Skip to main content



May 2024
5min read

When these lines appear, a new President will be learning his way around the White House, and the nation will be enjoying a postinaugural respite from a year full of political commercials, polls, predictions, projections, and analyses. Likewise of spin control, attack videos, photo opportunities, sound bites, and other horrors of electronic campaigning. I apologize for seeming to prolong the agony, but historical reflection is in order.

Like others, I fret intensely over the way in which TY politics, which treats us as if we were all illiterate, is making a mockery of informed voter choice. And then I think of Davy Crockett, and of the election of 1840. First, listen to this uneducated backwoodsman describing his run for the state legislature of Tennessee in 1823: “The thought of having to make a speech made my knees feel mighty weak. . . . But as good luck would have it, these big candidates spoke nearly all day, and when they quit, the people were worn out with fatigue, which afforded me a good apology for not discussing the government. . . . When they were all done, 1 got up and told some laughable story, and quit. . . . [Then] I went home and didn’t go back again till after the election was over. ... I was elected, doubling my competitor, and nine votes over.”

So much for the good old days of serious argument on the issues. Crockett also described other techniques of high-minded canvassing in his dictated autobiography of 1834. He carried a bottle of whiskey and a twist of tobacco in the pockets of his hunting shirt. When he offered a voter a drink, and the man spat out his quid to accept it, "1 would out with my twist and give him another chaw. And in this way he would not be worse off than when I found him; and I would be sure to leave him in a first-rate humour.”

In 1825 he ran for Congress against the incumbent in his district and lost. It seemed that the price of cotton had gone up to a quarter for a pound, and Davy’s opponent claimed the credit. “I might as well have sung salms over a dead horse,” said Davy, “as to try to make the people believe otherwise; for ... if the colonel hadn’t done it, they didn’t know what had.” But Crockett did win in 1827, and he served three terms in the House. His legislative record is barren, but his stories of Indian fights and bear hunts made him colorful copy. He even did a triumphant speaking tour of Eastern cities.

He was not the first stump whangdoodler to win office in the 182Os. He was blown into Washington by a political hurricane that leveled the barriers of property qualifications for voting and Officeholding and established universal manhood suffrage (white males only) in almost every state. The same wind whirled Andrew Jackson into the Presidency in 1828.

But Crockett was no Jacksonian. He hated his fellow Tennessean, and thereby hangs a tale. He became part of an anti-Jackson coalition that was slowly hardening into a national party known as the Whigs. He was in good company for a frontiersman. Though the terms conservative and liberal have ambiguous meanings in American history, Whig leaders were, in general, traditionalists, tightly tied to the biggest landholders, factory owners, merchants, and bankers of the country. They took a dim view (much like the framers of the Constitution) of the excesses of popular democracy.

Yet it became painfully clear to them early in the 183Os that success in a presidential election was only possible by running with, not against, the gale. Crockett was not available to run as a homespun candidate. Defeated in his run for Congress in 1834, he had stomped off to Texas to join its revolution and died at the Alamo in 1836.

In 1840, by-passing such experienced national figures as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, the Whigs nominated Ohio’s retired general William Henry Harrison. They then proceeded, in the face of fact and reason, to transform him into a pseudo-Crockett. The sixty-seven-year-old Harrison had been born on a Virginia plantation, to two of the state’s oldest clans. His father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later governor.

He was presented to the electorate, however, as “Old Tippecanoe,” the hero of the 1811 battle that broke the power of the Indian tribes of the Old Northwest—a simple son of Nature who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider instead of the French champagne favored by the Democrat Martin Van Buren (who was, in fact, of much more modest origins). Under torchlights in every hamlet, Whig spokesmen sang the praises of the commonplace.

