Once again, presidential politics is in the air—and on the television. And on the radio. And on the web, on billboards, and bumper stickers. In a presidential election year, it seems as if our nation’s full attention is focused on the hopeful candidates for the Oval Office. “I approve this message” is the refrain that echoes in our consciousness from the warm days of summer until the chilly mornings of November.
Of course, it has not always been this way. In the young Republic, candidates remained aloof from any campaign mounted on their behalf. Surrogates may have slung dirt, made exaggerated claims for their candidate, or articulated the candidate’s political philosophy, but men from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams felt it beneath their dignity to campaign openly for the office. By the time Abraham Lincoln emerged as a political leader, however, the public had begun to expect candidates to address the concerns of the voting public. Before the twentieth century ended, all the elements we take for granted today were in place, including televised party conventions and debates between candidates, emailed fund-raising pleas, robo-calls, pollsters, and twenty-four-hour news coverage.
But if the campaigns have changed, the capacity of a presidential election to shape and reshape our national history has not. And this is why they are so important to us as history teachers and historians. Some, like FDR’s election to a fourth term, set critical precedents, leading to amendments to the constitution. Others, like the 1824 election, brought changes in the nomination process. And, in others, like the election of Abraham Lincoln, the very course of our national history was determined. In our own lifetimes, presidential campaigns have signaled major changes in our cultural norms and values, measured by the election of a Catholic to the presidency, the selection of a woman as a vice presidential candidate, and the entrance into the White House of an African American.
Our fascination as historians with presidential elections also rests on the unexpected drama that sometimes accompanies them, from the tragic assassination of leading candidates to riots outside the party conventions to the appeal to the Supreme Court to resolve a close and contested election. It rests as well on their impact on the two-party system that defines our politics, for when votes were tallied it sometimes spelled the doom of established parties or the ascendency of new ones. During presidential elections we can chart significant shifts in political loyalties and the role of changing demographics in election results. We recognize that even the vocabulary of an election—from slogans like “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” to “Rum Romanism and Rebellion” and “Hope” to voter blocs such as “soccer moms,” “values voters,” and “energy voters” —can offer clues to these important political trends. Finally, presidential elections challenge us to unravel historical cause and effect as we evaluate the role of personality and charisma, the brilliance or bumbling of campaign strategies, and the impact of unexpected events that occur during the presidential race.
In this issue of History Now, our scholars look at five significant and unusual presidential races. In his essay, “Adams v. Jackson: The Election of 1824,” Edward Lengel takes us back to 1824, when four candidates—John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford—vied for the presidency and the charge of a self-serving, if not immoral deal between two of them tainted the victory of the winner. Lengel gives us a stirring and insightful account of what history books have often called the corrupt bargain between “the Puritan and the Blackleg.”
In “The Making of the President: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860,” Harold Holzer reexamines one of the most fateful elections in our history, offering new insights into the election of Abraham Lincoln. Holzer reminds us that “accidents and false assumptions” played a critical role in this election, chief among them the erroneous Southern conviction that Lincoln intended to end slavery if he were elected and that Douglas was equally dangerous to their “peculiar institution.” Holzer points out the significance of political organization and the unexpected personal appeal of Lincoln as a candidate in determining the outcome of the election.
In “The Contentious Election of 1876,” Michael F. Holt looks closely at an election Democrats called “the Fraud of the Century.” Acknowledging that the creation of an unprecedented Federal Electoral Commission helped make this an unusual election, Holt nevertheless argues that there were other, equally intriguing aspects to this election that require explanation, including high voter turn out and the apparent disconnect between economic conditions and political results.
Matthew Dallek carries us into the twentieth century with his essay on “Franklin Delano Roosevelt—Four-Term President—and the Election of 1944.” In this examination of FDR’s unprecedented run for a fourth term, Dallek focuses on Roosevelt’s motives and on the historical circumstances in which the nation found itself in 1944: a returning prosperity and a growing expectation of victory in World War II. Dallek also factors in the personalities of the two candidates, FDR and Dewey—and the effectiveness of their respective campaigns.
Finally, James Gormly brings us to the controversial first presidential election of our century, the Gore-Bush contest. In “Hanging by a Chad—or Not: The 2000 Presidential Election,” he takes us through the campaign, with its focus on a few “swing states”—Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and then through the tense days between November 8 and December 13, when Gore conceded the election to George W. Bush. Gormly explains how the election wound up in the venue of the US Supreme Court and suggests that it was this, more than the candidates’ political positions or party platforms, that made 2000 a unique and memorable election.
As always, we have included lesson plans. Our interactive feature for this issue is an interactive timeline looking at presidential elections since 1789.
Let me close with an appeal that you exercise your right—and obligation—to vote this November. Voting is democracy in action!
CAROL BERKIN, Editor