The Log-Cabin Campaign by Robert Gray Gunderson

log cabin campaignThe 1840 Presidential campaign has always gone down as one that introduced a new style of campaigning. One where a candidate would actively seek the office and give speeches. And, a campaign which would be more about personalities than issues. One would think that a pretty good book could be written about this campaign.

This 1957 book  by a University of Kentucky speech professor is not a good book. While it professes to be scholarly (it has footnotes!), the author uses a style of prose that makes him sound like a frat pledge from the 1980s. All the major figures are referred to by nicknames. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison has so many nicknames that you can lose track (the Hero of Tippecanoe, Old Tip, Tip, Cincinnatus, The County Clerk) of just who the author is referring to.

Van Buren’s party, the Democrats, are almost always called “Loco-Focos” after the name of the faction of the Democratic party that Van Buren came from. (The term refers to a name for matches, which some New York Democrats used to light candles at a meeting where Tammany Hall bosses had all other light sources turned off or closed.)

The book goes on and on about various Whig party powerbrokers (in particular Thurlow Weed) and how they raised money or found stump speakers (such as Abraham Lincoln) to help Harrison’s campaign. But the book is mostly just a series of anecdotes strung together with some old timey speak tossed in.

Just what Harrison stood for was never clear. But, the Whigs were never big on details. They just wanted to be elected. That, and have a national bank. Other than that, they were mostly just hoping that Andrew Jackson, or his designated successor, Van Buren, would be embarrassed.

If there is anything interesting to be gleaned from this book, it’s mostly just some trivia about William Henry Harrison. For example, did you know that at the time of the election, Harrison’s job was Clerk of the County Courts (hence the nickname above) in Sandusky County, Ohio? He had been out of work for a while.

Did you know that Martin Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, was essentially dumped from the ticket because Southerners seemed to dislike the fact that he was living with one of his slaves in a marital situation. (That was only socially acceptable at the time if you forced yourself on the slave, instead of seeking consent. O America, you never fail to be so hypocritical. Nevertheless, Johnson still received the electoral votes for Vice President in 1840.)

And in 1840, Whig rallies tend to consist of people rolling giant canvas balls with the name of supporters written on them. The idea was to “get the ball rolling for Tip.” It was also to make fun of Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had given a speech in 1837, leading to the reversal of the Senate’s censure of Andrew Jackson.

“And now, sir, I finish the task which three years ago I imposed upon myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this ball in motion.”

Harrison outpolled Van Buren by 126,000 votes. That wouldn’t amount to much today, but in 1840, that was good enough for a 6 point win. The Electoral vote was even more exaggerated with Harrison earning 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60. (Johnson lost 12 electoral votes for Vice President to other Southerners, including future President James Polk.) Van Buren had little chance of winning after the nation suffered a severe economic downturn in 1837. Credit was extraordinarily tight, and the public had soured on the Democrats having a monopoly on power pretty much since 1801.

Ultimately, Harrison has gone down in history mostly because he died after just a little bit more than a month after his inauguration. It was popularly believed that he contracted pneumonia after delivering a lengthy inaugural address in cold weather, but it seems more likely that he died of complications from being 68, being stressed out, and drinking Washington D.C.’s poor water. Vice President John Tyler succeeded him and turned out to hold none of Harrison’s (or the Whig Party’s) positions on just about anything. And nobody was happy for four years.

1840 ball rolling

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The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy by Jeffrey L. Pasley

Book Cover

Getting dirty: 18th Century style

Before America could develop a two-party system and hold contested Presidential elections, the nation had to endure an often bizarre, nearly completely opaque, and incredibly nasty election in 1796 when John Adams bested Thomas Jefferson by just three electoral votes. From the intellectual pinnacles of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution, the United States decided the best way to pick a new president was for two men to have their operatives throughout the country sling mud at each other.

In other words, it wasn’t too much different from today.

