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Presidential Campaigning
In colonial days and the early years of the republic, gentlemen would be asked by other elite leaders to "stand" for political office, and the candidate's commonly-acknowledged character and experience were expected to speak for themselves. As American politics democratized in the early 19th century, nominees began "running" for public office by promoting their candidacies through speaking tours and other forms of electioneering. That was true at every level of government except for the presidency, where the dominant attitude of the public and especially the press remained opposed to candidates openly and actively campaigning.

The presidency was considered too dignified and sanctified a position for its possible occupant to sully both himself and the office by a public display of personal salesmanship and supplication. Americans were also distrustful of granting power to national leaders who appeared too ambitious. The president was supposed to be above partisanship so that he could represent and act in the national interest and for the common good. It was Congress, as the most important and democratic branch of government, that was to make law; the president was to administer it fairly, not engineer domestic policy as a sort of chief legislator.

Slowly over the decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries that ideal eroded; first in practice and later in theory. During that period, presidential candidates varied their participation in three areas: 1) the level of involvement in the campaign, from passive to active; 2) the extent of access to the electorate, from absent (private) to occasional to frequent (public); and, 3) the addressing of issues, from silent to indirect to direct. Overall, there was an uneven movement from the passive, private, and silent candidate -- who leaves the campaign to his managers, remains secluded from the voters, and does not address the issues (epitomized by John Quincy Adams) -- to the active, public, direct candidate -- who orchestrates the campaign, interacts continually with voters, and discusses the issues.

In 1836 William Henry Harrison, a Whig, became the first presidential nominee to go on a campaign tour, although he only delivered vague patriotic orations without discussing the issues. Four years later, Harrison took two campaign trips, in June and September 1840. The elderly Whig nominee was trying to show that he was healthy enough to assume the presidency (he later died a month after his inauguration). He did not speak on the issues, but related stories about his days in the military. The active role he played in the campaign was behind the scenes, writing letters, deciding strategy, and so forth. His rival, Democratic President Martin Van Buren, addressed the issues through a few public letters, but otherwise took a passive role in the campaign.

In 1844 Whig nominee Henry Clay was active in his campaign and vocal about his policy positions. One month before his nomination, he took what critics considered a campaign tour through the South. He insisted that it was a business trip, but it brought him public attention. After his nomination, he remained near his home, engaging in a letter-writing campaign. Clay's loss in November was blamed partly on him being too vocal, and helped reinforce the ideal of silent passivity. Whig nominee Winfield Scott's experience in 1852 was similar. In the early part of the campaign he remained mum, then began a letter-writing campaign that brought glee to the hearts of Democrats. In September he embarked on a five-week tour, ostensibly en route to inspect a hospital in Kentucky. Like Harrison, Scott told old war stories, but like Clay, his loss strengthened the norm against "running" for president.

In 1860 Northern Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas took a month-long speaking tour of the Northeast, allegedly on his way to visit his mother (a rationale with which cartoonists had a field day). His speeches were initially non-partisan, but gradually became bolder in referring to the issues of the day. In October, state elections foreshadowed victory for his Republican rival, Abraham Lincoln. In an act of courageous patriotism, Douglas undertook a campaign swing through the South, futilely urging the region not to secede upon Lincoln's election. Although he lost and most would not follow his example until decades later, Douglas's campaigning was precedent-setting. It was the first issues-oriented speaking tour by a presidential nominee, and created the alternative model that those seeking to lead the world's oldest democracy should take their case directly to the people.

In 1868 the popular Republican nominee General Ulysses S. Grant took one trip during the campaign. Traveling to Denver with Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, the nominee remained silent and only waved to enthusiastic crowds at train-stops. Otherwise, Grant stayed at his home in Galena, Illinois, where he greeted groups of well-wishers (a precursor to the "front-porch" campaigns of later Republican nominees). When the fall state elections went overwhelmingly Republican, Democratic party leaders convinced their nominee, Horatio Seymour, to go on a campaign tour. He delivered virtually the same partisan speech at cities from Buffalo south to Philadelphia, then west to Chicago. In 1872 President Grant's Liberal Republican/Democratic challenger, Horace Greeley, took a brief campaign tour through New England in August and a lengthier one throughout the Midwest and upper South in September, delivering partisan speeches at each stop (often several in one day).

