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.”

Lincoln in 1860. The future president did not publicly campaign after his nomination.

Lincoln in 1860. The future president did not publicly campaign after his nomination.

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?


  1. Daniel Fredrickson

    A campaign without candidates constantly talking themselves up and others down would at least be a refreshing change. I’m curious though, how did voters get information to make decisions about the candidates? I assume it primarily came from the press and individuals/parties campaigning on behalf of their favored candidate. I suspect that the tone of the campaigns might not be all that different if the candidates themselves didn’t speak up but left the press and parties to do the campaigning. But, maybe there would be more substance to the discussion and the likableness of the candidates would be less of a factor.

    • Hi, Daniel:

      Good question. In the late-eighteenth century, voters based their decisions primarily with regard to the local stature or reputation of the candidates for office. The rise of formal political parties began to change this in the early nineteenth century. By the 1830s, or thereabouts, newspapers became the great conduit for information about the candidates. Almost all newspapers at the time were openly affiliated with one or the other major party. (Indeed, as late as the Civil War, the editor of the New York Times, Henry Raymond, could serve simultaneously as the chairman of the Republican National Committee.) The papers’ rhetoric was often vicious, and I think you are probably correct that the overall tone of campaigns might not have been much different if candidates had been more directly involved.

      By the time of the Civil War, it had become acceptable for candidates to campaign openly for election to any office beneath that of the presidency. I shared this post mainly because I have always been struck by how, on the eve of arguably our nation’s greatest trial, presidential nominees were still more or less expected to stay mum.

      Thanks for your good question and comment.

  2. Without going off into an extended rant, I’d say that at least since FDR, government has been as much about “what goodies do I get that other people pay for” as anything else, whether that is “free” college, “free” health care, old-age pensions/health care and a long long list of other things. Since presidential campaigns have largely become a sales job by politicians promising to hand out favors, you’ve got to make your sales calls to peddle your products (tax breaks or increases, regulations on this and that, college giveaways, etc.).

    So I think it’s because our view of government has been transformed since earlier times. In its original concept, government was, in Tom Paine’s words, a “necessary evil” that should be restrained and the people should be largely free to go about their lives. Now we have many that view government as “good” and that comes with an expectation that government is there to provide for and care for its subjects. Many have taken the phrase “promote the general welfare” and twisted it into “provide the general welfare”.

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