Jeffrey Pasley recounts in interesting detail all the machinations that went on to creating a political culture in the United States where people could take sides and pick a candidate they wanted. (It helped a lot to be a property-owning white male to do this.) George Washington was chosen as the nation’s first president because it was just assumed that he was the only man with the stature to hold the job.

But, it didn’t take many years for a good chunk of the country to realize that perhaps George Washington wasn’t as God-like as his supporters made him out to be. (This is not an exaggeration, there was a famous painting of Washington rising to heaven as an otherworldly figure.) The young United States soon split into two camps over items such as national finance, relations with France after its revolution, and, most notoriously, the terms of a treaty between the U.S. and Britain negotiated by Chief Justice John Jay.

When Jay returned to the U.S. in 1795 with a treaty that was favorable to the British (mostly because he had a poor negotiating position and Britain was the preeminent naval power in the world), the country was in an uproar. The treaty was approved by the Senate, which met in secret at the time. (Soon after that, the Senate would meet in public. Not long after that, the public realized that the Senate was a pretty boring place.) However, the treaty’s terms were eventually leaked to a nascent partisan press. Everybody started taking sides. Opponents of the treaty even started to throw blame at Washington. And if George Washington had a personnel file, it would have in its performance evaluation “Does not take criticism well.”

Washington decided not to run for a third term in 1796. His vice president, John Adams, was the heir apparent. Or was he?

Adams could not say that he actually wanted to be president because that was considered ill-mannered at the time. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be president, but he was in the same bind. In fact, Alexander Hamilton tried to campaign for Adams, by spreading the word that Jefferson wanted to be president, making Adams look more virtuous and Jefferson like an overly ambitious man.

Since the process of choosing electors was different in every state (they pretty much just made up the laws as they went along back then), it was hard to figure out just how to become president. To complicate matters, at the time, there was no separate balloting for president and vice president. Electors just wrote down two names. The person with the majority of the votes was president and the runner-up was vice president. The Nate Silver of 1796 would have called his site 276, although the winner needed just 70 votes, since there were just 138 ballots.

Each side in the election, which didn’t have formal names but are generally referred to as Federalist (Adams) and Republican (Jefferson) didn’t wish to campaign on the issues. Overt campaigning in public by a presidential candidate would not become acceptable behavior until 1840, and did not become expected behavior until the 20th Century.

Federalists accused Jefferson of being an effete snob, who spent too much time engaged in scientific debates. And Jefferson was accused of cowardice because he had to flee the Virginia state capital to avoid capture by British troops during the Revolution. Jefferson was branded as someone who would destroy Christianity in the country and turn the country into a version of the now extremely violent France. Most of the accusations were written by a somewhat obnoxious South Carolina Representative named William Houghton Smith.

Adams, who helped Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, was accused by Republicans of being a royalist, who wanted to start a hereditary monarchy in the United States. And since Adams had a son, he could start a dynasty! (Jefferson could not because he only had daughters.) Some higher-minded Republicans just thought Adams should not be president because he was a little bit fat.

States chose electors on different dates in different methods. Some states had direct election statewide. Some used districts. Some had the state legislature pick. When it came time for the electors to vote, nobody was quite sure who was going to win because many states slates were up in the air.

In the end, Adams nosed out Jefferson by three votes, picking up key votes in Maryland and one each in Virginia and North Carolina, to put him over the top. Although the New Englander Adams did not wish to garner support from slave states, his plan for a strong central government appealed to a certain type of Southern plantation owner. Some Federalists, most notably Andrew Hamilton, were trying to maneuver South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney into either the presidency or vice presidency, but could not coordinate voting efforts well enough to do that.

On Inauguration Day, Jefferson made a conciliatory speech and vowed to work well with Adams. They never did and the two men were estranged for about 20 years.

And the mood of the country was best summed up by New York Governor George Clinton, a staunch Republican, who hated Adams. When he heard Jefferson’s speech, he was filled with anger and wrote in his diary, that Jefferson had effectively told his supporters “I am in. Kiss my ass and go to hell.”

