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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, even unmanly.

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
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, Great Britain.

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 Jefferson.

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. Grant.

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 party).

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.

 
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