Their homely symbols tell us more about voter behavior than party platforms do
Beneath the gaudy exterior and hoopla of American political parades of the nineteenth century is concealed a sober truth about ourselves. The banners used in such parades were designed to convert onlookers to a new political faith or to reinforce existing beliefs. While one school of American historians dismisses such material as the mere claptrap of political rhetoric in this country, others see the banners as providing greater insights into the psychological springs of voter behavior than do the party platforms or newspaper editorials traditionally interpreted by intellectuals as the substance of campaign debate. The fact is that yesterday’s mass electorate could probably understand the complex issues of past generations no better than contemporary voters can comprehend complex issues today. Recently, scholars have attempted to understand past voter behavior by careful analysis of ethnic, religious, party, and class differences rather than by studying campaign arguments.
A glance at the banners in the following section tells us something about what kind of image of their candidate campaign managers wished to project to the people.While the sample is not scientifically selected, it tends to reflect the prevailing themes of nineteenth-century campaign banners. There are frequent graphic representations of the candidate himself or of his name and that of his running mate. Symbols range from the traditional American flag, shield, and eagle to the honest farmer behind his plow and the humble log cabin. The banners contain few words, and if they are related to issues, they are hard-hitting and precise. Party references are virtually absent.
Unlike the banners used in parades marking the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, those shown here employ no abstract symbols, like the ship of the union and the temple of liberty with its columns representing the ratifying states. These have given way to realistic objects—the log cabin, the barrel of hard cider, the plow, and the shirtsleeved figure of a laboring farmer. As Philip Hone, a New York Whig, in commenting on the symbolism of the 1840 campaign, put it: “The American eagle has taken his flight, which is supplied by [that is, the eagle is replaced by] a cider-barrel, and the long-established emblem of the ship has given place to the plough. Hurrah for Tippecanoe! is heard more frequently than Hurrah for the Constitution! … [These are] weapons, the use of which is understood by every man in our ranks; who would not understand the ship, and eagle and Temple of Liberty and, whatever may be the result of this election, the hurrah is heard and felt in every part of the United States.”
The results of the election of 1840 vindicated Hone, and its lessons have been studied by campaign managers since. The many advertising firms that manage campaigns at the present time are acutely conscious of the need to create forceful images and realistic symbols that are “understood by every man in our ranks.” Can one not see in the banner representation of a log cabin and hard-cider barrel in 1840, and of an honest farmer behind his plow in 1860, capsule messages that might have come through a television screen if the medium had existed then? The message conveyed is the candidate’s virtue and simplicity. Does the modern media-specialist do more than the maker of these banners?
The precise nature of most of the specific issues of the nineteenth century may still be read in party platforms and newspaper editorials, but those found no prominent place in the banners of the period— and they no longer remain in our memory.