that those "best prezzes" lists by academics are all lefty.
5.9.2006 1:10pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Hamilton definitely played a major role in writing Washington's Farewell Address. As I recall, the main argument among historians is the degree of Washington's input.
5.9.2006 1:19pm
Wild Bill:
Actually, Madison wrote a significant portion of the Farewell Address too - when Washington was thinking about retiring after his first term. Even though Madison was moving into the opposition by the end of Washington's 2nd term, a good chunk of Madison's original writing stayed in the final draft.
5.9.2006 2:21pm
As to Lincoln, depends what you mean. At least part of the draft First Inaugural Address was written by Seward. But Lincoln subjected it to one of the greatest rewrites in history:

Here's Seward:
I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. . . . The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln made this of it:
I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. . . . The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
A speaking intimacy and, with it, a compelling urgency and warmth were achieved through simplification and a subtly improved concreteness. 'Fellow country-men and brethren' became 'friends', 'hearths' became 'hearthstones', and Seward's forced 'mystic chords. . . patriot graves. . . hearts. . . hearths. . . ancient music. . . guardian angel' trope was deftly broken into separate components; especially striking is the way in which the upward glance at the supposed 'guardian angel of the nation' was turned inward, to the 'better angels of our nature.' Like Twain, Lincoln pared Latinate rotundity from American English and conjured music from plain words.
(last paragraph by John Updike, The New Yorker (October 30, 1996), p. 108.)
5.9.2006 2:40pm
Matt L. (mail):
I always thought Coolidge's most famous line was "You lose." (From the White House bio: "A young woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him. Without looking at her he quietly retorted, 'You lose.'")
5.9.2006 3:40pm
Judson Welliver was almost certainly the first official speechwriter -- if only because Bill Safire said so and if anybody knew different, that person would have jumped on Safire with both boots.

And the University of Virginia agrees.
5.9.2006 6:56pm
duglmac (mail):
I seem to remember reading somewhere that JFK used to write some of his own speeches. Sometimes even in the throne room.
5.9.2006 7:51pm
In her book "Simply Speaking" (1998), Peggy Noonan mentions that Safire is the president for life of the Judson Welliver Society (p.38), and that Welliver was the first presidential speechwriter. Later, in a section on relationships between presidents and their speechwriters, she writes "By the way, as most of you know, presidential speechwriters are nothing new. Alexander Hamilton wrote some of George Washington's farwell, Lincoln sought out help on his speeches from cabinet secretaries and friends. FDR's great speechwriters not only worked closely with him but drafted much of the literature of the New Deal." (126-127)
I guess even if Noonan is right, Kleiman may be partially right. Lincoln probably did more of the actual speechwriting than anyone since, but he didn't do it absolutely solo. My guess is the Welliver was the first presidential speechwriter without another role in the administration, the first speechwriter AS speechwriter.
5.9.2006 10:39pm