Reading “1920: The year of six presidents” by David Pietrusza. Why? Because I am a historian (about to transfer to 4 year college to get my pre-reqs for my masters in history) and I came across a fascinating middle point in US presidential election politics. I also read “A magnificent catastrophe” by Edward Larson which is about the presidential Election in 1800. Add to this a few books about Andrew Jackson and one begins to be able to trace the flow of presidential elections through the history of the US.
When George Washington was elected (or drafted) the electoral college had to debate on who would be Vice President, George was unquestioningly going to be president. He was elected in 89 and re-drafted in 92. But in 96 he quit, he set a precedent not broke until 1940 by Emperor Roosevelt. (Though Teddy Roosevelt tried to break it in 1912, must be a family thing) This resulted in a kind of a run off between Adams, the vice president, and Jefferson, the former Secretary of State and southern favorite. The result was very very close and Adams beat Jefferson, (the rules of the day was that the runner up became vice president, this changed with the 12th amendment, as a result of this and the following election. Imagine president Bush and vice president Gore in 2001, or now vice president Romney.).
Jefferson and Adams represented the two leading factions of the day, Jefferson’s Republicans (a party that is not the same as Lincoln’s Republicans and thus is often referred to by historians as Democratic-Republicans, or Jeffersonian Republicans.), and Hamilton’s Federalists. The two parties were radically opposed in economic and social issues and in their goals for the new republic. Because Adams had started a war with France, raised an army, and outlawed some aspects of free speech, the JRs (Jeffersonian Republicans) pushed hard to get their man in office. The Federalists pushed back to keep their man in office.
The result was the first presidential campaign. This campaign was done mostly by agents and acyolites. Jefferson and Adams stayed above the fray, mostly. They let their agents and supporting newspaper editors do the heavy lifting. Back then newspapers were unashamed of their bias, used it to gain readership. If you failed your history, Jefferson won, but it was nearly stolen by Aaron Burr.
Fast forward to 1824. A war has come and gone and the Federalist party has evaporated. For 8 years there really has been only one party, the Republican party, and they are changing. They seem to be more nationally focused, and this change is causing a bit of a split. In the election of 1824, there are four men running. Andrew Jackson, the war hero, John Q Adams, diplomat and son of the founder. Henry Clay, famous national statesman, and William Crawford. Jackson won the popular vote, but because no canidate got a majority of the Electoral vote, it was thrown to the House, where Henry Clay was speaker of the house. Clay made a deal with Adams and Adams became the 6th president of the USA.
Jackson cried foul. Basically, he and his men took his ball and went home. For the next 4 years Jackson and his supporters, including Martin Van Buren established a new party, what they called “The democracy” or in 1832 at convention officially named themselves “Democratic party”. Democracy had been almost a dirty word in the founders age, but times were changing. The voting rights were expanded away from property ownership to nearly universal white male suffrage. This changed the voters from a layer of elites with time to educate themselves to a mass of people who cared less for education and were more focused on survival. This meshed with expansionist views. Elections had to change to meet this new mass. Rallies replaced news paper essay debates. Parties with whiskey and pigs replaced parlor room discussions. One had to get out into the public and anounce what you would do for them, what you would give them in return for a vote. It mattered less what you actually believed or planned, what was more important was what you could appear to be. Image began to trump substance.
Skipping the bulk of the 19th century (Frankly out of ignorance, there is much in us history and I’ve still got missing segments) going to William McKinley running agianst William Jennings Bryant in 1896. Republican strategist Mark Hanna decided to put the Ohio Governor on a “Front Porch Camping” returning back to the old ideas of letting the agents do the work for the candidate. Selected media men were allowed to visit McKinley at his house. The plan worked. McKinley won in 96, and again in 1900.
All of this leads up to the book on 1920. The election right after World War 1. What struck me in the book was the republican candidate Frank Lowden who made reference to “despising modern campaign strategy” including billboards and newspaper ads. This got me thinking about Dwight Eisenhower using Television ads in his campaign and JFK using them to great effect. The visual media gave Kennedy the edge in the Kennedy/Nixon debate.
This long discussion of the evolution of presidential campaigns brings us to the here and now. in the 1990s, president Clinton used the internet and in 2008 Obama used it to impressive effect for fund raising and data mining. We are standing just past the threshold of a new wave of media influence in political life. And just like all those i mentioned before, we really have no way of knowing how it will play out.
edit: I did nearly this whole post with out looking things up. Yes…. I am bragging… No, I’m not ashamed of my sponge like brain.