Elections: Personal, Political, Comical
Many Americans feared for the future of the infant nation during the election of 1800. The third presidential election was also the first truly contested election and many individuals saw the party divisions that rent the nation as a sign not just of national discord but of national disunion. Ministers used their pulpits to expound on the morality of the candidates themselves. Federalists, John Adams’ supporters, started a rumor that Thomas Jefferson had died and accused him of being an atheist while Jefferson’s party called Adams “hermaphroditical” and questioned his manliness. Democracy was an experiment that had never been tried on such a large scale and many feared that this controversy and public spectacle would mark the end of the experiment.
Obviously, the contest between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not lead to disunion. Thomas Jefferson won and Adams left the White House peacefully if not very happily. But, out of this election came a whole new culture of electioneering; Americans from that point on would participate in the election process not just through their votes but through their words, bodies, and goods.
Many of those words, like those of the Reduced Abridged Shakespeare Company, were satirical in nature. The whigs happily taunted democratic candidate Martin Van Buren in 1840 for being short. They compared him to a bit of tobacco juice which their candidate, William Henry Harrison might spit out “squirt, squirt!” In retaliation, Van Buren put new words to the tune “Rockabye Baby” beginning with the phrase “Rockabye Baby, daddy’s a whig, when he comes home, hard cider he’ll swig….” This parody of a lullaby implied both that Harrison was a drinker and that he would use alcohol to sway the lower classes at a time when upper class women were railing against the consumption of liquor.
The political was also, inevitably, personal. Americans identified themselves with parties and with individual candidates; think about “I Like Ike” and “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” William Henry Harrison and his vice presidential partner John Tyler were known as “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” That slogan, used in the 1840 election, reminded listeners of Harrison’s military accomplishments There is also the democratic slogan in 1852 “We Polked You in ’44, We Shall Pierce you in ’52!” This element of ribald humor was present in Wendell Wilkie’s 1940 campaign against Franklin Roosevelt. Wilkie’s slogan argued that “No man is good three times.” As Americans rooted for their chosen presidential candidate, they used personal attacks and pointed humor to influence fellow voters.
Americans have long enjoyed being wooed with things during campaigns as well. During the nineteenth century liquor or cake were often doled out in exchange for votes. During Teddy Roosevelt’s failed presidential election as the candidate for the Bull-Moose Party in 1912, his campaign distributed sheet music to the song “We Are with T.R.” Female supporters of JFK wore red, white, and blue dresses embroidered with KENNEDY at the sash in 1960. Campaign buttons date back to Abraham Lincoln’s elections, while ribbons were a favorite accessory for the late nineteenth century, and neckties and hats popular in the twentieth. Through these things, people made their bodies campaign tools. Before 1919, women could use such means to influence the vote despite their inability to participate in the voting process and, as buttons like “If I were 21, I’d vote for Kennedy” demonstrate, they have allowed other groups to participate in the election process as well.
Americans have long enjoyed the spectacle of an election, and have spent the past 250 years creating a culture that prizes showy, loud, and raucous election events. Perhaps that is in some way comforting; humor, satire, and farce have all been a part of previous elections cycles. It is also deeply democratic. Even those who are not able to vote due to age, immigration status, or other circumstance have found ways to express their political opinions. The line between personal and political has always been blurred when it comes to American politics. Perhaps this brand of personal, competitive, and contentious electioneering is best summarized by the W.C. Fields quip, “I never voted for anybody. I always voted against.”
Dr. Tara Strauch
Assistant Professor of History
Tara Strauch joined Centre’s faculty in 2015 as assistant professor of history. Her fields of interest include America to 1877, the American Revolution, religious culture, political culture, identity, and the Atlantic world. She received a B.A. in history and classical languages from The College of Wooster, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina.
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