American election campaigns in the 19th century
In the 19th century, a number of new methods for conducting American election campaigns developed in the United States. For the most part the techniques were original, not copied from Europe or anywhere else. The campaigns were also changed by a general enlargement of the voting franchise—most states began removing or reducing property and tax qualifications for suffrage (the last to remove all property requirements was North Carolina in 1856) and by the early 19th century the great majority of free adult white males could vote (Rhode Island being a notable exception, though the constitution was considerably liberalized after an 1844 Rebellion). In addition, during and after Radical Reconstruction, black males in the South were enfranchised, and technically were afterwards, though widespread voting by blacks was a practical impossibility after the 1877 withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
The system was characterized by two major parties who dominated government at the local, state and national level, and enlisted most voters into a loyal "army" of supporters. There were numerous small third parties that usually were short-lived or inconsequential. The complex system of electing federal, state and local officials meant that election campaigns were both frequent and consequential in terms of political power. Nearly all government jobs were distributed on a patronage basis to party workers. The jobs were honorific and usually paid very well. The best way to get a patronage job was to work in the election campaign for the winning party, and volunteers were numerous. Elections provided Americans with much of their news. The elections of 1828-32, 1854–56, and 1894–96 are usually considered Realigning elections.
Political parties in the 19th century thought of themselves as armies—as disciplined, hierarchical fighting organizations whose mission it was to defeat a clearly identified opponent. If defeated themselves, they knew how to retreat, regroup, and fight again another day. If they won, then the victory was sweet. In an era when many if not most political leaders had experience as militia officers, and perhaps had engaged in actual combat, structuring parties along a militaristic chain of command seemed logical enough. To fight a political battle, the party had to develop a chain-of-command. The heads of the state and national tickets were normally the acknowledged leaders. After the election leadership reverted to the state and county committees, or sometimes to state "bosses," with little power held by the national chairman. County committees sent delegates to the state convention, where state nominees were selected. In turn the county committees were based on local conventions—mass meetings that were open to any self-identified partisan. In the 1790s Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton created their supporting parties by working outward from the national capital, as did the Whigs in the 1830s. On the other hand, major third parties typically emerged from the state level, including the Anti-Masons, Republicans, Know-Nothings and Populists.
Theodore Roosevelt, before he became president in 1901, was deeply involved in New York City politics. He explains how the machine worked:
- The organization of a party in our city is really much like that of an army. There is one great central boss, assisted by some trusted and able lieutenants; these communicate with the different district bosses, whom they alternately bully and assist. The district boss in turn has a number of half- subordinates, half-allies, under him; these latter choose the captains of the election districts, etc., and come into contact with the common healers.
By 1800 the Democratic-Republicans had a well-developed system for recruiting troops throughout the country, and a correspondence system state and local party leaders used to keep in touch. As a Boston Federalist complained, "The jacobins have at last made their own discipline perfect; they are trained, officered, regimented and formed to subordination in a manner that our own militia have never yet equaled." The Federalists began to imitate their opponents' tactics, but were always too aristocratic to appreciate the value of a grass roots movement. The Democratic-Republican caucus in Congress chose presidential candidates for the party, while the Federalists invented (in 1812) a much more flexible system of a national convention. Unlike the caucus, the convention represented voters in every district, and the delegates were chosen specifically for the task of selecting candidates. By the 1830s, the standard had been established that participation in the convention identified the person with the party and required him to support the nominees selected at the convention. It was possible to bolt a convention before candidates were selected, as the southern Democrats did in 1860, and Roosevelt's supporters did in 1912. New York Democrats were perennially split into Hard and Soft factions, and the Whigs sometimes split as well. Typically, both factions claimed their ticket was the one true legitimate party ticket.
William Jennings Bryan perfected the technique of multiple appeals in 1896, running simultaneously as a regular Democrat, a Silver Republican, and a regular Populist. Voters of all parties could vote for him without a crossing their personal party loyalty. Most states soon thereafter banned the same person running on different tickets—one man, one party, one platform became the usual rule (except in New York, where third, fourth and fifth parties have flourished since the 1830s.)
The basic campaign strategy was the maximum mobilization of potential votes. To find new supporters politicians systematically canvassed their communities, talking up the state and national issues of the day, and watching which themes drew the best responses. In such a large, complex, pluralistic nation, the politicians discovered that citizens were especially loyal to their own ethno-religious groups. These groups, furthermore, had distinctive moral perspectives and political needs. The Whigs and Republicans were especially effective in winning support among pietistic and evangelical denominations. During Reconstruction (1866-1876), the Republicans dominated the South with their strong base among African-Americans, augmented by Scalawags. The Democrats on the other hand did much better among Catholics and other high-church (liturgical) groups, as well as among those who wanted minimal government, and among whites who demanded that African Americans not be granted political or social equality. As the parties developed distinctive positions on issues such as the modernization of the economy and westward expansion, voters found themselves attracted one way or the other. The Whigs and Republicans aggressively supporting modernizing the economy, supporting banks, railroads, factories, and tariffs, and promising a rich home market in the cities for farm products. The Whigs always opposed expansion, as did the Republicans until 1898. The Democrats, meanwhile, talked of agrarian virtues of the yeoman farmer, westward expansion, and how well rural life comported with Jeffersonian values.