So, whatever you’ve seen in American politics in your lifetime is likely nothing that hasn’t happened before in some form before. Americans have a long history of hating the people on the other side of the political spectrum. That is the most important thing to take away from this fascinating book.

The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the Election of 1948 by Zachary Karabell

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Nice Stache!

Whenever a candidate in any type of election is trailing in the polls before Election Day, the surprise result of the 1948 Presidential Election is referenced. However, the events of 1948 are unlikely ever to replicated today. Zachary Karabell’s book about the election, written back in 2000, shows how changes in the way candidates communicate the public make it almost impossible for anyone to pull off a comeback like Harry Truman did.

Harry Truman’s first term in office was far from smooth as he had to steer a postwar economy while working with a Republican majority in Congress. The Republicans, out of office since 1933, were determined to pass legislation to frustrate the core constituency of the Democrats, organized labor, with the Taft-Hartley Act, which placed numerous restrictions on union organizing and the right to strike. It went into law after Congress overrode a Truman veto.

(Most of the links in this piece will take you to YouTube videos of newsreels.)

The Republicans were ready to reclaim the White House. They had three main candidates: New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who had lost to Roosevelt in 1944; Harold Stassen, former Governor of Minnesota and current President of the University of Pennsylvania; and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft controlled the conservative wing of the party with Dewey and Stassen fighting for supremacy among the moderate and liberal wings. During the primary season (which was much briefer in 1948 than it is today), Stassen was running ahead of Dewey in most contests. Dewey chose the Oregon primary to show his primacy over Stassen. He campaigned all over the state. The big issue was Stassen’s idea of abolishing the Communist Party in the United States. Dewey strongly opposed it because, while he abhorred Communism (we will find out that not all candidates for office in 1948 did), he believed it was unconstitutional for the country to prohibit any form of political thought. Dewey’s viewpoint prevailed and he won a clear victory in Oregon. With the momentum from that election, Dewey was able to overcome Taft’s opposition (he picked up delegates mostly through state party caucuses and conventions) in the convention in Philadelphia to win the nomination on the first ballot. California governor Earl Warren was chosen for the second slot.

Truman had more problems. His Commerce Secretary, Henry Wallace, gave a speech in New York in 1946 where he strongly opposed Truman’s policy of strongly confronting Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. Wallace thought that the Soviet Union and the U.S. should just be friends and agree never to fight and everything would be fine. Truman fired Wallace. Wallace, in turn, went on to form his own party on the left, which he called the Progressives. He would run alongside Idaho Senator Glen Taylor. Yes, in 1948, there were far left candidates from Idaho.

Truman also had problems on his right. Truman had formed a commission to study civil rights, which immediately raised the ire of Southerners, who feared Federal involvement in sacred Southern matters, such as oppressing African-American voters and preventing lynching from becoming a crime. Several Southern states planned to bolt the party if a civil rights plank was added to the platform.

Some Democrats thought that Dwight Eisenhower, then the President of Columbia, would make a great candidate and there was a plan to draft him. But, Eisenhower declined. Besides, nobody knew if he was a Republican or Democrat.

In the end, Truman was nominated. 35 Southern delegates bolted the convention in protest of a civil rights plank. They went on to form the States Rights Party, although they were more popularly known as the Dixiecrats. They ended up nominating Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for President and Fielding Wright of Mississippi for Vice President. Truman needed a running mate and settled on Kentucky senator Alben Barkley, who had delivered a rousing speech to the convention.

When it came time to campaign, the polls showed Dewey with a strong lead. However, the Democrats back in 1947 had set up a strategy where they thought Truman could win. They would work hard to shore up labor’s support and then hammer Dewey and the Republicans on populist issues. They figured that the election would be close, but the Democrats were in a much stronger position in the electoral vote, even with some defections in the South.

Dewey’s campaign was rather restrained. He and his campaign team believed that they had a safe lead and wanted to act statesmanlike. Dewey gave bland speeches that avoided promises. Dewey did not attack Truman much, certainly not with the same vigor he used going after Roosevelt in 1944.

