Skip to main content

Meet the Presidency on Your Own Terms

As launches a new blog on the American presidency, we look at the university site that will provide the raw material for our posts.

Who gave the longest State of the Union? Which inaugural addresses still get quoted? And what exactly is a fireside chat?

With the candidates gearing up for November and election hype intensifying daily, the American presidency is certainly a subject on everyone’s lips. Yet while a quick perusal of the latest headlines can turn anyone into a 2008 presidential expert, when it comes to historical knowledge of the most high-profile job in the country, knowing where to start isn’t always so easy.

Enter the American Presidency Project, a comprehensive Web site featuring every public document of the American presidency — complete with video and audio archives — from convention speeches to signing statements. Created by political scientists John Woolley and Gerhard Peters of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the project offers viewers the chance to read, watch and listen to all 43 presidents — and see firsthand how the presidency has changed.

With almost 80,000 visits in the last month alone and users hailing from every continent, the site’s well-organized, all-encompassing approach to providing primary documents has filled the information void that used to make direct access to presidential records difficult. Yet the Web site — the result of a collaboration between professor and department chair Woolley and graduate student Peters — wasn’t always intended to become a widely cited international resource. Launched in 1999, it was originally designed as a teaching aid for Woolley’s American presidency class.

“It was purely instructional,” Woolley recalled, “a way to really put yourself into a period.” To give students that experience of immersion, he needed a means to provide them with direct and easy access to primary materials, and “the Web seemed like the perfect solution to that.”

But the Web opened doors to more than just student participation, and the site was soon getting traffic not only from other schools but also from other countries. It wasn’t long before its user base had expanded far beyond the university, and in response to its growing popularity, Woolley and Peters began the expansion that is still taking place today. “We’re always looking for ways to keep the site interesting and current,” Woolley said, and it shows: Today, for example, the homepage features election tracking polls, an archives search engine and a “Today in History” feature.

Yet the focus is still on the documents, and browsing the archives is where it really gets fun. According to Woolley, the key to the project’s success is the way it allows viewers to “look in much more detail at exactly what the presidents were doing,” and from that insider vantage point, interesting conclusions are always just around the corner.

For instance, look at both the oldest and the most recent Democratic Party platforms: The first, dated 1840, states that all efforts “made to induce Congress to interfere with questions of slavery … ought not to be countenanced by any friend to our political institutions,” while the 2004 version affirms that the “great achievements of the civil rights movement strengthened America immeasurably — by breaking down the legal barriers to equal citizenship for African-Americans and expanding the circle of equal opportunity for all.” A thought-provoking comparison, to say the least.

And when it comes to finding key links between documents, the opportunities are endless. Taking presidential speeches, addresses and messages from the past two centuries, the UCSB pair has compiled a data page of charts and graphs that detail everything from the rise in the level of public activities of the president to the spiraling costs of general-election campaign financing. Using documents to reveal how the presidency has evolved has always been the Web site’s ambition, and for Woolley, it is also the driving force for improvement.

“One thing I’d like to do is to allow people to compare documents,” he said. “My fantasy for all this is that you could be able to just click and generate a graph.”

With or without that particular feature, the site has enough information to keep everyone from the presidential neophyte to the seasoned U.S. history buff coming back for hours of trawling. Answers abound: The longest State of the Union belongs to Jimmy Carter, at 33,667 words; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural addresses contain such mantras as “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”; and the fireside chats, which took place from 1933 to 1944, were a series of 30 informal radio addresses in which FDR broke new ground in speaking directly and encouragingly to the populace on tender topics, such as the crippling banking crisis.

As for the historic battle on our hands this November, there’s no better time to take a good look at the history — and the signing statements, executive orders and, yes, fireside chats — behind the job that is more central to American politics than ever before.

* * *

To give you a head start, today is launching a new blog — Meet the Presidency — that will collaborate with the American Presidency Project to bring you daily insights into our presidential past. Get ready for November 4th with a four-month historical tour of the most intriguing, amusing and memorable moments of the presidency — from the real origins of Thanksgiving to a presidential message on synthetic rubber and everything in between.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.