The Origins of Modern Campaigning
Within a decade of George Washington’s non-partisan elections to the presidency, political parties emerged. Voters could choose among the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, and finally, in 1854, Republicans. Presidential candidates initially did not travel to campaign: they were called to be the nominees but it was considered inappropriate to ask voters directly to vote for them. Thus it was up to local supporters to organize campaign events and speak on their behalf. Parades, rallies, and stump speeches by surrogates were followed on Election Day by voter drives in taverns and on the streets. Partisan newspapers were another part of the mix aligning themselves with a particular party and openly slanting news coverage to favor allies and excoriate enemies. Commercial publishers quickly realized they could make money by printing and selling broadsides, cards, and prints depicting the candidates of all parties. As one of Lincoln’s supporters noted, “I am coming to believe that likenesses broad cast, are excellent means of electioneering.” And an opponent complained, “the country is flooded with pictures of Lincoln, in all conceivable shapes and sizes, and cheap.”
Party symbols also emerged during this era. Although the great cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with popularizing the donkey to symbolize the Democrats and the elephant for the Republicans, the donkey originated during the 1828 campaign of Andrew Jackson when he was accused of being a “jackass.” He turned the tables on his enemies by adopting the donkey for its virtues. Nast reintroduced the donkey after the Civil War and also the elephant as the symbol of the Republicans. His cartoons, and those by his predecessors and contemporaries, were published in mass market magazines—as well as in newspapers and as separate, sheet prints—and are credited with widely influencing voters at a time when most would never see or hear their White House candidate in person. Instead, the public read campaign materials, attended barbecues, picnics, parades, mass meetings, and rallies. Campaign songs written about candidates fit right into a culture where singing was popular. Many of these early voter solicitation activities are still staples of presidential campaigns today in one form or another.
The first Republican candidate for president was explorer John Fremont in 1856. He stood for “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men,” but lost to Democrat and Southern sympathizer James Buchanan. Abraham Lincoln was the Republican candidate in 1860. While he remained home town of Springfield, Illinois seeing visitors and corresponding with supporters, prints and broadsides brought his face and views before the voting public. (The only candidate before him to campaign on the road was William Henry Harrison in 1840 who gave 20 speeches traveling by horse and stage.) This ornate chart provided voters with detailed information about the Republican Party platform, biographies of Lincoln and his vice presidential running mate Hannibal Hamlin, selections from Lincoln’s speeches, and his portrait encircled by a rail fence emblematic of his pioneer life. Surrounding him with images of the previous presidents may have suggested to voters that he belonged in that pantheon, too. However, as a savvy businessman, the same printer published a comparable version for the Democratic Party, as well as one that depicted all the candidates. Posted on a wall, or the side of a building, such posters would capture the attention of a highly literate electorate. Broadsides were used widely from the first presidential elections through the turn of the 20th century. Anti-slavery advocates, women’s suffrage organizations, temperance societies, political parties, union leadership, and many other organizations published broadsides to convey their position in concise and widely publishable formats. Sometimes these productions had unexpected impact. After seeing a copy of this chart in Chautauqua County, New York, an eleven-year-old girl wrote to Lincoln suggesting he grow a beard to improve his appearance. A few weeks later after his election, he did so and retained it the rest of his life.
From the 18th through the 19th centuries, political cartoons were a popular form of political protest and often depicted rival politicians in satirical or unflattering ways and of course are still in use today. This cartoon depicts a lithe Lincoln with those who opposed his candidacy and rejected his opposition to the spread of slavery. He is shown in a cape and cap with a lantern, the attire of young men who supported him by forming para-military groups known as “Wide Awakes.” Peeking around the corner is John Bell of Tennessee, candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, who opposed secession, arguing that the Constitution protected slavery. He is shown talking to Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois – who had fiercely debated Lincoln for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1858 – as the candidate of the Northern Democrats; the Southern Democrats had split from the party in opposition to any restrictions on the expansion of slavery and their candidate was Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who is seen here being assisted by pro-southern President James Buchanan. The “Nebraska” key that Douglas holds refers to his sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allowed residents of Western territories to choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. Douglas campaigned in the North and South trying to stem secessionist talk in the likelihood of Lincoln’s victory at the polls.
Lincoln won 1.8 million votes (40% of the popular vote but a clear majority of 180 electoral votes). Douglas won 1.3 million votes (30% of the popular vote, 12 electoral votes), just about the total of all popular votes for Bell and Breckinridge, who swept the Southern states.
During Lincoln’s second presidential campaign this propaganda piece suggested the “worst” social outcome for Lincoln’s abolition of slavery. Engineered by the racist, anti-war New York World, the picture depicted a topsy-turvy future in which the President (left) might actually bow to a woman of color; mixed-race couples (including Horace Greeley, editor of the anti-slavery New York Tribune, right, introduces his Black friend), courted in public; and white coachmen might “shockingly” drive African-American couples instead of the other way around. Lincoln won New York State for the second time in 1864, but the race-baiting campaign about him drove down his majority.
