American election campaigns, 19th century

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.

In the 19th century during the First Party System, the Second Party System and the Third Party System the United States invented or developed a number of new methods for conducting American Election Campaigns. For the most part the techniques were original and were not copied from Europe or anywhere else.

The First, Second and Third Party Systems were 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. By 1776 the great majority of white men had the vote; remaining restrictions that required property ownership were removed by the 1830s.[1] Shortly after the slaves were freed by the American Civil War, the black men were given the vote in Reconstruction.

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 interest levels were very high and can be compared to fans of professional sports in the 21st century, except that the "fans" were voters who in actual fact decided elections. The elections of 1828-32, 1854-56, and 1894-96 so dramatically shifted the voting coalitions, changed the issues, and brought in new leaders that they are Realigning elections.

Army Style

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 Whig Party 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.

Recruiting Partisans

By 1800 the Democratic-Republican Party had a well-developed system for recruiting troops throughout the country, and a correspondence system by which state and local party leaders could 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 always appeared too aristocratic to voters and failed 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 establish 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 Theodore 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.)[2]

Mobilizing Voters

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 native whites Scalawags and Carpetbaggers newly arrived from the North. The Democrats on the other hand did much better among Catholics and other high-church (liturgical) groups,[3] </ref> 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 protective 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 of 1860, allowing young men to parade 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.

Internal Communications

The parties created an internal communications system designed to keep in close touch with the voters. The set up volunteer organizations in every county and city, and townships or precincts as well, charged with visiting every potential supporter, 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 second communications system was a national network of partisan newspapers. Alexander Hamilton, founder of the Federalist Party, systematically created partisan newspapers in the 1790s; the rival Jeffersonian Republicans operated only half as many papers. Dailies appeared in the major cities, with weekly party in every major town. Thanks to invention of high-speed presses for city papers, and free postage for rural sheets, newspapers proliferated. In 1850, the Census counted 1630 party newspapers (with a circulation of about one per voter), and only 83 "independent" papers. Nearly all weekly and daily papers were party organs until the early 20th century. 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, Schulyer Colfax, Warren Harding and James Cox were nominated on the national ticket.

Abraham Lincoln's approach to and use of the mass media during the Civil War is crucial to an understanding of his effectiveness as a wartime president. Yet his understanding of newspapers' political function in the world's first mass democracy, his relationship with the editorial corps, his administration's use of newspapers as political weaponry, and the degree of control he sought to exercise over the Fourth Estate is less well understood than it might be. Lincoln's wartime relations with the Fourth Estate have to be seen within the framework of supercharged patriotism, Unionist emotional turbulence, and caustic, even hysterical, assaults on the administration that characterized the wartime North. His approach combined prudent but enterprising intervention, continuity and consistency in the message (even as the war aims evolved to embrace emancipation), faith in the understanding of his readers, and the construction of as broad a coalition as possible in defense of the Union, and was clearly instrumental in galvanizing the necessary support for the war effort, a support that the Union could never take for granted.[4]

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.

Financing Parties

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 dropped out of politics. After civil service reform ratcheted into place late in the century, new revenue sources were needed. At the start of the Fourth Party System Mark Hanna found the solution in 1896, as he systematically billed corporations for their share of the campaign. The issue of campaign finance reform soon made its way onto the national agenda.

The Crusade

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. Andrew Jackson in 1828 crusaded against the "corrupt bargain" that had denied him the White House in 1824, and again against the Second Bank of the United States in 1832. Republicans crusaded 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

In world comparison, the United States stood for democracy. Almost every male citizen could and did vote in frequent elections that determined who held power. 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 which fielded candidates rarely lasted more than an election or two.


  1. Except in Rhode Island, where the Dorr Rebellion of 1844 almost threatened civil war over voting restrictions.
  2. See Argersinger
  3. The liturgical elements dominated the Catholic and Episcpal churches, as well as most of the German Lutheran synods and the Mormon Church.
  4. Carwardine, (2006)