Election Special: What Can We Learn from Historical Campaign Speeches?

Are your kids keeping track of the presidential primaries? The first primary votes were cast this week, even though in a way, it feels like the campaigns have been going on for a long time. But hey, that’s more opportunity to learn!

There’s a lot to glean from discussing campaigns, debates, and the entire process of electing a new president. One way to keep this particular year, which might feel more divided and controversial than past years, in perspective is to listen and watch presidential candidates from previous decades.

Kids are listening to the radio, television, Youtube, and now memes, and they want to know what it all means.

Today’s children may not be able to vote, but they might have more riding on the presidential election than the adults who are doing the voting. These are the people who are going to have to live in a country affected by our leaders and politicians, long after we’re gone from it. Our children are going to be the recipients of the world—and all of its problems—that we leave behind: climate change, the economy, terrorism, racism, and much, much more.

While they can’t vote, they can learn about other candidates throughout history to gain a contextual understanding of the election. By listening to the historical campaign speeches and other addresses from presidents and presidential hopefuls through the ages, kids realize that the problems we face aren’t new ones. There are still plenty of chances to apply their own brains to these lasting challenges.

There is a wealth of archived campaign speeches available for listening and reading. Here are a few to try. Discuss the speeches you hear and ask the accompanying essential questions to get kids thinking about elections and what they mean.

Listen to Dwight E. Eisenhower deliver a campaign speech during which he makes a specific promise.

Campaigning for the presidency in 1952, Eisenhower makes a key promise. (.39)

Why do you think this promise was important then?

Do you think a similar promise would have the same impact today?


Listen to John F. Kennedy talk religion.

While campaigning for the presidency, Senator John F. Kennedy speaks to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, to quell the continuing controversy over his suitability for the presidency because of his religion. September 12, 1960 (2:18)

Why did Kennedy feel the need to reassure people that his religion wouldn’t affect his ability to govern?

Can you think of similar examples from recent elections?


Listen to William McKinley talk about common themes.

William McKinley, 1896

McKinley is addressing issues of peace and prosperity in his campaign speech.

Do you think these topics are addressed during every campaign?

Why are they so important?


A debate is way for the candidates to speak to each other about the issues and try to convince the people that they are the best person for the job of president.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon hold their first presidential debate in 1960.

Are there any issues discussed in this debate that are similar to issues being discussed today?

What are some of the new issues?

Have any of the problems they discuss in 1960 been fully solved?


This speech was delivered by Abraham Lincoln when he was campaigning for the senate in 1858. It was a controversial speech that some people blame as the reason he lost that race, while other people believe this speech helped him win the presidency two years later.

Abraham Lincoln delivers a speech as he campaigns for the senate in 1858.

Not an audio recording—too early!

Lincoln used the metaphor of “a house divided” to talk about slavery. Can you think of any issues that divide our country today? Can you think of some solutions for those problems?

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