America's Oddest Election

Lincoln came out a victor in the 1860 presidential election despite winning only 2 percent of the Southern vote

Just six months before the presidential election of November 1860 and only days after winning his party’s nomination, Abraham Lincoln received some stunning advice from one of his chief supporters, William Cullen Bryant. The influential editor of the pro-Republican New York Evening Post beseeched him to “make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises.” Only three months earlier, Bryant had urged a large audience at New York City’s Cooper Union to pay heed to Lincoln’s every word.Read more »

Lincoln’s Legacy

As we approach the bicentennial of his birth, leading historians look at the man and his achievements

During the campaign of 1860, and throughout what Henry Adams would justly call the “Great Secession Winter” that fell like a shadow after that year’s momentous presidential election, a convincing case could be made that Abraham Lincoln was totally unprepared to assume the nation—s highest office, particularly at the hour of its gravest domestic crisis. Read more »

There We Go Again

In their surprisingly short history, presidential debates have never lived up to our expectations—yet they’ve always proved invaluable

In the coming months George W. Bush, John Kerry, and their running mates will submit themselves to a relatively new ritual in American presidential politics: a series of face-to-face debates.

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The Electoral College: How It Got That Way and Why We're Stuck With It

It was never designed to actually elect a President, it’s awkward, cumbersome, and confusing, and almost no one likes it. Americans have been trying to get rid of it for more than two centuries. Yet it’s still here. Now we are seeing renewed efforts to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. Will they succeed? Don’t bet on it.

So it has happened again. A close presidential election has led to recriminations, cries of fraud, and talk of tainted mandates. Just as predictably, the 2000 election has inspired calls to reform the Electoral College—predictably, that is, because such proposals have followed every close presidential contest since the beginning of the Republic. The only difference is that this time no one asked why there’s such a long delay between election and inauguration.

Intimate Enemies

When John Adams was elected President, and Thomas Jefferson Vice President, each came to see the other as a traitor. Out of their enmity grew our modern political system.

During the first contested presidential election in American history, the voters were asked to choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In this millennial year, voters will choose between George W. Bush and Al Gore. At first blush, the caustic observation of Henry Adams appears indisputable: The American Presidency stands as a glaring exception to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary progress.

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The Conventional Wisdom Why It’s Wrong

When the two parties gather to select their candidates, the proceedings will be empty glitz, with none of the import of old-time conventions. Or will they?


At some point in this election-year summer, as thousands of politicians, delegates, and journalists gather for the quadrennial rites of democracy known as national political conventions, commentators will complain that the proceedings have devolved to nothing more than a long television commercial.

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The Long, Stormy Marriage Of Money And Politics

… or why in America campaign-finance reform never succeeds

In the summer of 1787 a sweaty group of politicians was debating the clauses of a proposed constitution in humid Philadelphia. Endless problems reared their ugly heads: the distribution of power between large states and small states; slavery; the size of a standing army; the powers of the Presidency. The framers solved—or postponed—most of these dilemmas with their famous genius for compromise. But one quandary was solved differently. Read more »

The Lives Of The Parties

The two-party system, undreamt of by the founders of the Republic, has been one of its basic shaping forces ever since their time

Recently I got a letter from a friend of mine, Max Lale, the current president of the Texas State Historical Society, that gave me a quick glimpse of a vanished world. Lale recalled that on election day of 1928, when he was twelve, he accompanied his father on a mile-and-a-quarter walk to their local polling place in Oklahoma. There he waited while his Southern-born father, faced with a choice between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover, agonized over which would be worse: to support a Catholic or a Republican. In the end he cast no vote for President.Read more »

Our Sporting Presidents

Most of our Presidents have been avid athletes, even Taft. Could a party safely nominate an overweight and unabashed couch potato who scorned exercise?

Right now, of course, it is the coming election that provides most of the material on which this column casts its regular history-conscious eye. But not this time. September is the month of pennant races, and I’ve got baseball as well as Presidents on my mind. I phrase the question of the hour not as “Will George Bush be re-elected?” but rather as “Will George Bush or his opponent toss out the first ball of the 1993 season?” Read more »

Memory As History

Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one

The chords of memory may be mystic, as Abraham Lincoln described them, but how accurate and reliable they are as evidence is a dilemma every historian must face. From the time Herodotus walked through Asia Minor two thousand years ago, asking questions, tapping the recollections of hundreds of eyewitnesses, historians have depended on the retentive faculty of the human mind for information about the past, and they have learned that such reliance has its minuses as well as pluses. Read more »