What True Grassroots Campaigns Looked Like

Like the presidency, itself, the way we choose our president has changed over the years. In the past decade, the price tag on presidential campaigns has risen sharply. Before the year 2000, total spending for each election never cost more than $450 million. But in 2004, it suddenly shot up to $850 million. It reached $1.3 billion in 2008, and this year, it’s expected to exceed $5 billion.

If it seems that the presidential campaign has changed dramatically in our lifetime, consider how it looked to Rebecca Harding Davis. In 1903, she wrote “Nothing… [shows] the change in this country during the last 50 years as the difference in our conduct of the presidential campaigns.”

She was 72 years old when she wrote “Presidential Campaigns of Today and Yesterday” for the Post, and she could look back over 19 presidential campaigns that she’d witnessed from her home in western Virginia. The biggest change was that elections no longer centered on a great moral issue, which divided the country before the Civil War. “The crucial question usually is, in fact; some difference in financial policy—a matter but vaguely comprehended by the masses. It is likely to affect the pocket of the country rather than its conscience. Hence, no voter now, unless he is looking forward to office, is likely to lose a night’s sleep in anxiety about the issue.”

The other difference was that the campaigns were no longer conducted at the local level. Now they were directed by distant “commanders” who spent the money and made the decisions in some distant city. How different, she wrote, from the elections she remembered from the 1830s, when “the campaign was a part of the personal life of each American.”

Henry Clay
Henry Clay, though all the country knew his family and breeding, was always represented in his campaigns as a dirty, ragged boy coming home from the mill astride of a mule. For every vote Clay won for being a gentleman and statesman, he won a 100 for that bare-footed image.

In the old days a presidential campaign was a family feud. The candidates were known to every farmer, butcher and schoolboy from the Penobscot to the Missouri. They were called “Bill ” or “Jim” in every store and smithy, and were hated or loved with the passion of clansmen against or for their chiefs.

Men stabbed each other to the death in the fury of dispute as to whether Mrs. Andrew Jackson smoked a pipe after dinner or not, or whether Hamilton had maligned Burr, or Burr had murdered Hamilton.

Each village had its mass meeting, to which the farms and little towns of half a dozen counties sent deputations; there were party mottoes, party songs, party flags.”

The first of these campaigns which I remember was that of Harrison and Van Buren.

Every household was at work for weeks preparing for it. Hams were boiled, turkeys and chickens roasted by the scores. … An open table was set on the lawn or the porch of each dwelling, and every house was made gay with bunting and appropriate mottoes, such as “The latch-string is out.” “All welcome!”

Deputations came from towns and hamlets within a circuit of fifty miles. … Each division had its band of native talent and its homemade flag of original device.

The only duty of the convention, apparently, was to march and counter-march all day, up and down the long streets with flying flags, to the sound of fifes, drums, and clashing cymbals. Lawyers, farmers, butchers, and bakers marched under the queer banners with a stern exultation. … There were bands of men from the other side of the [Ohio] river, their horses and themselves covered with strings of horse chestnuts, or buckeyes, Ohio being the “Buckeye State,” and Harrison the “Ohio Pioneer.”

The town was in a frenzy of delight at these shows; the church bells rang, the people crowded the sidewalks, cheering as each band went by.

Campaign Float
"There was a real forge, the sparks flying, the blacksmiths banging the iron and shouting out Whig songs." Illustration of a campaign float.

Undoubtedly the most popular of the devices were the floats on which were log cabins supposed to represent the birthplace and home of “Old Tip” [the nickname given to Harrison for his victory over Tecumseh’s tribe at the Battle of Tippecanoe.]

In some of them the boy Harrison, exceedingly ragged and unwashed, was seen squatted by the fire; sometimes he was engaged in cutting up a bear which he had just killed.

One cabin, however, drove the lookers-on into a fervor of loyalty to the candidate. In it the boy, a pistol in each hand, was holding at bay two gigantic Indians who were attacking the windows. Of course the people shouted. Nobody then doubted that the squatter always was a just, wronged man, and a favored child of God, and the Indian always a fiend, made up of all vices, the offspring of the devil. We never then looked on the other side. That is a modern uncomfortable habit.

In 1903, Ms. Davis watched the campaign between Teddy Roosevelt and Alton Parker, and wondered, “What quiet doctor or minister in any country town would now parade the streets bestrung with buckeyes and shouting campaign songs?” Those campaigners were part of a country that was still young in the 1840s and ‘50s. They hated and loved with unreasoning fury, she believed, and were led by personal likes and dislikes in a way that would seem childish “to this more adult generation, which is governed by high moral reasons, or by greed, or by expediency.”