From 1800 onward presidential campaign songs and songbooks filled the air at rallies, parades, and debates. A watershed moment in campaign music history occurred during the 1840 campaign of General William Henry Harrison against incumbent President Martin van Buren. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was the official song supporting Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler. Harrison had defeated American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and helped defeat the British in 1812. Like almost every other campaign song in every presidential campaign going forward, this song was a contrafactum: a popular preexisting tune matched to new lyrics. Set to the tune of Yankee Doodle, the chorus declared “Old Zack Taylor! Keep Him up! / Honest, Rough and Ready! / We’ve a voucher in his life / He’s good as he is steady.”
“Tyler and Tippecanoe (1840)” from Election Songs of the United States by Oscar Brand. Released: 1960. Track 4 of 26. Genre: Folk.
A number of songs were written about Lincoln, but “Honest Old Abe” endures. It was set to original music. Here is one verse and chorus:
Ye Democrats list to my story,
Ye Douglasites all give me heed;
Though your Candidate’s running for glory,
He’s not making very good speed.
But out on the wide rolling prairie
A tall Sucker [native of Illinois] has taken the course,
Who will wind up the race in a hurry
And distance your Stubby-tailed horse.
Then hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!
Then hurrah! for honest old Abe, boys,
For honest old Abe of the West.
“Honest Old Abe” from Music for Abraham Lincoln: Campaign Songs, Civil War Tunes, Laments for a President by Anne Enslow & Ridley Enslow. Released: 2009. Track 2 of 18. Genre: Folk.
The 1828 election contest between incumbent John Quincy Adams and challenger Andrew Jackson highlights an election precedent. Adams, the Eastern lawyer, diplomat, and son of a Founding Father, squared off against ‘Old Hickory,’ the Indian-fighting General and frontier slave owner of the West who had nearly defeated Adams four years earlier. Jackson’s nickname came from his service in the War of 1812 when his soldiers said he was “tough as hickory,” so hickory broom sticks and canes were distributed during the campaign. While Jackson did not campaign, he was the first candidate to run his own campaign by communicating directly with local Democratic committees across the country and he readily won his rematch with Adams. This poster was commissioned by Henry Clay, his opponent in 1832, to remind voters of the British monarchy they had escaped not so long before and which seemed to mirror Jackson’s heavy use of the veto. Such vitriolic and personal attacks can be found in many later presidential campaigns.
“Hunkers” was a pejorative term referring to a New York Democratic Party political faction—hence the donkey (jackass)—that consented to political compromises to allow the continuation and spread of slavery; its opponents, the “Barnburners,” were antislavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which permitted voters in each territory to decide whether to allow slavery as they became states, led to violence in Kansas and more polarization around the issue throughout the nation. In 1856 James Buchanan won as a Democrat over John Freemont (Republican) and Millard Fillmore (American Party). With the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court soon after his inauguration (holding that Congress could not deny slave owners their property in any U.S. territory), Buchanan was overtaken by the differences that would tear apart the Union at the end of his presidency.
The American suffrage movement was a big tent in the 19th century and included many colorful characters. Victoria Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee Claflin, arrived in New York City in 1868 “to plant the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.” Through their self-promoting skills as mediums they befriended Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. His financial backing enabled them to become the first female stockbrokers in 1870 with an office near the New York Stock Exchange, where they attracted many female clients. Their success emboldened them to start a newspaper. It included news of business, European affairs, and topics of the day such as the tensions between labor and capital; and it even featured the first English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Although these were radical ideas for the time, they were tame compared with the articles inside the newspaper endorsing free love (freedom to marry or divorce or live without marriage), suffrage, sex education, and equality for women. By 1870 Woodhull was announcing her interest in running for the presidency. In a letter to the New York Herald she wrote, “I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect to-morrow.” And the newspaper, also in advance of its time, treated her with respect, commenting “Mrs. Woodhull offers herself in apparent good faith as a candidate, and perhaps has a remote impression, or rather hope, that she may be elected but it seems she is rather in advance of her time. The public mind is not yet educated to the pitch of universal women’s rights.”
The next year Woodhull spoke in Washington before the House Judiciary Committee and argued that a woman’s right to vote was guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. In 1872 she became the first American woman to run for the White House as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party (which was allied with suffragist groups). Opposing her were Republican President Ulysses S. Grant and Liberal Republican/Democrat Horace Greeley. Most of her campaigning was in New York, and there is no record of how many votes she received. Nonetheless, she had set an important precedent. In 1869 the territory of Wyoming gave women the right to vote. In 1872, the same year Woodhull ran, suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony was arrested in Rochester, New York, for trying to vote in the presidential election. A dozen years later voters in eight states created ballots to vote for Belva Lockwood.
