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Election 2008

Election Season, 19th Century Style

Nate DiMeo

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Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain
(Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Over the course of 100 days in the fall of 1896, William Jennings Bryan gave more than 500 speeches. He was the Democratic nominee, and his presidential campaign was so broke, he took his message directly to just about every Midwestern town with a train station and a soapbox. Several million people showed up.

He was a fantastic orator. Picture him with 10,000 screaming Nebraskans behind him, and you can imagine what his Republican rival was up against.

"You had William McKinley," says historian Jennifer Burns, "who knew right away that he was going to lose in any head-to-head battle if it came down to personality [and] oratory.

"[McKinley] said, 'I might as well put a trapeze on my front lawn and go against a professional gymnast if I go up against Bryan.'"

So he didn't.

While Bryan thrilling crowds with his charisma and his rousing speechifying, McKinley relied on a well-funded, highly-skilled network of political operatives and entrenched party loyalists. Then he just sat back and let the machine work for him.

"He simply sat on his front porch," says Burns, "and let people come to him."

Welcome to the world of pre-modern presidential campaigns. A time when, if you wanted to know what William McKinley or James Garfield or Benjamin Harrison thought about trade policy or international affairs, you could literally get some friends together, knock on the candidate's front door and ask him.

But he wasn't going to come to you.

"It was essentially this idea that you were trying too hard," says Burns. "If you want the presidency, there was something inherently problematic about that."

Historian Edward J. Larson says that for more than a century, thanks to our first president, there was this idea that the office should seek the man. The man should not seek the office.

"George Washington came from the Virginia elite," says Larson, "where people stood for office, at the call of the people, where it was improper to campaign."

This was easy for George Washington. Because, he was George Washington. But after him, if you wanted to appear presidential, you wanted to appear Washingtonian. It became bad form to go out and let people know you actually wanted the job.

But behind the scenes, they campaigned a lot, Larson says.

As early as 1800, rivals Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were writing anonymous articles disparaging each other. They set up partisan newspapers and paid people to write smear articles. Their campaign committees were inventing the American election: they had people canvassing for votes and bringing people to the polls.

In New York, Jefferson's future vice president, Aaron Burr, was circumventing the rule that only people who owned land could cast ballots.

"He'd buy a small tract of land," says Larson, "and put it in the names of 400, 500, 1,000 immigrants. And suddenly, they'd all be property owners so they could all vote."

Historian Burns says, "if a presidential candidate were more passive, that doesn't mean that presidential campaigns weren't full of passion. They were full of conflict and ... partisan rumor and innuendos and aspersions on the candidates' sexual lives. Mudslinging is absolutely nothing new in the American political system."

The voting public hung on every bit of news. The white, landholding, male voting public loved it.

Michael Holt, a history teacher at the University of Virginia, says elections were fun. "There was a lot of folderol and hurrah techniques and mass meetings and swilling the electorate with hard cider and whiskey and all this."

Burns points out that it's not like these people had anything better to do. "If you think about what the entertainment options were at that time," she says, "there weren't many. There were no movies, no TV. So it was a huge party. People would come and vote and get drunk."

Turnout was often incredibly high. More than 80 percent of the electorate voted in 1876, despite the fact that the candidates never personally stumped for votes or went on Leno.

Michael Holt says the presidents of the past would never believe what is required of today's candidates. "The personal campaigning would leave most 19th century presidential hopefuls dumbstruck," he says.

But, Holt adds, the electorate is better off now than it was a century ago. During the campaigning today, you see the candidates in all sorts of situations and under extreme pressure. You get a sense of what they might be like as president.

"Demands on the modern candidate are so intense: being so exposed, having your every word, thought, emotional moment parsed on national television and repeated endlessly on the Internet," Burns agrees.

She also wonders if we're entirely past the notion that we want the office to seek the man or woman, and not the other way around. After all, the type of person who can withstand that scrutiny is perhaps what Americans of the past generation were afraid of. It's someone who really wants power and prestige, because only someone who's really ambitious will subject themselves to that sort of treatment.

Perhaps we should all meet up at McCain's, or Huckabee's, or Clinton's or Obama's house and knock on the door and ask them about that.

More stories from our Election 2008 series


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