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
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
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.
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.
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.