Belva A. Lockwood was a teacher and school principal before she became a lawyer. Overcoming many barriers before gaining admission to a law school and to legal practice strengthened her resolve to improve the legal and social status of women. She sought legislation to change women’s second-class status in pay, professional opportunities, and domestic life, and she became active with the National Woman Suffrage Association. Due to her efforts Congress passed a law in 1879 allowing female attorneys to practice in the federal court system. Lockwood then became the first woman to be admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar, and in 1880 the first woman to argue before the court. In 1884 she agreed to be the candidate for President of the National Equal Rights Party and massed over 4,000 votes; she would run again in 1888.
Lockwood was member of the Universal Peace Union and believed that war could be prevented through arbitration and international courts, values that had long informed her work and politics both before and after her presidential campaigns.
Lockwood’s pleasing portrait was taken by Benjamin Falk (1853-1925), one of New York’s leading photographers. With a studio at 23rd Street and Broadway, his subjects included many prominent New Yorkers and American celebrities such as Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.
In responding to a letter from William J. Bok, Lockwood reflects on why she agreed again to be the presidential candidate of the National Equal Rights Party. Bok was a partner in a thriving literary agency with his younger brother, Edward W. Bok. Edward was later the innovative editor of the Ladies Home Journal who modernized the magazine, expanded its circulation, and advocated for many progressive causes but did not support women’s suffrage. Lockwood writes here to William about why the Equal Rights Party decided to nominate her:
“… it was not from any fanatical zeal, or lack of knowledge of the real political situation of the country on the part of the nominees; but to test the Constitutional right of a woman to be nominated and elected to that supreme office. … to find a woman brave enough to meet the ordeal….The test was made, and the legal and political aspect of the woman question discussed not only by pulpit, press and forum, but in every palace and hovel from ….to the ‘Golden Gate’ and from the ‘Lakes’ to the ‘Gulf.’ It may have been the amusing side of the campaign, but …a dense forest of ignorance has been blazed for a coming woman president. I am not anxious to know at this stage who that woman will be, but believe it not only possible but probable in the future of this country.”
The satirical Puck cover drawn by Frederick Opper enjoyed a national audience. The American version of Puck (fd.1871) was the first successful humor magazine and was known for its political cartoons and caricature. Its graphic artists included Thomas Nast who drew scathing depictions of the Democrats and Republicans, as well as the Tammany Tiger which symbolized the city’s own corrupt Democratic party organization. Opper (1857-1937) was another regular contributor to Puck whose work included caricatures and the first regular comic strips. Lockwood didn’t come off too badly when shown along with Benjamin Butler, the homely former Civil War general, candidate of the Greenback/Anti-Monopoly Party, dressed as a clown. The artist was alluding to the theatrical character Columbine and her suitors Pierrot and Harlequin. Lockwood apparently took no offense at her image and was actually portrayed much more favorably in other national and local publications. She embarked on an energetic campaign across the country. She spoke about larger issues such as free trade and tariffs as much as she campaigned for suffrage and equality for women, and “every class of our citizens irrespective of sex, color, or nationality.” Rejecting the idea that the Constitution barred a woman from running for president, she told the press, “I cannot vote, but I can be voted for.” She received over 4,000 votes in a tight election in which Grover Cleveland (Democrat) defeated James Blaine (Republican) by fewer than 60,000 popular votes, although the electoral college total (219 vs.182) was not as close. The other male candidates received fewer than 150,000 votes each.
The Gilded Age (c.1877-1900) presidential elections split between Democrats and Republicans along mostly sectional lines – a legacy of the Civil War. American presidential campaigning changed again when a global depression (1893) led to conflicts between capital and labor. These became the defining issues starting in 1896 with William McKinley’s campaign against William Jennings Bryan (1896). Wordy broadsides began to fall out of favor as simpler and more colorful posters and sloganeering replaced them.
The imagery on Grant’s poster linking him and his running mate to “common man” themes hearkens back to an earlier era as did his decision not to refrain from actively campaigning. Noting that only presidential candidates who had taken to the trail had lost, he declared: “I am no public speaker and I don’t want to be beaten.” The tradition continued with Grover Cleveland in 1888 whose front-porch talks with visitors were published in newspapers and brochures.
McKinley’s 1896 poster shows him as the champion of American capitalism, upholding the gold standard and linking prosperity and American power. Bryan wanted the U.S. on a silver standard which he believed would help workmen and farmers hurt by the depression. Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech, brilliantly delivered at the Democratic convention on July 9, 1896, secured him the nomination. His vivid language still resonates today:
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it. You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country. … we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Similar disagreements erupted when McKinley and Bryan opposed each other again in 1900. Bryan’s poster emphasizes his stand against American imperialism, an outcome of the Spanish-American War, as well as various patriotic themes. McKinley won again with Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt carried along on a wave of popularity after his “Rough Rider” exploits in Cuba during that war were widely publicized.