Winter 1997

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Electioneering Then and Now


Robert V. Anderson

In an old scrapbook I found some items which suggest that while the format of electioneering may have changed from parades, mass meetings, leaflets, and newspapers to radio and television, the pattern today is very much the same as it was way back then. Persons aspiring to control elections and the making of public policy use every device they can think of to sway voters. Foremost in their strategy is their intent to induce unquestioning party loyalty. Sometimes the result of their tactics is to confuse the voters—which may be an intention of the power seekers.

Newspapers have sought to form public opinion, sometimes by frankly favoring a particular candidate and sometimes by extending or by denying coverage to some candidates. Clippings found in an old scrapbook illustrate newspaper bias in the Van Buren era.

Martin Van Buren became a lawyer, and in 1821 at age 39 was elected a United States Senator from New York. He had moved up the chain of offices, having been Columbia County Surrogate, State Senator, and New York Attorney General. In 1827 he was reelected United States Senator and then in 1828 elected Governor of New York State. He resigned the governorship in 1829, to become AndrewJackson's Secretary of State from 1829 to 1831. Then in 1832 he was elected United States Vice-President, and in 1836, President of the United States. A popular tag for him at that time was "The Little Magician."

Party unity was breaking up at that time and threatening the Democrat's one-party rule. There were various titles for the new splinter groups: the Loco Focos, and Whigs, for example. The Whigs had William Henry Harrison as their prime candidate. He had lost to Van Buren in 1836, but defeated him in 1840, and thereafter Martin was no longer the little magician. My scrapbook clippings come from this era. Consider these examples of newspaper efforts to form public opinion:

"Political ornithologists in the classification of birds of prey have placed Mr. Van Buren in the order of the 'spoon bills.'"

This was followed by "Crow! turkey crow! your time's BUT SHOT, Thanksgiving near—you'll go to pot. (from) Baltimore Clipper." It was not unusual to quote another paper as part of a party web of action.

Van Buren was listed as a Democrat and a paper supporting him in Maine had: "The Legislature in session adjourned on Thursday, having completed revision of the laws and some other business in an extra session of five weeks and one day. This is the end of the old Loco Foco legislature. The next session will show a new set of them and a new political organization."

Later another paper wrote "Mr. Van Buren is out again and lame and feeble [until he] is FINALLY [out] on the 4th of March next. (Presidential terms then ended on the 4th of March.)

Having passed some partisan legislation how could a legislature assure the application of it? By a law approved March 7, 1834, they provided for counting and safe guarding the votes until the next session should meet. The following is part of that text: "The Secretary of State shall cause this Resolve to be published in all the newspapers printed in this State for three weeks at least before the second Monday of September next, and also cause copies thereof with a suitable form of a Return to be sent forthwith to Plantations (Maine still had plantations at that time), and to All the Aldermen of the cities in this State. And said Secretary shall, as early as may be, in the next session of the Legislature, lay said returns before said Legislature with an abstract thereof shewing the number and state of the votes." (This was dated March 7, 1834.)

Another device of political influence was to print indicators of popular support such as: "Éthe large and commodious church was crowded with ladies and gentlemen, and without were thousands of the hardy yeomanry, mechanics and sound Democrats of that section of the county. The entire number was not less than forty-five hundred."

The form of the mass meeting was well advanced by this time. Action at the meeting included:

Mr. O. Ames, Jr. read the several renunciations of FOURTEEN citizens of Easton who have until very recently supported the administration—The Whig states that they are men of integrity and above the sinister influences of any party—some of whom have been known as influential men in the cause they espouse.

Indorsements of well-known persons was a technique often used—and still is.

And finally an article of the Hartford Courier was reprinted in this paper. It suggested that the Bible gave all the instruction needed to not only run a country but also all affairs and activities of society with statements such as, "A nation must be truly blessed if it were governed by no other laws than these of this blessed book." I have heard this preached in the present.

The above techniques of political party action are much the same now as they were earlier, only in a different style following social changes.

© 1996 Robert V. Anderson
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