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The First Hurrah
Presidential candidates stayed above the battle until William Jennings Bryan stumped the nation in 1896; they’ve been in the thick of it ever since
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
The most confident prediction that can be made about the 1980 presidential campaign is that the nominees will invest enormous energy, time, and money in stumping the country. Even though television can now bring them effortlessly into the nation’s living rooms, candidates eagerly commit themselves, sometimes against the advice of their most expert strategists, to the grind and risk of the campaign tour, a hullabaloo of marching bands, pressing throngs, outstretched hands, the candidate fatigued and hoarse, shouting platitudes about the beauty of the countryside, the virtues of its citizens and of their sterling leaders—provided they belong to his party.
It would seem that this boisterous ritual has been going on since the early days of the Republic, and one can imagine, say, Andrew Jackson striding through a shouting mob to the steps of a small-town courthouse, there to give a tough speech against the Bank, and broach a keg of cider. And, in the main, this picture is accurate: there have always been speeches, and cheering crowds, and free cider. But there is one very significant anomaly—until a time within the living memory of many Americans, the candidate himself never even considered appearing.
The inventor of this uniquely American madness was thirty-six-year-old Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, who, in 1896, committed the full, torrential energy of his huge physique and relative youth to an all-out, grand-scale campaign tour against the Republican nominee, William McKinley. His raucous example has been followed slavishly by candidates ever since.
Before Bryan’s time, presidential “campaigning” was hardly worthy of the name; it was staid and muted, constrained by a decorum that deferred to the presumed majesty of the office and that regarded an active, visible candidacy as unseemly. Thomas Jefferson set the standard in 1800. Though others campaigned ardently in his behalf, Jefferson did virtually nothing, remaining in discreet seclusion at Monticello. Although letters flowed in from his fellow Democratic-Republicans around the country, keeping him in touch with the campaign, Jefferson scrupulously abstained from political comment even in correspondence with his closest friends.
Instead, the campaign of 1800 was conducted through pamphlets—more than a hundred of them—and by an avalanche of communications in the press. Jefferson’s reticence finally prompted Federalist newspapers to carry stories that after an illness of forty-eight hours he had died. Alert Jeffersonians noted that these reports were timed to precede the year’s Fourth of July celebrations, then largely a personal commemoration of their hero’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence, in order to dampen their festive ardor. The most direct involvement Jefferson allowed himself was to correct the draft of a biographical pamphlet, a forerunner of the campaign biography, which included an affirmation, in bold type, that “ Jefferson still lives .”
Jefferson’s pattern of decorous reserve was closely observed for decades. Even Andrew Jackson declined to attend public dinners or travel into other states, boasting proudly at the campaign’s close, “I have not gone into the highways and market places to proclaim my opinions.” He did meet with delegations of politicians and conduct a voluminous correspondence in the press, explaining his views and refuting the “falsehoods and calumny” of his critics.
Abraham Lincoln, despite the enthusiasm his name inspired in 1860, was a model of prim reserve. For all of a long campaign, from May until December, he was removed from public view. Although he managed a flood of visitors and endless correspondence, he made virtually no speeches and left the campaigning to others. Lincoln’s successors in the nineteenth century continued to cultivate the traditional image of disinterested patriotism, leaving active campaigning to party colleagues. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes even squirmed over the propriety of attending Ohio day at the Philadelphia fair, although he was Ohio’s governor as well as the Republican presidential candidate and everyone agreed the occasion was nonpolitical.
There were a handful of overeager exceptions to the rule. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and nominee of the Liberal Republicans in 1872, and General James Baird Weaver, nominee of the Greenback party in 1880 and of the Populists in 1892, timidly ventured onto the campaign trail for modest schedules of speechmaking.
Republican James G. Blaine, the “Plumed Knight” of Maine, stretched popular campaigning still further in his 1884 race against Grover Cleveland—and met disaster. Politicians in the East and in the border states, imperiled by the lapping waters of uncertain elections, begged Blaine, whose votegetting magic they venerated, to come to their rescue. Heading west, Blaine moved deftly but wearily through a lengthy schedule of speeches, made bearable only by the warmth of embattled politicians eagerly awaiting his visit.