American voters have long prided themselves on proclaiming their favorite candidates for public office. Today, political parties spend millions of dollars staging public events filled with banners, balloons, and placards. They also buy radio and television advertising to promote their candidates and platforms. The Internet, which became a serious part of the campaign process in 2004, has reached critical mass in the current election year.
Nevertheless vigorous campaigning and public appeals have not always been the norm in the United States. Prevailing political decorum during the early republic mandated that candidates avoid the appearance of unseemly desire for public office. Most candidates before 1828 stayed in seclusion or at least out of public view during their campaigns. Similarly, supporters were expected to confine their electioneering to modest displays of appreciation for their candidate’s republican ideals.
Contemporary presidential electioneering owes its origins to Andrew Jackson’s anger over a lost election. In 1824, Jackson led his three rivals in popular and electoral votes, but lost the presidency when one of the candidates transferred his support to another. Jackson and his followers prepared for revenge in 1828. They created an explosive new political style, pairing emotional public rallies with the blatant display of candidate paraphernalia. By 1840, the presidency’s first full-blown campaign, these advertising techniques had advanced to feature both the enduring slogan of military heroism, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” and the iconic images of humble origins, the log cabin and hard cider jug.
This selection of campaign objects from the New-York Historical Society’s vast collections illustrates some of the many forms of political persuasion that have been used over the past two hundred years. They range from a Lincoln lantern and an “I Like Ike” dress to the trademark fedora of Harry Truman and dozens of campaign buttons. These ephemeral artifacts reveal much about the characteristics that Americans valued and still value in their leaders. Even in our present age, saturated by electronic media, objects like these continue to resonate with the American voter.
Special thanks are due to Margi Hofer, Curator of Decorative Arts at New-York Historical Society.