In 1880 Republican nominee James Garfield, like Grant in 1868, met with a few groups of supporters who were brought to his home. Four years later, Republican nominee James Blaine unapologetically took to the campaign trail for six weeks in the fall, delivering partisan speeches, mainly on the tariff issue. In 1888 Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison made the "front-porch" method, pioneered by Grant and Garfield, the center of his campaign. Through speeches to friendly groups at his home, he addressed various issues for the broader public. In 1896 Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan became the first presidential nominee to spend the entire campaign addressing the issues in public speaking tours.  Bryan repeated the precedent-setting tactic when he was nominated in 1900 and 1908.  The 1908 election was the first in which both major party presidential nominees (Democrat Bryan and Republican William Howard Taft) engaged in issue-oriented speaking tours.  In 1916 Democrat Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting president to hit the campaign trail.

Sources consulted: Paul F. Boller Jr., Presidential Campaigns; Robert J. Dinkin, Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices; Gil Troy, See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate; and sources listed under each election overview.

October Elections
During most of the 19th century the date of presidential elections did not coincide with state and Congressional elections. In 1848 Congress passed a law requiring presidential elections to be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Some states followed suit, but most state elections continued to occur at various times of the year, usually in the late summer or early fall. The outcome of those elections, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania and Indiana, were considered to be good indicators of how the presidential election would turn out. The parties each brought in their most effective speakers, papered the states with campaign literature, and funneled in massive amounts of money. By the mid-1880s, accusations of corruption and other factors led most "October states" to give up their separate contests and align themselves with the presidential election date. Only a few small states, like Maine, sustained the tradition after 1885.

Source consulted: Robert J. Dinkin, Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices.

Campaign Finance
Due to the immense growth of electioneering over the 19th century and the considerable sums of money needed to finance the process, fundraising became a key factor in elections. Campaign funds were accumulated in a number of ways. Local organizations at times solicited contributions among their membership. Many groups sponsored public dinners or banquets, charging a set fee per plate. At party meetings, the rank-and-file members sometimes paid admissions, or the well-to-do were called upon to contribute a particular sum to help underwrite expenses. The franking privilege, by which members of Congress can send out "official" mail free of postage costs, became a way for parties to shift part of the campaign expenses to the federal government.

An important source for party coffers was the "assessment" of members who held government patronage positions. Since the party had secured them jobs, it was considered right and just that the patronage workers should return a portion of their salary to the party. Before the Civil War, assessments accounted for about 10 percent of the total amount collected, while about 25 percent came from leaders in the financial centers of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and the rest from contributions of individuals, mainly businessmen and government contractors. After the war, the enlarged federal bureaucracy meant that assessments constituted an ever-increasing percentage of the campaign funds until passage of the 1883 Civil Service Reform Act, which prohibited the practice. After that time, the parties relied more on wealthy businessmen and industrialists for money.

In 1860 the campaign organization of Republican Abraham Lincoln spent about $150,000, while that of Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas disbursed $50,000. By the 1880s the cost of the combined presidential campaign had risen ten-fold to over $2,000,000. In the 1876 and 1884 contests, the Republicans and Democrats raised and spent about the same amount of money, but the Republicans bested their rivals in fundraising during the other presidential election years in the late 19th century.

The closeness of many elections, the strict partisanship, and the sudden surge in campaign finances, produced greater opportunities for vote fraud. "Floaters" offered their votes to the highest bidder, getting $5 to $20 for their votes. Vote fraud was particularly common in swing states like Indiana, in Southern states, and in New York City, where Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine, sometimes shipped in extra voters from New Jersey. Some historians, though, believe that the amount of election fraud has been exaggerated, consisting mainly of unsubstantiated charges from the opposing party.

Source consulted: Robert J. Dinkin, Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices.

 
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