A headline in this morning’s Washington Post tells us that the first presidential primaries are now a mere two months away. The “real” race has begun, and we have only eleven more months of press conferences, photo ops, sound bites, and attack ads before the nation elects its forty-fifth president.
After scanning the piece I headed to my survey of U. S. History, where we focused on the presidential election of 1860 and the secession crisis that unfolded shortly afterward. There were four candidates on the ballot in the general election that year: Republican Abraham Lincoln, northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell. Did you know that in that critical campaign only one of the four candidates—Stephen Douglass—ever spoke in public?
By tradition, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, presidential candidates did not publicly campaign. In the early decades of American independence, it was still widely assumed that an individual who wanted high office probably couldn’t be trusted with high office. Someone who “pandered” to the voters almost certainly had an agenda of his own. As Alexander Hamilton had written in the Federalist in 1788 “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”
In the final years before the Civil War a growing number of candidates had defied the tradition, but Lincoln honored it in 1860, as did Breckinridge and Bell. In Lincoln’s home town, the [Springfield] Illinois State Journal praised the Republican nominee for his restraint. “The American people have always believed it would be in exceedingly bad taste and censurable in a candidate for the high office of president to . . . . electioneer by making political speeches.” The presidency, the Journal went on to observe, was “an office no man should seek by direct means.”
Yes, “the past is a foreign country” alright. They surely “do things differently there.” History cannot tell us how we should act, but the strangeness of the past often helps us to be more self-aware of how we do act. The Illinois State Journal looked askance at anyone who would court and cajole the voters. We expect it, even positively demand it. Why the difference?