It was pure image making—and it worked. Harrison swamped Van Buren. Conservatives had swiped the symbols of democracy and presented an aging defender of wealth as the people’s darling. The parties turned out a vote total of some 2.4 million, twice that of 1828. Professor Richard P. McCormick of Rutgers University has estimated that up to 80 percent of the eligible population went to the polls, where the “common man” was finally, firmly enthroned. Even defenders of privilege thenceforward had to sing the democratic tune. From that day to this, the presidential election has been essentially a popularity contest.

So television has not created the issueless, fact-dodging campaign. It has simply given the latest technological twist to a system that we have survived for a century and a half.

Too much comfort should not be taken from the comparison, for we live in different times. (Historical parallels are family resemblances, not identical twins.) An unwisely chosen President can do far more damage today than in the 184Os. The influence of cash in our present system is much greater. And while the strong parties of Harrison’s day created a large, if gullible, electorate, television seems to be shrinking ours. Big money controlling a small electorate and winning more power—that is a potential, troubling scenario for instability followed by oligarchy.

But in a sense, we are always in trouble once we open the doors of political participation to everyone—as any genuine conservative would remind us. Popular democracy is a high-risk enterprise. It’s as dangerous as Crockett’s bear hunts, especially if we let the politicians play Davy while we play bear.

The foregoing lines were composed before the 1988 election campaign was completed. Those that follow are in the nature of a postscript. On the morning of November 8, a number of columnists expressed the view that the campaign had set new lows in distortion and trivialization.

The veteran New York Times writer James Reston bid a grateful farewell to a “disappointing” campaign and headed his piece FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST . He used the word tricky to describe the Vice-President’s strategy, and he had evident sympathy for the “liberalism that ... led the fight against the Depression and the Nazis,” and which Dukakis had been slow and late in defending.

But Reston also has a good and objective memory. “Dukakis called up the ghost of Harry S. Truman’s victory 40 years ago,” he wrote, “but Harry ran one of the dirtiest campaigns of the century that year, comparing Thomas E. Dewey to Hitler and Mussolini. . . .”

I called Reston, who could not remember the precise date but amiably referred me to the files of the Times for the last phase of the campaign. Sure enough, there it was on the front page for October 26, 1948: PRESIDENT LIKENS DEWEY TO HITLER AS FASCISTS’ TOOL .

Except that it was the Times headline writer who had said it so explicitly. Truman had not—not quite. Speaking in Chicago, he had said this: “When a few men get control of the economy of a nation they find a ‘front man’ to run the country for them. Before Hitler came to power, control over the German economy had passed into the hands of a small group of rich manufacturers, bankers and landowners.

“These men decided that Germany had to have a tough, ruthless dictator who would play their game. . . .

‘Today, in the United States, there is a growing—and dangerous—concentration of immense economic power in the hands of just a few men. . . .

“Now, my friends, the record of the Eightieth Congress is a sad tale of the sell-out of the people’s interest to put more and more power into the hands of fewer and fewer men. . . .

“Such is the spirit behind government by Republicans [in Illinois]. . . . In that spirit, democracy can be destroyed, and tyranny can be born.”

No specific reference to Dewey, certainly, though the implication was clear enough. And readers would tend to remember the headline rather than the text. Meanwhile, Strom Thurmond, candidate of the States’ Rights, or Dixiecrat, party, was making his own contribution to the campaign’s record for negativism. The next day’s Times quoted him thus: “States’ rights are ‘the only guarantee we have that a kind of Kremlin will not be established in Washington.’” Norman Thomas, then in one of his bids to be elected on the Socialist ticket, had his doubts about the seriousness of all the major parties. “In proportion to the magnitude of the issues before the world,” he declared, “this is the worst campaign I’ve ever been in.”

In a sense, we are always in trouble once we open the doors of political participation to everyone.

It seems, after all, that smear and sleaze are (a) in the eye of the beholder and (b) part of the system—particularly when, as a realistic electoral matter, winning is the only thing. That does not justify dishonesty and shabbiness, but it suggests that we should look a little deeper into the record before making ultimate judgments and deciding on remedies.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.