Presidential voices of the past

By Michael Rubin

It’s amazing how much has been lost to history simply because humanity had no way to preserve it. Writing, for example, is only 5,000 years old and so little is known about societies which predate that period.

Even after the Sumerians invented writing, however, little is known about what key historical figures looked like. Sure, sculpture and paintings exist, but many — Roman statues and Egyptian sarcophagi — for example, are all highly stylized and seldom reflect the actual image. The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel, displays a collection of mosaics from around the world, each depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary differently.

National Archives.

For actual images, however, we must rely on photography, but that’s an art less than 200 years old. The first ex-President to be photographed was John Quincy Adams, who sat for a daguerreotype 14 years after leaving office, and five years before his 1848 death.

But even that is only the image of a man. Take Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday along with George Washington’s we celebrate today. We have photographs of Lincoln and generations of school children have memorized his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. But what did Lincoln or, for that matter, Washington sound like? Some description exist, but they only help scholars imagine their voices. The simple fact is their unique voices died with them.

So, who is the earliest president we can hear? On this President’s Day, an interesting collection to visit is the Vincent Voice Library at Michigan State University, whose collection of presidential recordings is now online. The earliest president whose voice is preserved is Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States who occupied the White House from 1889–1893; he died eight years later. He was succeeded by Grover Cleveland, whose voice is lost to history, but then the collection includes every president from William McKinley through Barack Obama.

In the maelstrom of Washington politics, the 24-hour news cycle, facts and perhaps alternative facts, it is worth stepping back for a moment and considering in what a time we live. On the 138th Presidents’ Day (or Washington’s Birthday as it was originally known), most Americans know what the president looks like and how he sounds. When the federal government first created the holiday in 1879, that was a privilege only a few enjoyed.


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