Truman went on the attack as soon as he gave his acceptance speech. During that speech, Truman said he would call the 80th Congress, whom he dubbed “The Do Nothing Congress”, into special session to pass a package of bills that would include minimum wage laws, Federal health insurance, and housing. (Nothing of consequence passed during the session.)

1948 was the last Presidential election before television coverage became widespread (although TV did exist). This worked to Truman’s advantage as he could travel the country in his special train and give speeches tailored to whatever crowd he encountered. Some speeches were good, some were not, but there was not constant scrutiny on everything he said. Truman relentlessly hammered home a populist message, proclaiming the Democrats as the party of the working man (and woman) who would stand up for them against the nefarious forces of Wall Street.

Wallace’s campaign never went anywhere. Few American voters were interested in a campaign that was based on defusing world tensions by just agreeing to be nice. Wallace took his campaign to the South and was pelted with eggs at many stops. He seemed to enjoy the role of martyr, according to Karabell.

Thurmond and the Dixiecrats hoped to win enough states to throw the election into the House, but could not make any gains past four core states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In those states, Thurmond appeared on the ballot as the official Democratic party nominee instead of Truman. Those would be the only states Thurmond would win with his underfunded campaign.

One warning sign that the Republicans missed out on was polling data showing that Congressional races throughout the country were trending Democratic. However, Dewey and his advisors were unconcerned. A few Republican donors advised Dewey to go on the attack in the closing weeks, but that did not happen.

Election Day was November 2. Dewey went to bed before the outcome was settled. Truman stayed up a little longer. When the results came in, Truman had won. And by a healthy margin (49% to 45% with Thurmond and Wallace splitting up the rest) at the polls. The electoral vote had an ever bigger disparity: 303 for Truman, 189 for Dewey, and 39 for Thurmond. While Dewey had reclaimed New York for the Republicans, Truman cleaned up in the Midwest and Plains. One important issue in the campaign that the Republicans had not realized would come back to bite them was the elimination of Federal financial support for grain storage. Since nearly every farmer grew more wheat and corn than could be sold at the time of harvest, much of it needed to be stored in grain elevators. But storage cost money. With no money for them, farmers faced huge financial losses. Truman used this issue to show how Republicans had no interest in protecting the middle and lower class.

Karabell asserts that in the long run, candidates like Dewey would be the likely winners of presidential campaigns. It was much easier in the television era to just look like a good candidate and not say too much to anger either side. A campaign like Truman’s, which was extremely nasty, is off-putting to voters of today. (Although that may not be as true as much now as the Democrats and Republicans are starting to polarize more.) 1948 was supposed to be the first election when truly scientific polling was supposed to tell people who was going to win. And while the polls of 1948 were far better than the one in 1936 that predicted an Alf Landon win over Roosevelt, they were still new. They were not perfect. They are not perfect today, but they are still better. Don’t expect, I wouldn’t expect another upset like 1948 to happen again. Then again, in 1995, I told someone that no one would ever be elected President without winning the popular vote. Dewey-Defeats-Truman

Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (with bonus 1900 coverage!)

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Just because you’re a Populist, that doesn’t make you popular

Picture a time in American history when Presidential elections produced enormous turnouts, people debated the issues intently, and felt that their identity was closely tied to their party affiliation. A time when one of the major party candidates went from being virtually unknown a few months before the party convention to becoming the party nominee. When one of the nominees was so popular that hundreds of thousands of people came to his home to visit him. This time was 1896. And, today, most history students get shuffled through it as quickly as possible because the issues involved are often too esoteric or too removed from today’s problems, that people cannot identify with them.

In this book by Southern Methodist University professor R. Hal Williams, as part of the University Press of Kansas series on American Presidential Elections, the 1896 election is presented as the one that marked a major change in the way Americans treated Presidential elections. Although the calendar did not say it was the 20th Century, the 1896 election is, in many respects, the first “modern” Presidential election.