The Long Tradition of the Smear Campaign

Daddy Cleveland
"Another Voice for Cleveland"

There’s always the hope, with the start of every presidential campaign, that this time it will be different. This year, maybe the candidates will offer intelligent, practical solutions to the country’s problems. They emphasize what they’ll do, not dwell on the many shortcomings of their opponent.

And usually we’re disappointed. No matter how earnest and well-intentioned a presidential campaign begins, by the time it approaches the finish line, it usually assumes an atmosphere somewhere between a carnival midway and a bar fight.

We had an intelligent, respectable election once, and the winner was George Washington. By the time the next election came around, the gloves were off and the tar buckets filled, as Jack Anderson pointed out. [The Pulitzer-prize winning author’s article—”The Dirtiest Campaign Tricks in History”—appeared in the Post on November, 1976]

In the 1796 election, John Adams suffered a blow when the Boston Independent Chronicle alleged that during the Revolution he had publicly supported Washington while surreptitiously attempting to have the General cashiered. In truth, it was Adams’s second cousin, Sam, who had sought Washington’s scalp.

Adams’s opponent, Thomas Jefferson … was accused of being the son of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father. Voters were warned that Jefferson’s election would result in a civil war and a national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery.

Andrew Jackson's ultimate goal, according to opponents.

Andrew Jackson [was portrayed by his opponents] as a bloodthirsty wild man; a trigger-happy brawler; the son of a prostitute and a black man… his older brother had been sold as a slave [and] Jackson … had put to death soldiers who had offended him. Worst of all, Jackson and his wife were depicted as adulterers. Through a technical mixup, Rachael Jackson had married Andrew before her first husband divorced her. “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” screamed the Cincinnati Gazette. Rachael succumbed to a heart attack before the couple could move into the White House, and many of Jackson’s advocates attributed her death to the calumnious campaign of 1828.

In 1839, Martin Van Buren was accused of being too close to the Pope, when, in fact, he had done little more than correspond with the Vatican in his job as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson. His opponents, nevertheless, spread the canard that a “popish plot” was afoot to ensure Van Buren’s election.

During the Polk-Clay race of 1844 the Ithaca, New York, Chronicle [quoted] … one Baron Roorback … [who] had witnessed the purchase of 43 slaves by James K. Polk. The entire story was a hoax. Polk had purchased no slaves; in fact, there was no Baron Roorback. But that didn’t keep the story from gaining wide attention.

During the campaign of 1864, Lincoln was tagged with every filthy name in the political lexicon, from ape to ghoul to traitor. Midway through his first term, his detractors accused his wife of collaborating with Confederates, a charge which compelled the President to appear, uninvited, before a Senate committee which was secretly considering the allegations [and swear to his wife’s innocence.]

In a rather complicated cartoon, Satan lures James Polk toward war with Britain over the Oregon territory.Click image to enlarge.

The campaign of 1884 held the dubious honor of being the dirtiest in American history. … In July, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph … accused Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate son a decade earlier in Buffalo. It turned out that Cleveland, a bachelor, had dated the child’s mother, as had several other men. The boy, therefore, was of questionable parentage. Yet the inherently decent Cleveland had provided for him. A chant soon arose in Republican ranks: “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!”

Cleveland’s opponent, James G. Blaine … involved in a business scandal. A railroad line had permitted him to sell bonds for a generous commission in return for a land grant. “Burn this letter!” Blaine instructed one cohort in a cover-up attempt. Thus evolved the Democratic comeback to Cleveland’s critics: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine.”

Warren Harding… became the subject of a whispering campaign about his ancestry. A great-grandmother, it was alleged, had been a Negro, and a great-grandfather had Negro blood.

The dirty tricks don’t end once the ballots had been cast, either.

Candidate Lincoln, according to Pro-South Democrats, would lead the country straight into insanity.

In the election of 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular election but fell one electoral vote shy of a majority. The electoral tallies in several states were counted and recounted, juggled and changed, until finally the election was thrown into the Congress. A Republican Senate and a Democratic House set up an Electoral Commission to decide the winner. Through some political maneuvering that fairly reeked of scandal, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the victor.

Lyndon Johnson first won his Senate seat in 1948 by an 87-vote margin when 203 previously unnoticed ballots were miraculously discovered several days after the election. The “voters,” curiously, had approached the polls in alphabetical order, and 202 of them had cast their marks beside the Johnson name. This election gave LBJ his nickname of “Landslide Lyndon.”

Dead men not only vote in American elections; occasionally they are candidates. Philadelphia’s Democratic party bosses, for example, ran a dead man in last April’s primary. The cadaverous candidate was Congressman William Barrett, who departed the scene fifteen days before the election. The party hacks kept Barrett’s name on the ballot in the hope that uninformed voters would select him anyway. Thus the bosses could handpick his replacement.Barrett won.


Next: The Big Change in Presidential Campaigns