Constitution Daily

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Newspapers and booze: how the founders campaigned

November 1, 2010 by John Kenneth White


The dominant means of reaching voters during the early days of campaigning was the print media, namely, newspapers. The surest way to win favorable attention for candidates was either to own a newspaper or sponsor the editor. Thus, in 1791, Thomas Jefferson gave Philip Freneau a part-time clerkship in the State Department so that he would move to Philadelphia to become editor of the National Gazette, the paper that became the mouthpiece for Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.

Alexander Hamilton, meanwhile, was a major financial backer of the competing Gazette of the United States. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers were a major source of campaign expenditures. For example, when a wealthy backer wanted to aid the presidential candidacy of James Buchanan in 1856, he contributed $10,000 to start a sympathetic newspaper. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln secretly purchased a small Illinois newspaper to advance his presidential ambitions in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln secretly purchased a small Illinois newspaper to advance his presidential ambitions

“Treating” was another common form of electioneering during the early days of the republic. Candidates would sponsor events at which voters would be treated to lavish feasts. Thus, when George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1751, he reportedly purchased a quart of rum, wine, beer, and hard cider for every voter in the district (there were only 391 voters).

In 1835, Ferdinand Bayard, a Frenchman traveling in the United States, commented that “candidates offer drunkenness openly to anyone who is willing to give them his vote.” Besides owning newspapers and treating potential supporters, candidates also sent mailings to voters, printed pamphlets for distribution, and organized rallies and parades. By the 1840s, pictures, buttons, banners, and novelty items were widely distributed.

Although control of newspapers, treating, and distribution of campaign paraphernalia were costly endeavors, collecting massive sums of money was unnecessary. Prior to 1828, only white males could vote, there were property qualifications in some states, and voting was even restricted in some places to those belonging to a particular religious denomination. Fewer voters meant fewer expenditures.

Modes of communication were limited to word-of-mouth and the print media. After the formation of the spoils system in the 1830s (whereby party workers were rewarded with government jobs), volunteers were called upon to organize parades and get voters to the polls. Finally, party loyalty was extremely pronounced for much of the 19th century. There was very little movement from one election to the next, and straight-ticket voting was the norm. As political scientist Frank Sorauf once noted, “To a considerable extent, campaigning in those decades was an exercise in activating both party loyalties and responses to party positions on the great issues of the day.”

Photo from Flickr user sahlgoode.John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and the author of The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition. This post is a part of a series from White's monograph, written exclusively for the National Constitution Center.

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