But it wasn’t always so.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s acceptance speech wasn’t even a speech. It was a letter, a 216-word epistle. Before closing the letter with the words “your obedient servant,” the Republican nominee thanked the convention delegates for acknowledging U.S. troops. Lincoln accepted his nomination “heartily.”
The first actual acceptance speech took place 36 years later, when nominee William McKinley was unable to attend the 1900 convention and delivered his acceptance speech from his Canton, Ohio, home, according to the American Presidency Project Web site. “The message which you bring to me is one of signal honor,” the speech began.
There’s a reason for the lack of rhetorical flourishes in the early convention speeches: Until the 1950s, presidential conventions were tense affairs, fraught with backroom dealings — the mirror image of today’s glossy, predetermined events. The presidential nominee could very well be surprised by his selection. And a feigned lack of interest in attaining the nation’s highest elected office was a prerequisite for getting the job.
“The candidate could not appear to want the presidency,” explains Doug Wead, a best-selling author of books about presidents and their families and a former adviser to both President Bushes, as well as to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Now acceptance speeches are prime-time events and typically the the most-watched moment of a convention. With that kind of exposure comes the pressure-inducing knowledge that a flub or political miscalculation could inflict irreparable harm.
Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, for example, is remembered for his declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” uttered during his 1964 acceptance speech. With that line, Wead says, Goldwater essentially enabled his Democratic opponent, Lyndon B. Johnson, the incumbent president, to hammer him as a warmonger.
“It was a bad moment for him politically because he needed to show that he wasn’t an extremist,” explains Wead. “He stirred up the faithful, and in retrospect wWhen you read that quote, you’d think that’s not so bad, but at the time people were wanting to see him differently.”
Wead cautions that history will be the ultimate arbiter of how a speech — and more important, the person who delivered it — will be remembered.
“People come back and revisit the speeches [of presidents who are considered great] and say, ‘Oh, it was a great speech,’ ” he says. “But ultimately a president isn’t judged on a speech. He’s judged on different things.”