Parties and Voting
The period from 1840 to 1890 has been labeled "the party
period" and "the golden age of parties" because the
major political parties (Democrats and Whigs until the
mid-1850s, then Democrats and Republicans) were the
strongest they have been in American history. Party
leaders used patronage and campaign practices that
aroused partisan enthusiasm to gain wide membership and
keep them loyal and active. It worked. Voter turnout
during this period was the highest in American history:
between 70 and 80 percent for presidential elections and
sometimes higher in state and local contests.
The two major parties from 1860 to 1884 were, as today, the Republican and the
Democratic parties. Because of their opposition to the expansion of slavery, the
Republicans originally drew support only in the North, while the Democrats
always had a national base. During Reconstruction, though, the Republicans
dominated Southern politics, but the region switched to Democratic control as
Reconstruction collapsed in the 1870s. In the rest of the country, the two
parties were competitive and elections were often close.
Various third parties-Greenbacks, Labor, Populist, Temperance, Equal Rights,
etc.-arose over the years, usually emphasizing one issue (e.g., inflation or
alcohol abuse) or the plight of a particular constituency (e.g., farmers, women,
or workers). Although the third parties sometimes influenced legislation or the
outcome of close elections, they never threatened to replace either of the two
major parties (with the possible exception of the Populists in the 1890s). Party
leaders and partisan journalists (and nearly the entire press was overtly
partisan) did their best to belittle political independence as dishonorable,
One way party loyalty was maintained and advertised was through the method of
voting. Election ballots were printed by each political party, listed only that
party's slate of candidates, were a distinguishing color from ballots produced
by other parties, and were deposited in a box (sometimes made of glass) in front
of election officials and other voters. This made it very difficult not to vote
a straight-party ticket. The secret ballot (or Australian ballot) and
government-printed, multi-party tickets did not become the norm until the 1890s
and early 20th century.
Politics as Entertainment
Electioneering in the 19th century was as much a social time as it was a
political affair. In order to create enthusiasm for their ticket, party leaders
organized huge parades, rallies, barbecues, pole-raisings, flag-raisings,
banner-raisings, and other community-wide festivities. All of these campaign
events were very participatory, including the stump speeches, during which
people unreservedly shouted out questions or comments. Such combined political
and social gatherings were especially welcomed in the countryside as a break
from the isolation of farm life.
Many of the electioneering techniques were borrowed from evangelical Protestant
revivals: torchlight parades, pitching a tent at the edge of town, long speeches
(sermons), and emotional calls to step up and make a commitment. On such
political occasions, tradition and common-sense compelled candidates to provide
food and drink to attract a crowd. People attending a political rally could
partake of refreshments, mill about, talk with friends, watch children playing
games, as well as listen to political speeches which often lasted for hours.
Parades included marchers, brass bands, elaborate floats, flags, banners, and
other partisan or patriotic symbols. Torchlight parades frequently culminated
with fireworks. These boisterous processions would wend their way through the
streets, stopping at the homes of their local party leaders to fill the air with
cheers, and at the doors of the opposition leaders to jeer and hiss. Some of the
revelers were young men who joined local clubs dedicated to a political
candidate; among the most famous were the "Wide Awakes" who supported Abraham
Lincoln in 1860.
Mudslinging, character assassination, and other forms of negative campaigning in
American presidential politics are nearly as old as the republic. During the
nation's first contested presidential election in 1796, supporters of Vice
President John Adams charged his challenger, Secretary of State Thomas
Jefferson, with atheism, sexual improprieties, and dangerous revolutionary
intentions. For their part, Jefferson backers accused Adams of plotting to
establish a monarchy, crown himself king, and ally the country with its foe,
Over the 19th century, the American political system gradually became more
inclusively democratic, but a rising tide of partisanship fostered a
win-at-all-costs attitude that reduced standards of campaigning even further.
Demagoguery and the most vicious forms of character assassination became
widespread. Opponents of Andrew Jackson, for example, accused him of murder,
while Old Hickory's men whispered that his rival John Quincy Adams had been,
while U.S. minister to Russia, a pimp for the tsar.
