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The (very) First Hurrah

March 2023
3min read

Louis W. Koenig’s recent article that championed William Jennings Bryan as the first, full-fledged presidential campaigner in 1896 (“The First Hurrah,” April/May, 1980) brought us a good deal of mail. Two readers, Jerome Harman of Rogers, Arizona, and Professor Don E. Fehrenbacher, each argued that the first true campaigner was not Bryan but Stephen A. Douglas. Fehrenbacher, a member of our advisory board and winner of the 1979 Pulitzer prize for his monumental study The Dred Scott Case , writes that while “it is true that ever since 1896, campaigning by the presidential candidates themselves has been expected and normal, Koenig badly overstates his case when he calls Bryan the ‘inventor of this uniquely American madness,’ and he is simply flat out wrong when he declares: ’… until a time within the living memory of many Americans, the candidate himself never even considered appearing.’ Koenig, even though he mentions the campaign of 1860 and Lincoln’s abstention from speechmaking, fails to say anything about Stephen A. Douglas, the real inventor of presidential campaigning if there was one. Robert W. Johannsen devotes about twenty-five pages to the story in his biography of Douglas. Physically, it was an effort as heroic as anything Bryan ever did, made in an age of more primitive transportation. The trail led to Boston, Albany, Burlington, Montpelier, Concord, Providence, Norfolk, Petersburg, Raleigh, Richmond, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, Iowa City, Dubuque, Memphis, Huntsville, Nashville, Atlanta, Macon, Montgomery, and Mobile—and I have left out many other places where he spoke. It was a campaign for the Presidency that in its final stages became a plea for the Union. Douglas finished the ordeal with his voice reduced to a whisper and walking with a crutch. He probably never fully recovered from the exhaustion that he suffered but ignored. It is a story that ought not to be forgotten, as Koenig seems to have done.”

Professor Koenig, author of The Invisible Presidency and Bryan , responds: “In my initial draft, I had material on various precursors of Bryan, including Stephen A. Douglas, Horace Greeley, James G. Blaine, and James B. Weaver. Because of space limitations, I had to cut drastically, and only Blaine remains in my final draft.

“On the question of who invented presidential campaigning as it is known in modern times, I believe that several standards are applicable, above and beyond Douglas’ achievement of touring through several parts of the country.

“1. For the active presidential campaign to become established, the sentiment that it was offensive to the dignity of the Presidency had to be combatted, and a new norm formulated accepting and approving of the active campaign. Douglas did not provide this formulation.

“Although Douglas made several trips, he carefully and publicly justified them as being unrelated to the campaign. In other words, he made no effort to justify the active campaign as a pursuit harmonious with the nature of the Presidency. According to Robert W. Johannsen’s biography of Douglas, which Fehrenbacher cites, Douglas explained his upstate New York trip in terms of visiting his mother; his journey to Massachusetts was to attend the graduation at Harvard of his wife’s younger brother; and to Vermont to visit his father’s grave and to return to childhood scenes. In his further travel and speaking in New England ‘he customarily apologized for having been “betrayed” into making a political speech against his will.’ He spoke in Concord, New Hampshire, ‘just for exercise.’ He traveled South to take care of a family matter.

“Bryan, on the other hand, acted in the conviction that popular campaigning is altogether appropriate for the seeker of the Presidency—and publicly said so. Bryan and other Populists subscribed to the credo that the presidential campaign must be a popular campaign, with the candidates ‘going to the people’ to vie for their votes. In accepting the Populist presidential nomination in 1892, James B. Weaver told the nominating convention: ‘And I wish to make you here and now a promise that if God spares me, and gives me strength I shall visit every state in the Union, and carry the banner of the people into the enemy’s camp. ’ Without hesitation or doubt, Bryan adopted for himself the same mission in 1896.

“2. Scale is also crucial, since the question at issue is who began the national popular campaign, as we know it. It seems clear to me that Bryan was the first to do this.

“I am supported in this judgment by David S. Muzzey, author of James G. Blaine , who, after reviewing Blaine’s touring, which was even more extensive than Douglas’, concludes: ‘There had been instances of candidates campaigning in their own behalf, like Greeley in 1872 and Weaver in 1880, but the custom, inaugurated on a grand scale by Bryan and continued by practically every candidate since, of touring the country and appealing for support of the ticket, to large audiences, extended in these days to tens of millions by the radio broadcast, had not yet become established. It was still looked upon as rather below the dignity of the candidate, to whom the honor of election was supposed to come unsought. ’

“3. Bryan was the first popular campaigner for the Presidency who made the practice stick. With few exceptions, after his time candidates have continued his practice. Douglas, Greeley, and Blaine did not establish popular campaigning on a here-to-stay basis. It promptly stopped with each of their respective candidacies.

“4. It is questionable how much Douglas and Blaine were campaigning for their own election and how much for other purposes. Bryan was campaigning only for his election. Muzzey depicts Blaine as under great pressure to visit different parts of the country to help wobbly state and local tickets. According to Johannsen, supporters were puzzled why Douglas campaigned so much in states he was certain to lose to Lincoln. A reporter from Newport, Rhode Island, provided the answer: ‘he intends to crush out utterly and forever the Disunion Party [Kentucky senator John C. Breckenridge’s wing of Douglas’ beloved Democrats], if it is in his power to do so.’ ”

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