The lead up to the 1896 election was extraordinarily turbulent, and, for the most part, mostly ignored today. Starting in 1876, elections became close affairs in the United States. Republicans eked out wins in 1876 and 1880. The Democrats won the White House in 1884 under Grover Cleveland, but lost it in 1888 back to the Republicans and Benjamin Harrison despite Cleveland winning more popular votes.

The Republicans of this era liked to spend money. They liked to raise revenue and in 1890, President Harrison signed into law a major increase in tariff duties called the McKinley Tariff, named for the Ohio Congressman who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. The Democrats complained about the enormous spending done by the Republicans. They derisively referred to the “Billion Dollar Congress” because they Federal budget had finally topped that mark.

In the 1890 midterm elections, the House Republicans were nearly wiped out at the polls. They lost 93 seats, the most ever. The Democrats picked up 86 of them, with a third party, the Populists, a Western-based movement that opposed the concentration of capital in Eastern banks, picking up the balance. McKinley lost his seat. The voters of Nebraska’s first district chose a 30-year old named Williams Jennings Bryan.

In 1892, Cleveland returned to the White House (while McKinley was elected governor of Ohio), avenging his defeat to Harrison. However, events went bad for Cleveland almost immediately. The nation’s gold reserves were dwindling, creating turmoil in the financial markets. Where was the gold going? It was going overseas.

At the time of Cleveland’s second inauguration, you could take a certificate for a certain amount of silver and have it exchanged for a fixed rate of gold. (About 16 oz of silver for 1 oz of gold). The problem was that gold was worth much more than silver than the exchange rate the Treasury offered. And nearly every other country in the world would not accept deposits in silver because there was too much of it.

Almost immediately after the March 4 inauguration, Cleveland was facing a full-fledged financial panic as credit was squeezed. Cleveland asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. When this happened, Western Democrats, like Bryan, felt betrayed by Cleveland. While the U.S. economy did not collapse, it certainly did not get better. Unemployment went up.

In the 1894 elections, the Republicans broke the four-year old record for biggest turnaround in an election. They picked up 130 seats in the House, putting Thomas Reed of Maine into the Speakership.

By the time of the 1896 election, the Republicans were fairly sure that they would win back the White House. But whom would they choose? McKinley was considered one of the leading contenders. He was the governor of a swing state (Ohio), he was a Civil War vet (he was called Major McKinley in the press), and he had the substantial financial backing of Mark Hanna, one of the wealthiest men in Ohio.

Reed tried to present himself as a candidate, but he came from a small state (Maine), and he was considered too abrasive to appeal to a national electorate. Pennsylvania senator Matthew Quay also made a play for the nomination.

When the Republicans convened in St. Louis, it didn’t take them long, just one ballot, to nominate McKinley, whom most tabbed as an easy winner in November. Garret Hobart, a New Jersey business magnate, was nominated for Vice President.

The Democrats were not in a great position. All of the leading contenders for the nomination were running against the policies of the incumbent President, who happened to be in their party.

The front-runner was Missouri Senator Richard Bland, who was such a big advocate of restoring the silver standard, that he was commonly referred to as “Silver Dick.” That name wasn’t as funny in 1896 as it is now, but it was likely funny enough that Bland didn’t get the nomination.

Instead, William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year old Representative from Nebraska, got the nomination? How did this happen? There were two reasons: 1) Bryan gave one of the most convincing speeches in American political history: the Cross of Gold Speech. The delegates may have nominated Bryan right after he gave the speech if not for a hasty adjournment and 2) the Democrats didn’t have many other good choices. The Democrats nominated Arthur Sewall, a wealthy lumberman from Maine, as Vice President.

So, the 1896 election matched up a Republican governor who looked like Presidential, fought for the Union, and stood for a sound economy. The Democrats nominated someone who was too young to remember the Civil War and backed a potentially inflationary economic scheme. As it turned out, Americans loved the debate.