In 1860, cartoons and jokes demeaned Abraham Lincoln for his homeliness and
Stephen Douglas for his short stature. Democrats charged that the "Black"
Republicans, most of whom merely opposed the expansion of slavery, were
promoting racial equality and race-mixing. The Lincoln camp spent considerable
time on damage control, countering rumors that their candidate was a deist, a
duelist, or a Know-Nothing, that he had voted against supplying American troops
during the Mexican War, and that he had maligned the good name of Thomas
In 1864 the Lincoln reelection campaign equated opposition to the president and
the Republican party with disloyalty to the Union. They papered the North with
posters of Thomas Nast's political cartoons, "The Chicago Platform" and
"Compromise with the South," which depicted the Democrats essentially as
traitors. A Republican pamphlet alleged there was a clandestine agreement
between the Peace Democrats and the Confederates. In October, party officials
distributed 10,000 copies of a report by the judge advocate general of the army,
Joseph Holt, on secret societies of Confederate sympathizers in the North,
implicitly associated with the Democratic party.
After the Civil War the Republicans would "wave the bloody shirt"-that is,
associate the Democratic party with secession and opposition to the Union war
effort-in every presidential election into the 1880s. The 1868 Democratic
presidential nominee, Horatio Seymour, was an especial target of the "bloody
shirt" because while New York governor in 1863 he had addressed the New York
City draft rioters as "My friends." Others labeled his links to the Peace
Democrats as the equivalence of treason. Republican party spokesmen carried
accusations against their Democratic rival to a personal level by alleging that
his family was prone to insanity (Seymour's father had committed suicide) and
that the candidate was himself in frail health. Seymour's blustering running
mate, Frank Blair, was vilified as a drunkard who wanted another civil war and
countenanced the assassination of Republican presidential nominee Ulysses S.
Democrats retaliated in 1868 with their standard alarm that Republicans (this
time via Reconstruction) were advocating racial equality or even black
superiority. Democrats also got personal, characterizing Grant as an alcoholic,
uncouth, simple-minded, unprincipled, Negro-loving tyrant. As Republicans
marched in their parades, Democrats taunted them with signs reading "Grant the
Butcher," "Grant the Drunkard," and "Grant the Speculator." A campaign ditty
included the lines: "I am Captain Grant of the Black Marines/ The stupidest man
that ever was seen." Grant's running-mate, Schuyler Colfax, was depicted as
unprincipled, mean-spirited, and anti-Catholic (like many, he was briefly a
Know-Nothing in the mid-1850s as he moved from the Whig to the Republican
The 1872 presidential campaign between President Ulysses Grant and challenger
Horace Greeley degenerated into a mudslinging melee, epitomized in the barrage
of anti-Greeley cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly and the anti-Grant
cartoons of Matt Morgan in Leslie's Illustrated. Greeley partisans endlessly
maligned Grant as a dictator-an American Caesar-and a drunk, while the
president's forces ruthlessly portrayed the Democratic nominee as a traitor and
a flake. The Republicans also took every opportunity to "wave the bloody shirt."
At the end of the campaign, Greeley complained, "I have been assailed so
bitterly that I hardly knew whether I was running for the presidency or the
penitentiary." Grant could have said much the same.
In 1876 the Democratic presidential nominee, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York,
initially planned to run a positive, educational campaign. His campaign
managers, however, convinced him that denigrating the Republicans, rather than
reform, should be their major theme. Democrats focused on the scandals of the
outgoing Grant administration, painting all Republicans as crooks and calling
Grant "the Mephistopheles [devil] of American politics." The Republican nominee,
Governor Rutherford Hayes of Ohio, was not spared, either. Democrats
outrageously indicted him of stealing the pay of deceased soldiers while he was
a Union general, opposing citizenship for all immigrants, and income tax fraud.
One Democrat encouraged the Tilden camp, to no avail, to investigate the
question, "Did Hayes shoot his mother in a fit of insanity?"
The Republicans' two-pronged strategy in 1876 consisted of the traditional
"waving the bloody shirt" and of personally defaming Tilden. The Democratic
nominee was attacked as a pro-slavery, pro-Confederate traitor, who cheated on
his income taxes, extorted money from railroad companies, and approved of
Democratic vote fraud. Republicans called him "a drunkard, a liar, a cheat, a
counterfeiter, a perjurer, and a swindler."
Sources consulted: See the bibliographies at the
end of each election overview.