My latest video dealt with the election of 1860. Of course, the most interesting thing to come out of that presidential election was the victory of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that followed. However, there was one other matter that seemed trivial at the time, but forever changed elections. Stephen Douglas campaigned for himself. This may seem like a no brainer now, but it wasn’t always that way.

When George Washington was nominated for the presidency in 1788, he made no effort to gain the office. There were those, like Alexander Hamilton, who lobbied for his victory. A propaganda machine touted the man and spread the famous story about Washington chopping down the cherry tree as a boy. Why would Washington have to put in any great effort? He was a hero to the nation, the greatest military commander to many, and one of the most popular founders. Washington didn’t have to lift a finger to gain the presidency.

John Adams followed his lead. There were several Federalists publications and advocates who were willing to convince the people to vote for him, but Adams didn’t do anything himself. Jefferson was much the same. He quietly directed some of the attacks against the Federalists and insisted on certain things being said and done, but he wasn’t seen doing any of them. Over the decades, this became the norm. Candidates may have directed some of the campaign and maneuver their allies, but they made few to no public statements and never asked for votes. This doesn’t mean the elections were any more civil. Andrew Jackson was severely embittered when his wife was attacked by the other side for potentially marrying him before her divorce was final. She died between the election and Jackson’s inauguration. He always blamed the stress of the attacks for her death and never forgave his political opponents for it.

Stephen Douglas knew he was up against a lot of factors in 1860. His party had been split between himself and John Breckinridge. John Bell was also mostly taking votes of those who aligned themselves with the Democratic Party. Abraham Lincoln seemed to have the abolitionists firmly sewn up. Douglas knew he would need an extra boost to become president. To this end, he went on the road and gave speeches actually beseeching people to vote for him and save the union.

In modern parlance, the idea of someone running for president and not giving speeches, running commercials, and pandering for votes seems absurd. Of course, running for president didn’t immediately become what it is today. Douglas’ run had been unsuccessful and many were still suspicious of the practice, but slowly, presidential candidates in the late nineteenth century began to advocate for themselves. Teddy Roosevelt proved particularly adept at this new practice as he won in landslide in 1904 and was nearly able to win as a third party candidate in 1912.

The approaches for a candidates’ involvement have varied greatly over the years. In 1920, it had become common for whistle stop tours, paper interviews, and speeches across the nation. Warren G. Harding took a different approach. His advisors knew the unpopularity of their opponents and had Harding run his whole campaign from his front porch. He gave the occasional speech or interview, but mostly depended on the nation’s dissatisfaction and his campaign’s advertisements. Harry Truman took the opposite approach in 1948. In an election where his opponent was heavily favored, Truman went on a whirlwind tour across the nation to push for his election and upset Dewey despite most pollsters predicting his fall. Also, in 1976, Jimmy Carter won the Democratic primary and the presidency by knocking on doors and getting his name out by word of mouth. At the time, people called it the handshaking campaign. Carter just wanted to meet people and tell them he wanted to be president. It worked and he was elected that year.

An election just came and went where 6.5 billion dollars were spent. George Washington would undoubtedly be shocked by this use of money and the candidates attacking their opponents while boosting themselves as the best people for the job. It is a little lesson in understanding context. Though these massive campaigns are common now, they weren’t always.

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