Bryan was on the campaign trail constantly. He traveled by train all over the nation, but he targeted states that he felt were crucial to his chances for victory. It was not common to do that at this time, but it was not unheard of.

McKinley knew that if he tried to match Bryan speech for speech across the country that he would lose. He knew he held the upper hand in the election and he had no need to make himself look like he had to work as hard as Bryan to get elected. So, Hanna, McKinley’s money man, had trains full of eager Republican voters brought to Ohio, where McKinley would address them from his front porch. It was estimated that nearly 750,000 came to hear McKinley speak over the course of the campaign. The heads of the visiting delegations were given questions by McKinley to ask ahead of time.

The Republicans also had a sophisticated direct mail campaign, flooding the mail boxes of likely Republican voters with materials printed in a variety of languages. McKinley and the Republicans may not have been able to out talk Bryan, but they could definitely outspend him and out organize him.

Complicating matters for Bryan was the presence of a third party, the Populists. They had made a difference in the 1892 election. However, in 1896, they found that their platform, with its reliance on silver, had been co-opted by Bryan and the Democrats. The Populists held a convention of their own and nominated Bryan as their candidate, but refused to nominate Sewell. Instead, they substituted Thomas Watson of Georgia. This left Bryan in the uncomfortable position of having the support of a third party, but not the support of his running mate, which could prove to complicate Electoral College matters. In some states, the Byran-Sewell tickets and Bryan-Watson tickets would run separately, making it harder for Bryan to win. (A group of conservative Democrats favoring the gold standard also nominated a ticket, but it received little support.)

Election Day 1896 was a big day. The turnout was massive. In Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio, the turnout was nearly 95% of the electorate (which was almost all white males at the time.) In New York City, newspapers used “magic lanterns” (early versions of slide projectors) to show a map of the United States with each state colored in to show which candidate had won there. (The book does not have examples of what colors were used.)

McKinley won with 51% of the vote and 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 47% and 176 electoral votes. Bryan failed to win any state out of the Democratic South and the Populist West. McKinley managed to pull in Oregon and California and also the border states of West Virginia and Kentucky.

Why was the turnout so big? Williams makes the point that at this time, Americans tended to identify themselves very closely with political parties. Being a Republican or Democrat made you who you were. Politics was a unifying force in communities. People enjoyed elections, some states holding several per year.

Most people would vote a straight ticket and show up at the polls with a ballot that would distinctly indicate whom they were voting for, although by 1896, the Australian ballot (which actually started in Australia), changed matters. This style of ballot listed all the candidates on the ballot from all the parties. Voters would then indicate whom they wanted. And they would do this secretly.

McKinley’s victory in 1896 was not hard to predict. The Republicans of this era were the only party that was actually trying to do things. The Democrats of this era were best known for only wanting to oppose what the Republicans did, such as expanding civil rights. Bryan attempted to change the Democrats from being a conservative party that mainly said no into a party that appealed to the Populist movement of the West. The book cover shows a cartoon of Bryan as a snake swallowing the Democratic Party whole, which would ultimately be their undoing.

The economy greatly improved during McKinley’s first term, partly because of natural economic cycles and also because gold became more plentiful in the world, making the return to the gold standard far less risky. In 1899, Vice President Garret Hobart died.

In 1900, the Republicans renominated McKinley. The young governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of the Spanish-American War, was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats, lacking anyone better to run, nominated Bryan again, this time with former Vice President Adlai Stevenson as his running mate. McKinley won again, by a slightly larger margin.

American political involvement would never be as great as it was during this time. The Australian ballot allowed people more freedom to choose the candidate they liked instead of the party they liked. People began to identify less with their political party as they realized that their parties didn’t do much for them.

We no longer live in a world where the hottest political issue is bimetallism. Candidates do not espouse the quantity of money theory (as Bryan did) to stimulate the economy. But these were the issues of 1896. Ultimately, the issues were still ones that people argue about today: employment, debt, and the standard of living. The framework of the debate was different than it was today. But, people cared. Or at least they were told to care. Do we care as much today?

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