Both parties set up campaign clubs, such as the Wide Awakes where young men paraded in torchlight processions wearing special uniforms and holding colorful banners. By the late century the parties in the Midwest combined to turn out over 90 percent of the eligible electorate in entire states, reaching over 95 percent in 1896 in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. Some counties passed the 100-percent mark not because of fraud but because the parties tracked people down whom the census missed. Fraud did take place in municipal elections in large cities, where the ward-heelers could expect tangible rewards. Apart from some Reconstruction episodes in the South, there was little fraud in presidential elections because the local workers were not in line for presidential rewards anyway. The best way to build enthusiasm was to show enthusiasm. The parties used rallies, parades, banners, buttons and insignia to display partisanship and promote the theme that with so much strength victory had to be inevitable. The side that lost was usually surprised, and tended to ascribe defeat to preternatural factors, such as bad weather or treachery.
The parties created an internal communications system designed to keep in close touch with the voters. The set up networks of activists in every county charged with visiting every potential supporter in a specified neighborhood, especially in the critical last days before the election. These workers, of course, comprised the activists who attended conventions and ultimately selected the candidates. This intensive face-to-face networking provided excellent information in both directions—the leaders immediately found out what the rank-and-file liked and disliked.
The first communications system was a national network of partisan newspapers. Nearly all weekly and daily papers were party organs until the early 20th century. Thanks to invention of high-speed presses for city papers, and free postage for rural sheets, newspapers proliferated. In 1850, the Census counted 1,630 party newspapers (with a circulation of about one per voter), and only 83 "independent" papers. The party line was behind every line of news copy, not to mention the authoritative editorials, which exposed the 'stupidity' of the enemy and the 'triumphs' of the party in every issue. Editors were senior party leaders, and often were rewarded with lucrative postmasterships. Top publishers, such as Horace Greeley, Whitelaw Reid, Schuyler Colfax, Warren Harding and James Cox were nominated on the national ticket. After 1900, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and other big city politician-publishers discovered they could make far more profit through advertising, at so many dollars per thousand readers. By becoming non-partisan they expanded their base to include the opposition party and the fast-growing number of consumers who read the ads but were less and less interested in politics. There was less and less political news after 1900, apparently because citizens became more apathetic, and shared their partisan loyalties with the new professional sports teams that attracted larger and larger audiences.
- The true statesman and the really influential editor are those who are able to control and guide parties....There is an old question as to whether a newspaper controls public opinion or public opinion controls the newspaper. This at least is true: that editor best succeeds who best interprets the prevailing and the better tendencies of public opinion, and, who, whatever his personal views concerning it, does not get himself too far out of relations to it. He will understand that a party is not an end, but a means; will use it if it lead to his end, -- will use some other if that serve better, but will never commit the folly of attempting to reach the end without the means....Of all the puerile follies that have masqueraded before High Heaven in the guise of Reform, the most childish has been the idea that the editor could vindicate his independence only by sitting on the fence and throwing stones with impartial vigor alike at friend and foe.
Campaigns were financed internally for most of the century. Aspirants for office volunteered their services as speaker; wealthy leaders contributed cash, and patronage appointees not only worked for the party but also donated 2 to 5 percent of the salaries. The problem with the system was the winners curse: in a close election, campaign managers promise the same lucrative jobs over and over again. If they lost it made no difference; if they won they faced an impossible task, which was guaranteed to alienate supporters. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was a leading western supporter of Zachary Taylor in 1848, and wanted in return to be named Commissioner of the Land Office. Instead he was offered a job in Oregon which, while paying well, would terminate his career in Illinois. Lincoln declined, and left the party. After civil service reform ratcheted into place late in the century, new revenue sources were needed. Mark Hanna found the solution in 1896, as he systematically billed corporations for their share of the campaign.
The most exciting—even passionate—campaign was the crusade. A new body of intensely moralistic politicians would suddenly discover that the opposition was ensconced in power, was thoroughly corrupt, and had plans to utterly destroy republicanism. Americans were profoundly committed to the principle that republicanism could never be allowed to perish from the earth, so crusades roused their emotional intensity. The American Revolution itself had followed this formula, as did Jefferson's followers in 1800. Jackson in 1828 started the Second Party System by crusading against the "corrupt bargain" that had denied him the White House in 1824, and again against the Bank of the United States in 1832. Republicans began the Third Party System by crusading against slavery in 1856 (but not in later years), while Greeley rang the charges against Grant's corruption in 1872. The most dramatic crusade was that of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, as he identified the gold and monied interests as responsible for depression, poverty and plutocracy. The way to deal with crusaders was not to defend the status quo but to launch a counter-crusade, attacking the crusaders as crazy extremists. Thus Jefferson was attacked as an atheist, Jackson as a murderer and duelist, Fremont as a disunionist, and Bryan as an anarchist.
Democracy in practice
By the 1820s the United States was more democratic than most other countries, with the great majority of white male citizens eligible to vote, and turnout reaching about 80% in 1840. Every government office was elected, or chosen by elected officials. After 1848 many states revised their constitutions so that judges were elected to fixed terms, and had to campaign before the voters like everyone else. Unlike other countries, many different offices were elected, with election days staggered so there was little respite from constant campaigning. As the politicians discovered more and more potential blocs of voters, they worked to abolish the traditional property standards for suffrage. The principles of republicanism seemed to require that everyone be eligible, and indeed actually vote. Several states allowed immigrants to vote before they took out citizenship papers; elsewhere the parties facilitated the naturalization process. By mid-century, practically every adult white male was a potential voter—or indeed, an actual voter, as turnout nationwide reached 81 percent in 1860. America stood in stark contrast with Europe, where the middle classes, peasants and industrial workers had to mobilize to demand suffrage. Late in the century, Americans did create farmer and labor movements, but most were nonpartisan, and those that fielded candidates rarely lasted more than an election or two.
- Ethnocultural politics in the United States
- First Party System, 1790s-1820s
- Second Party System, 1820s-1850s
- Third Party System, 1850s-1890s
- Fourth Party System, 1890s -1930s
- Mass media and American politics
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