ADLAI E. STEVENSON, "A NEW AMERICA," ACCEPTANCE ADDRESS AT THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION (17 AUGUST 1956): TEACHING AND LEARNING MATERIALS

 

Classroom Activities

 

A. "Truth" and "leadership" are two of the fundamental concepts that Stevenson repeats in his acceptance address. How do you believe Stevenson defines these ideas in the speech? Why would he choose these as major rhetorical themes? List the different ways in which these words are used by Stevenson in the speech.

 

B. In the last two presidential campaigns, both Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry were accused of being "too intellectual" by their opponents and certain segments of the news media. Adlai Stevenson also experienced a similar backlash in his campaigns. Why do you believe such charges are politically successful? Do you believe it is a particular problem faced by the Democratic Party or is the stigma of intellectualism a bi-partisan phenomenon?

 

C. One of Stevenson’s major arguments in his 1956 convention address is that the Republican Party, despite their attacks, had essentially co-opted the New Deal reforms as major planks of their agenda. What evidence exists for Stevenson's charge? Also, why would Stevenson choose to distance himself and his Party from the New Deal?

 

D. In both of his presidential campaigns, Adlai Stevenson won very few states in the elections. Yet, the states in which he was most successful were located in the Southern part of the United States. In today's political culture, the Democratic Party is often said to be most prevalent in the Northeast and in major urban areas. What changes in the Democratic Party may have contributed to this? How did the Democratic Party evolve in its principles and in the make-up of its supporters?

 

E. Read the on-line article by David Greenberg from Slate magazine from 2000 on the legacy of Adlai Stevenson at http://www.slate.com/default.aspx?id=85306. How does the article talk about the memory of Adlai Stevenson? How relevant do you believe the article is in assessing his legacy and his effect on the politicians and the campaigns of today?

 

Student Research

 

A. Trace the evolution of the jeremiad back to its origins in Puritan America. What characterized the time period and the Puritan way of life that made the jeremiad a fitting form of political and religious engagement for the community? Why do you think political figures still use these themes in their discourse?

 

B. Kurt Ritter's 1980 study argues that most presidential nomination addresses share very similar qualities, following closely in the tradition of the modern secular jeremiad. Find recent presidential nomination speeches and see if they continue to fit this framework as outlined by Ritter. Do they make similar moral pronouncements about returning to core American values? Do they offer new paths to their audiences? Look closely at the language and structure of your selected speeches.

 

C. Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy were linked very closely politically. Many of Stevenson's New America platform issues resurfaced under Kennedy's New Frontier programs in the 1960s. Kennedy was close to becoming Stevenson's Vice Presidential nominee in 1956 and Stevenson was close to being nominated as JFK's Secretary of State in 1960, but ended up as the Ambassador to the United Nations. Research the personal connections between Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. What type of relationship did they share and what political differences did they espouse?

 

D. One of the issues mentioned in the New America speech and throughout the 1956 campaign that continually haunted Stevenson was his call to end the testing of the hydrogen bomb. Research the history of H-bomb testing by the United States. Why do you think Stevenson received criticism for his call to end these tests? How did the Eisenhower campaign treat this issue?

E. Conduct research on the history of American political conventions in America. How have they changed over time to meet an evolving political system? Do you believe that they remain relevant to the outcomes of elections?

 

F. Adlai Stevenson has been considered one of the most famous presidential losers in modern history. Find out more about losing presidential candidates in the last fifty years (e.g., Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, and others). Are there certain key factors across many of these candidates that cost them their elections? What were the political climates that caused their messages not to resonate with the American people? How powerful do you think incumbency is on American voters?

 

G. Stevenson prided himself on being present at the birth of an "extraordinary infant" in the early days of the United Nations. Research the origins of the United Nations. Who were the major figures in the UN's inception? What kind of struggles did the institution face at the time?

 

H. One of Adlai Stevenson's most famous images derived from the 1952 campaign trail in a photo where he appeared to be editing a speech before an event. Locate other behind-the-scenes photographs from American political campaigns and discuss what you believe they illuminate about the particular candidate being photographed and what it says about the campaign process.

 

Citizenship Resources

 

A. Stevenson's most famous line from his 1956 acceptance address is his proclamation that "The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal – that you can gather votes like box tops – is, I think the ultimate indignity to the democratic process" (31). Choose and explore a recent political campaign and its advertising strategy. Look at campaign print ads, debates, speaking appearances, commercials, and fliers. Evaluate if you think "merchandising" continues to be a major part of the political process.

 

B. Adlai Stevenson's discomfort with the medium of television was said to be a major downfall in both of his presidential campaigns. Compare and contrast a group of presidential candidates and their approaches to television. Are there certain universal qualities that guarantee a candidate success on TV? Generate a list of possible criteria for how political candidates can improve their reception on television.

 

C. Adlai Stevenson's 1956 campaign was marked by a difficult and exhausting primary season where he spent much time and resources attempting to beat his eventual Vice-President nominee, Estes Kefauver. Discuss how you think the system of primary elections affects candidates today. After conducting research, take a position and decide if you think the primary system helps or hurts the political process.

 

D. Stevenson said in the 1956 speech that "We must protect the new nations in their exercise of their full independence; and we must help other people out of Communist or colonial servitude along the hard road to freedom" (60). In what ways did this become an institutional part of American foreign policy? Explore some of the major historical instances across the globe in which America followed this path (and continues to follow this path).

 

E. Adlai Stevenson received criticism for actively seeking the nomination in the 1956 campaign, rather than being "drafted" like he was in his 1952 campaign. Look back into American history and trace the concept of the "Cincinnatus" myth, where political candidates humbly take on the mantle of power instead of openly seeking it. How have political candidates used this to their advantage? Why do you think such an image may resonate with the American people?

 

F. Looking at Adlai Stevenson's campaign papers and documents, provide a window into the contexts surrounding his campaigns. Review the web site of an archival depository like the Library of Congress, the National Archives, a presidential library, or a state historical society and identify the ways that such sites provide resources for research projects related to the study of public discourse, particularly during the Cold War.